4 Relationship Lessons from 4 Years of Marriage

February 15, 2017

I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day, which is also Paula’s birthday.

We just finished video chatting and catching up on each other’s lives and I felt a warm sense of relief. Many of the conversations over the last six months since we broke up have been painful – they would start out okay but quickly spiral downward to the point where we had to stop.

Our road to friendship hasn’t been easy but today we’re in a good place, although the journey is far from over. The separation has given me a lot of time to look back on our relationship and reflect.

I can’t imagine who I would be today without her. When I was with her I felt like the luckiest guy alive, and now that we’re apart, I feel just as lucky for the person I’ve become thanks to our time together.

Much of what I learned ran counter to what I thought marriage and relationships were supposed to be about. These are four take-aways that were true for me, but they may not be true for everyone.

1. Marriage Is Built On Values – Not Love

When I met Paula I was still under the impression that “how hard I fall in love” with someone is a good metric for choosing a life partner.

After all, that’s what we are taught in the movies, right? It’s the “love conquers all” myth. But this kind of romantic, infatuation love we feel for someone typically fades away a few years into the relationship.

That’s not to say that “love” dies, but it changes. Over time it goes from what Harville Hendrix calls “romantic love” to a more mature, grounded love — one that often feels deeper and more timeless.

So what do we do after the romantic love fades away?

At the end of the day what holds us together is our shared values, also known as the vision for our life. How do you see your life playing out? Do you want kids? Do you want to be monogamous? Live in the city? Live in the country? Do you want a typical 9-5 job? Do you like playing traditional gender roles or do you want something more fluid?

Ultimately the people we choose as life-partners are just that — people we can imagine spending our life with. We need to be clear on what we want our life to look like, then compare that to someone else’s vision for their life and see if they match up.

And yet, therein lies the problem. We have to know what we want our life to look like, which brings me to lesson #2.

2. Most People Aren’t Clear on Their Values

The whole first lesson is predicated on the assumption that we are clear on what we want our life to look like, and yet many of us enter long term, committed relationships not having figured that out yet.

I know for Paula and I, we weren’t clear.

When we met I assumed I would have kids (I never considered not having kids), and Paula was leaning toward no kids. Neither one of us had any significant experience outside of monogamy and we were both playing traditional gender roles.

Four years later I’m clear I don’t want kids and Paula is clear she does want them. I’m identified as polyamorous and Paula is leaning more toward monogamy. I don’t want traditional gender roles, and for Paula the traditional “husband and wife” roles seem to work. Yet it took the time we spent together for us to figure that out.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get into deep, committed relationships before we know our values (they might change anyway), but we should understand that the more we know ourselves, the easier it will be to find someone who is a good fit for us.

This is why I find it so hard to believe that people get married at a young age with such certainty. When has a 22-year old ever totally understood what their life will be about? I had no clue, and even at 29 when I met Paula my life was still in flux.

Does that mean I shouldn’t have gotten married? In my opinion, no. But that’s only because I don’t see longevity as the metric for success in marriage. Because of the time I spent with Paula I grew tremendously, and although breaking up was understandably painful, I would do it again in a heartbeat because of how much we grew as individuals and together.

It’s worth pausing to talk about the fact that how long a relationship lasts is still our default metric for whether it “worked” or not. If you read this lesson as “I need to know my values before I get into a deep relationship” you’re still caught up in the idea that relationships are about longevity.

If that were true then yes, you should wait because in your mind you get one shot at it, and whoever you pick you are bound to for life. I don’t recommend that, but I won’t go into it too much, since I’ve already discussed that in other articles.

Read: There’s No Such Thing As A Failed Relationship
Read: How I Define A Successful Relationship

3. We Overload Our Relationships With Needs

Perhaps the most destructive myth that exists in modern relationships is the idea of “the one”.

The one who will be your soul mate.
The one who is your perfect match.
The one who will meet all your needs.

Watching a relationship begin like this is like watching someone light fire-crackers in their ass. It’s fun to watch until it inevitably turns into a shit show.

This is a function of two things. The first is we blindly believe what we’ve been told by western culture. We consume movies, books and stories about love with little or no discernment, so we interpret it as real, when it’s mostly fantasy. Believing your life should be like a Disney movie is like believing that everyone should drive like they are in the Fast and the Furious.

The second reason we automatically dump all our needs onto one person is we don’t live in community. We have to work so hard to involve other people in our lives because we live in separate houses, lead separate lives and think that’s somehow normal.

Take this for example.

The other day I saw someone post some great advice for parents and it went like this. Find another couple who has kids, then each week you watch their kids for a night and they watch your kids, giving you both one free night to spend on yourselves, kid-free.

Let’s face it, that’s great advice — but isn’t it a little ridiculous that the advice exists at all? The only reason that advice exists is we live in a bubble and we’ve somehow convinced ourself that’s normal.

Again. I’ve ranted about this before, so if you want to read more see Lonely Is The New Normal.

I digress…

When we source all or most of our needs from our primary partner, the relationship will become strained. This most likely won’t happen in the first couple years because we’re too high on love drugs to notice, but over time it will manifest itself as resentment because of unmet expectations. We need to make our friendships a priority from the beginning and build that in to the shared values of our relationship, so it’s normal for us to be getting our needs met from other people besides our primary partner.

4. We Need Both the Willingness to Break Up and the Resilience to Stay Together

Some of our most powerful breakthroughs in our relationship came from Paula and I sitting down and putting the future of our relationship at risk. It was only through being honestly willing to let it go that we were able to re-embrace it newly.

I see so many couples be afraid to do this, and I get it – it’s really fucking hard. In fact, if it’s not hard you’re probably not honestly putting the future of the relationship at stake, and you won’t reap any rewards from it.

What’s also true is that some couples don’t really commit to working things out and use breaking up as an escape. By saying “we’re going to get through this” you can learn so much about yourself and your partner.

I don’t know if Paula and I were perfect at this, but what I learned in our four years together is that both of these options are valid, and if a couple isn’t open to breaking up or getting divorced, their relationship may last but it wouldn’t be as happy and fulfilling as it could be.

That may sound cruel in a world where we still recite “til death do us part” but the reality is we can’t control whether we will want to be together in the future. What we can control is our ability to treat each other with love and respect, regardless of our relationship structure.

Love is an Adventure

I learned so much with Paula that at times recently I’ve felt like I had it all figured out. I was clear on my values, I was clear on the types of people I wanted to date, and part of me thought “this is gonna be a breeze!”

While it’s true that my love life has been wonderful, it’s also true that I’ve got a lot to learn, and lately I’ve been reminding myself of that.

Love is still an adventure, it’s not something we can figure out, no matter how many articles we read or workshops we take. It’s humbling, messy and always shows us what we need to learn, not just what we want to learn.

Maybe the greatest gift I got from my marriage with Paula was enthusiasm. So many people leave relationships bitter and cynical and I feel none of that.

I’m excited about what’s possible in the future, and I will always be grateful for the growth and transformation that happened in our precious time as husband and wife.

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