Long-Term Love

We need a deeper conversation about relationships

| March / April 2006

'Divorce,' I remember repeating dully, after my mother told me my uncle was separating from the woman I always had known as aunt. Silence separated us as I stumbled toward a meaning. 'You mean they're not going to live together anymore?'

I should have known better. I am, after all, the child of a second marriage. My older half brother should have been proof that not all relationships last forever. But my uncle and aunt were a ritual presence in my childhood. My birthday meant a trip with them to the city; holidays, a picturesque meal piled on their dining room table. Each summer brought a picnic on their rural Wisconsin farm. (Even a visit to their bathroom was a ceremonial occasion, when I inspected the circle of shaving soap, a curiosity to a kid accustomed to the hum of electric razors.) These undisturbed and familiar patterns left little space to imagine anything would ever change.

The easy explanation for my surprise is to say I was a kid. I could have elaborated naively on 'love,' or 'getting married,' but was oblivious to the guts of a long-term relationship. (Mattel makes neither a Golden Anniversary Ken, nor a Trial Separation Barbie.) My uncle's divorce was the first I had ever known, and I had years to live before I would begin to understand the complex, everyday arrangements of friends and family (to say nothing of my own) as they got together, stayed together, and sometimes split apart.

But even as we age, and complexities become commonplace, the language of happy-ever-after seems to linger. Last time I checked a popular website, where users declare their goals, more than 4,000 Net-savvy souls have signed up 'to fall in love.' More than 3,000 want 'to get married.' Only 32 aim 'to have a long-term relationship.' And only a few exacting users have vowed 'to fall in love with someone who will always love me back.'

The distinction is surely semantic; the terms love and marriage imply, even assume, a long-term relationship. Yet 'true love always' clearly beats 'long term' in the cachet department, and these trends in diction also reflect our broader cultural conversations.

To prove the point, spend a couple weeks in Utne's library of more than 1,200 magazine titles. Try to find a how-to, or a why-at-all, story on what makes a long-term relationship work -- an honest description of the struggles, the joys, the petty betrayals, the everyday triumphs of making a relationship last. I tried, and I came up nearly empty-handed.

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