Today is Nick and my 10-year anniversary. TEN YEARS. A decade. One-twentieth of a lifetime if we both live to be 200, which we plan to. I’m not usually super sentimental about anniversaries, if only because I’m like a doofy sitcom husband when it comes to remembering exact dates, but I couldn’t help but get a little reflective and nostalgic last night when I was thinking back on all we’ve been through and all the fun we’ve had. Here are 10 things I’ve learned — about relationships, life, and myself — in the past 10 years.
1. There’s no need to manufacture “relationship tests.” If I’ve learned anything in the past 10 years, it’s that life will naturally test you — both individually and as a couple. This is why I always cringe when friends tell me about arbitrary ways they’re “testing” their boyfriend or girlfriend, or when I read relationship advice that includes subtle ways to “put your partner to the test.” Nick and I have been through many real tests — deaths in the family, job changes, moving to a new city, quarter life crises — and we didn’t seek them out or make them up. They happened, and we got through them, and each one made us stronger. Just be together, appreciate each other, and tackle each test as they come, because trust me, they’ll come.
2. Keep communication simple and direct. Listen, I’m a writer with a flair for the dramatic, so my natural communication style can veer into “Anne Shirley reciting ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in a sinking row boat” territory very easily. Being in a relationship has taught me that flowery language and hyperbole have their place, but when you’re communicating with your partner, especially about heavy topics, or feel yourself on the brink of a potential conflict, simple and direct is best. Don’t be afraid to go back to basics. Ask for exactly what you need instead of dropping grandiose hints and getting resentful if they’re not picked up. Pause the convo and make sure you’re understanding each other correctly. Give each other time to organize your thoughts. Clarify misunderstandings before they blossom into something bigger.
3. Be accountable for your own emotions. In addition to communicating as clearly as possible, if you want to stop conflict before it starts, and keep fights from getting unnecessarily messy, you’ve got to own your emotions. I’ve written before about how much it’s helped Nick and me to announce our bad moods before they cause a problem. It can be just as powerful to pause in the middle of an escalating conflict and say, “You know what? I’m being a huge jerk right now. I’m sorry.” Get to know yourself well enough that you recognize when you’re projecting emotions onto your partner, and then admit to it, and apologize, and try a little harder not to do it in the future.
4. Make time to cuddle. Nick always says his ideal day would include 18 hours of snuggling. It’s a worthy goal, and while we never reach it, we always make time for at least 20 minutes of quality cuddle time. Life is complicated. Snuggling is simple.
5. Don’t use your relationship as a scapegoat for personal issues/life stress. Relationships become such a focal point of our lives that it’s very easy to blame them for everything that goes wrong. Can a bad relationship rob joy from other parts of your life? Of course! But is your relationship always to blame for every problem in your life? Probably not. I used to blame my relationship for all kinds of things, just because it was there, and it was an easy out. But over the years I’ve realized that more often than not, my relationship is affected by the things going on in my life, not vice versa. When I feel fulfilled, happy, and joyful, my relationship does too. When I’m stressed, negative, and overwhelmed, my relationship suffers. Which is why the next point is essential…
6. Meet your needs first. The old “put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else” cliche is so overused, but alas, it applies here so I’m going to use it. You have to take care of yourself first in order to be a good partner, a compassionate friend, a good listener, and a whole and happy human being. This has been a really tough truth for me to accept, especially coming from a family culture where women were expected to take care of everyone (except themselves). But the more I practice self-care, the better I feel, and the deeper and more meaningful my connection with Nick becomes.
7. Real love requires real vulnerability. For the first couple years of our relationship, I didn’t let myself love Nick completely. It’s hard to sum up the emotional complexity of the situation in a single bullet point, but basically, as a control freak perfectionist, I tried to freeze our relationship in a perpetual state of okay-ness. Like Han Solo in carbonite — alive, but not conscious. I did this because I was afraid of the potential for hurt that comes with letting go of control and loving someone completely. I was afraid of how much I loved Nick. I was afraid of how much it might hurt if he didn’t love me as much as I loved him. I was afraid of all the things that might go wrong. I was afraid, period. Holding back some of my love was my way of having one foot out the door. I thought I was protecting myself. Ultimately, though, I came to a metaphorical fork in the road: did I want to continue on half-loving, and half-living? Or did I want to take the risk of opening myself up to real love, of handing my heart to this person and trusting them to not break it? I chose the latter, and it was the best choice I ever made. As Brene Brown says so beautifully, there is no authentic love without vulnerability. There is no way to love someone without taking the risk that they might hurt you someday. Know that, and make the choice to love anyway. It’s worth it.
8. Keep things light and playful. I feel very strongly about this when it comes to life in general, but it’s even more important in adult relationships. Between the bills, the stressful jobs, the cranky moods, and the family drama, if you’re not careful, things can start feeling dark and heavy pretty fast. Humor and play will save you. Start a tickle war. Work on your Michael Caine impressions. Text each other inside jokes. Stage an impromptu “Chopped”-style battle in the kitchen. Have dance parties in the living room. Make up a secret handshake (we just did this a few weeks ago). Whatever you do, don’t lose that sense of fun and magic, because life feels gray without it.
9. Give each other room to grow. Years and years ago, when Nick and I were first getting serious, I was talking to my mom about it and freaking out. Nick and I were only 19, all my friends were enjoying singledom, and coupling up with my high school sweetheart didn’t exactly fit into my life plan. My mom said something I’ll never forget: “If you can both grow and change while you’re together, then why not give it a shot? Imagine you’re two tree branches — it will be very obvious if you start growing in different directions, and if that happens, you can always reassess.” These words made so much sense to me. As freaked out as I was to “settle down” so young, I also didn’t want to brush off the genuine feelings I had for this amazing guy I’d just happened to meet at a young age. Nick and I promised each other that we would stay together as long as we felt we were growing in the same direction. The key to keeping this promise? Giving each other room to grow. This has meant living apart for brief periods of time while I took an internship in DC and Nick worked on a farm in France. It has meant pursuing different goals and interests, fostering close friendships, and being brave enough to be honest about tough topics. But here we are, 10 years later, and that little branch is still right by my side, reaching toward the same bright sky as I am.
10. Be each other’s biggest fans. My favorite part of being in a relationship is the feeling of having someone to cheer you on, through challenges and successes. I think, ultimately, this is the key to lasting happiness: being each other’s #1 fan. If you feel any trepidation about your partner’s happiness or success, sit yourself down (either alone or with a therapist) and figure that shit out right now. Are you insecure? Jealous? Do you not feel like your partner returns that enthusiasm? Whatever the block is, find a way to remove it and cheer each other on. Because if you can root for your partner as passionately as you root for your favorite sports team, baby, you’ve got it made.