Love in a time of insecurity

One of the major questions that seems to circulate unanswered is how to make love last. Many of us don’t have good models, and we’re just sort of making it up as we go.

I used to worry a lot about love. What even is love? I fully subscribed to the Disney, happily-ever-after version. After a series of failed relationships, when my current one got bumpy a few years ago only a few months in, I started to think I just wasn’t cut out for a long-term relationship. As people my age married and bought houses together, I thought I must not be wired for whatever thing it took to sustain that kind of commitment.

This panic now seems a little premature for someone as young as I was (am!). My partner and I struggled to find our footing and make things work, and to this day I am sure we would have broken up had he not been so attached to my dog.

But eventually, we did figure it out. And then I looked back on those rough months as growing pains. I wondered if they were necessary to a lasting relationship, like how children have to go through the angst and confusion of puberty and adolescence before they become adults.

I had been holding fast to the person I thought I was, and I resented the clear need for me to change and adapt in order for the partnership to work. I thought, why should I change? I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and he can take me or leave me as I am. And if he leaves, great. Less work for me.

But after roughly a year of fighting and pain, I knew something had to give. I slowly began to recognize that love wasn’t about taking. It wasn’t about expecting his performance while assuming my own infallibility. I wondered if I was being as much of a pain as I thought he was.

I began trying little experiments almost two years ago now in which I did something nice without expecting anything in return and releasing resentment if it did bubble up. It turned out that there was great pleasure over time in doing good for someone else. These actions seemed to foster the strength of the relationship, which began to feel like a third entity, a thing separate from him as an individual and me as an individual. We were two individuals building this other thing together. And it wasn’t always about me. (Shocker, I know.)

Eventually, reciprocity became less actuarial and more pleasurable and consistent. And the balance was always shifting. There was no way to measure someone’s demonstrations of love and care daily or even weekly, but over time things seemed to even out. And before I even recognized what was happening, I was changing. I was adapting to our specific ecology that we were developing together.

We were fighting less, and we were getting really good at fighting. If we did feel a disagreement coming on, we learned how to co-regulate and metabolize each other’s distress. We were no longer mindlessly triggered by each other. We became more like soothers than accelerants for each other. And because we could tense and relax together, we no longer felt that our disagreements heralded the impending doom of the relationship. We knew they would pass.

I drew a couple lessons as I watched our relationship continue to evolve. We have ups and downs, but a few things have remained constant. One is that our affection for each other has varying degrees and types. Most days, I feel the strongest sense of love from the security I get sitting next to him on the couch at night after a long day. I see these times as necessary to my sense of wellbeing both as an individual and as a member of this partnership. But other days, I feel love because we’re growing together through some kind of external conflict or experience. We use that external thing to test ourselves, learn more about each other, and show our support.

And you know what I keep finding out? There are things I still don’t know about him. And things he doesn’t know about me. Granted, we’re only a little over three years in. But I used to feel pretty sure you learned everything you needed to know about a person in the heady, early days when you were talking for hours on end into the wee hours of the morning. As a hilarious example, I found out that he was a huge Third Eye Blind fan in high school when he was using our new melon baller and started singing a TEB song called “Crystal Baller” but replaced “crystal” with “melon.” (I know. These are weird couple things!) But it turns out I, too, was a huge fan, and soon we were on Spotify going through the entire TEB catalog before moving on to other alt-rock favorites of the early aughts. Two hours later, I was still freaking out that we had gone this long without sharing our secret love for this band.

So here’s another lesson I am learning. Oddly, it’s the same lesson I have learned in grad school. There is pleasure and fulfillment in choosing one thing and studying it deeply. We think we know or understand something early in the game because we start to associate its patterns with things we’re familiar with. It’s just easier. But there is a whole world of novelty the deeper you go on something. And you can’t know until you do it. And then, you learn how to do the thing by doing it!

We’re constantly learning about each other and helping the other find their way in the world. I started to realize the best part actually comes after the initial infatuation. The infatuation is simple and infinitely repeatable. The relationship that comes after is unique to every couple. You can never recreate it with anyone else.

Also, we remind each other all the time that we’re a team. You can’t rely on the constant, breathless passion of the early days to sustain you, so what do you use later? I found that it’s basically a daily agreement. I support you, you support me, and we will move through life’s ups and downs together, uniquely equipped to ensure each other’s survival.

It’s not hopelessly romantic. I used to feel disappointed. I wondered if I was doing something wrong. But I don’t think so anymore. When I was listening to this psychologist talk about secure functioning the other day on the GLP podcast, I realized this was what we had achieved. And it is the hallmark of all long-term partnerships.

There is no perfection. He accepts the parts of me that are a pain in the ass, and I do the same for him. We encourage each other to pursue our goals, but we also have parameters for what’s acceptable in the relationship. We maintain separate interests and separate friends. We each love spending time alone. While we also have mutual interests and friends, we don’t rely on them to sustain us. Most importantly, I feel like there’s nothing in life I can’t face with him by my side.

And thus, while there was a me before this relationship, there is now a me in it. I used to resist the transformation, but now I see that we never act or become in isolation. We are always learning about ourselves and acting in relation to others. It helps to be reflective and thereby come to know and love ourselves, but I sometimes wonder if I was spurred to do those things because of what was happening in my relationship. Circumstances with my partner pushed me to take a closer look at myself. And then I could return to the relationship more secure and more ready to adapt without fear of somehow “losing” myself.

Anyway, if this all seems terribly trite to you, it’s likely you have had good models or you just figured this out earlier in life. I thought Valentine’s Day would be a nice day to share this since it’s so overhyped with romance. We didn’t do anything today after work. We’re both wiped from this crazy month. But I am typing this next to him on the couch while our dog sleeps at our feet and he watches a Hitchcock movie. That, to me, is grand.

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