Long-Term Love

‘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.

Instead, there are commentaries on the government’s involvement
in legal recognition of relationships, treatises suggesting
monogamy is pass?, endless stories about falling in and out of
love. These all are important conversations, and they serve as a
sounding board for the political and cultural obsessions of the
day. And yet . . . the implied long-term relationship underlies it
all, in every hope-for and loss-of.

The long-term relationship requires the marathon treatment —
training, commitment, and strategy — but fascination hovers with
the beginning and the end. (Imagine if we clamored to ask ‘Who ran
well in the middle, up that mild grade, and around the city hall?’
and not ‘Who won, and who sprang quickly from the gate?’)

Maybe some couples share a fated, seamless union and coast with
grace from one stage of partnership to the next. But most of us
struggle, triumph, and struggle again. We make mistakes and
corrections, require constant revision. And it seems, as a whole,
we are silent participants; our hard work remains unspoken. What
would it mean to speak honestly about the difficulties of the long
haul? It might drain the romance from our stories, but it could
also expand our abilities to imagine, negotiate, and tend our
relationships as they truly are.

Shared wisdom could make us happier in our relationships, too.
One recent study of long-term relationships, reported in Science
and Theology News (Dec. 2005), suggests that knowledge is bliss:
Couples who reported taking time to negotiate, plan, and execute
actions to better their relationships also reported the highest
levels of satisfaction.

Who are these highly developed people, I wonder, and why am I so
often flying by the seat of my pants? After his divorce, my uncle
gave me one scrap of insight, which I have repeated as I blundered
through my own somewhat-sacred unions and messy-if-happy
arrangements. What he said was this: We are capable of loving more
than one person in a lifetime.

Several years ago, I sat alone in a bathtub, all pruned up in
long-gone-lukewarm water, and found that I had forgiven a lover for
cheating. If it had been a decision, I might have chosen
differently. Instead, it was the cold, boring truth, the only thing
left when my grudge circled the drain. I don’t regret my actions:
choosing to stay, to keep trying. I do regret feeling so
terrifically alone, and oddly guilty. I was convinced no one would
understand, no one would respect the way I felt.

Perhaps I was unreasonable in my embarrassment, conceited to
imagine no one would understand. The fact is that all of us who are
involved in long-term relationships, whether we’re at the
beginning, midway, or end, have something in common. Keeping quiet
about our failures and successes ensures that we’ll repeat each
other’s mistakes. And celebrate our victories alone.

What prevents us from making these conversations an everyday
part of our lives? Cultural taboo? Linguistic difficulties? Ancient
Sanskrit and Persian languages, writes Daniel Pinchbeck in Arthur
magazine (Sept. 2005), have more than 80 words that we translate in
English only as ‘love.’ We may be strangled by verbal paucity. We
might lack an easy way to explain a person who is our
sometime-partner, sometime-friend, sometime-lover, but there must
be ways to talk about such an improbable yet unfailingly attractive
venture.

A little over a year ago, I sat once again at my uncle’s dining
room table. Every inch of it was crowded with traditional
Thanksgiving fare, and around it were gathered people who were more
or less family. Stepchildren passed plates to grandchildren;
ex-wives sat alongside new partners. Not everyone was there, but no
one would have been unwelcome. It was a scene I could not have
imagined as a child nor predicted as an adult. But the memory buoys
me.

I don’t know much more now about what it takes to make a
long-term relationship hum and purr — or if a smoothly functioning
machine should even be a goal. But I am committed to trying to find
out. I figure talking about it is a decent first step.

UTNE
UTNE
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