I used to fantasize sometimes about what it would be like if Dane and I got a divorce. I thought that might just be the best deal ever; I still get my fabulous kid, but I also get a break from her and get some time where I wouldn’t have to care for anyone but myself. I wouldn’t have to rely on someone who I felt was unreliable. I wouldn’t have to share decision-making or, more often, make all of the important decisions by myself.
In the past seven months, I have had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about our marriage and my part in it. In listening to friends talk about their partners, and reflecting on what I have lost, I offer up these pieces of advice for long-term, committed relationships:
Stop complaining about each other. Seriously. Most of what people complain about (not fixing something, or not doing enough at home, or not being “there” for them) is patently false and has more to do with control or the other person not getting things done in the appropriate time frame (like “now” instead of after the game). It is one thing to blow off steam to a friend, and I am more than willing to listen, but it is quite another to have a standard litany of complaints about your partner that becomes a mantra. The only person you can change is you. Full stop. There is really no way around that simple fact. If it’s that bad, leave. If you can step away and realize it’s not, change yourself, or build a bridge and get over it.
Have more sex. Lots more sex. Being intimate with someone you love should not be a chore, and chances are pretty good that, male or female, if you have been married for longer than a year, or less if you have kids, you are not having enough sex. I mean quickies. I mean leisurely, day-long, laying around in bed sex, with foreplay and everything, the kind where you are in bed for so long that the shadows change on your bodies over the course of the day. I mean whatever happens in the middle. All of it. Whatever amount of sex you are having (see stats on averages here), go ahead and at least double that.
Display more affection in general. A friend of mine reminded me of the time when Dane bounded up the bleachers at a softball game to give me a kiss, then bounded off to do whatever it was he was on the way to do. Of my married friends, I have only seen two couples kiss. Be loving towards your partner. Demonstrate affection. Put your hands on them. You would miss that intimate connection if it were gone, and don't kid yourself: it is not the same as shaking a colleague’s hand or a hug from your kids. Touch is essential for human beings.
Recognize what your partner does for you, not what they don’t do for you. This is a big one. I used to complain about how the sky would fall if I weren’t there to hold it up; early in our relationship, I went on strike for a week, just to prove a point. This is not about unequal distribution of work; this is about showing gratitude and being appreciative of what your partner does. In a classic tale of too little, too late, I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for all of the things Dane used to do, from unclogging drains to setting up printers and running virus scans to dealing with all things car-related to pressure washing to gutter cleaning and much, much more. Some of these things happened as if by magic; the car appeared with new oil, or the blinds suddenly were hung in the living room.
I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for Dane in general. He did little things that I was only just beginning to recognize in the months before he was killed, like always giving me the first bite of his ice cream when I said I didn’t want any and he sat down next to me with a delicious-looking bowl. He always gave me the mail to read first, the best seat at the movies and moved off “my spot” on the couch when I asked. Complaining about socks on the floor or not scrubbing a toilet seems minor when I reflect on his obvious desire for me to be comfortable and happy.
Don’t get complacent. About anything. I am not talking about shaving your legs or still getting fancy for your partner, although that’s nice to remember to do. Don’t stop learning or doing because you have a partner who does these things for you. I used to always say that I know how to change the oil in the car, but I chose not to because Dane would do it, and he liked it. Same goes for unclogging the drain (took me several weeks to figure this out), setting up a wireless printer, and helping our kid finish building her tiny house. I have been frustrated and challenged on top of grieving because I got lazy and stopped learning, and now that I have to be two parents with two skill sets, I am regretting the times I just pawned specific chores off on Dane. I just assumed that he would always take care of it, division of labor and all that, but while I was dividing the labor, I lost my own ability in certain areas. This looks suspiciously like taking him for granted, an action for which I criticized him in the past (see above, the week on strike).
Don’t forget why you fell in love in the first place. When I met Dane, he was a commercial fisherman in Alaska; we had one month together before he got back on the boat and was gone for two months. Our love story unfolded in letters, and I read them a couple months ago when I was going through some of his things. He saved every letter I wrote to him, and I got to read all of the reasons why I fell in love, in my own words, and his responses to me. Ours was not a perfect relationship by any stretch of the imagination, but in our letters to each other was a deep and abiding commitment to the union. Don’t ever let that fade; remind yourself often of all of the reasons why you and your partner belong together. Dig deep if you have to, but dig.
Finally, treat them like the friend they are. Dane was a constant source of unflagging support in every endeavor. He never said no, never took someone else’s side. He was my party post-mortem go-to, my behind-the-scenes support. There has never been another person in my life who was so unfailingly supportive regardless of the endeavor. I can’t name one thing I will miss the most about Dane, but this is definitely up there. You can’t get this kind of unconditional love and support just anywhere; try as they might, even parents aren’t 100% on this one. If you have this in your relationship, cherish it as the pure gift that it is, and try very hard to give the same in return.
Dane and I had a stormy relationship at times; we fought, we made up, we had times when things were so rocky that we considered separating. In short, we were much like many other couples in that life and stress and trouble got in the way and made life together sometimes frankly miserable. At the root, though, was a commitment to each other that I am only beginning to recognize and appreciate fully now. Most advice focuses on the superficial aspects (making an effort in how you dress, having separate hobbies, etc), but I say dig deep and the other stuff won’t matter as much. In good times and bad, it is the depth of the connection that will support and sustain your relationship. Recognize it, nourish and appreciate what you have every day. Don’t wait.
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