I am talking about relationships with a friend in a dark restaurant. Rand has left the table for a moment, ostensibly to use the bathroom, though most likely to try to steal the bill. I have seen the two of them do this dance before, a race to see who can put down his credit card first. My friend is unperturbed by Rand’s absence; I will later learn it is because he has already handed our server his card. The meal isn’t close to being over, but Rand is already too late.
And in that moment, when it is just he and I – which never happens, because it is always the three of us, or the four of us, or the six of us – that is when he asks me a question that leaves me stunned.
“So … what’s the secret to being happy forever?”
Initially, I am unable to reply. In the context of a romantic partnership, this question has blindsided me. And before an answer comes to me, I am hit with several realizations at the exact same time.
The first is that this friend is asking me for advice, which feels strange because I have seen him regard life like a magic trick he has already figured out. He doesn’t spoil the illusion for the rest of us, but sometimes, when he can’t help himself, he smiles at our naivete. And so in this moment, when he reveals a tiny gap in the armor of his knowledge, I am surprised.
The second realization is that, on the subject of love and relationships and bliss, he considers me an authority. I find this touching, and am tempted to reach across the table and hug him, but I’ve had roughly 1/3 of a cocktail, which is enough to make me question my ability to do so gracefully. So I stay firmly put, and in the back of my mind I remember that this is a recurring problem of mine: outside of Rand, I rarely tell people that they are important to me.
And then there is the matter of the question at hand: how can two people remain together, happily, forever? The response I fumble for is this: Rand thinks that we’ll never get divorced. I think we might.
I should elaborate, because I’ve said this before in my husband’s presence and it (understandably) tends to unnerve him. For Rand, divorce is not an option – at least, not for the two of us (he thinks that it definitely is an option – and sometimes a very reasonable, responsible one – for other parties. Just not us. He’s made that clear – we’re never getting divorced). And since that choice is off the table, and we’re doomed to spend the rest of our days together, we need to make things work.
When he first said this, it terrified me. Because I didn’t know how to be happily married. I’d never really seen it done before. And I was fairly certain that there was some fatal flaw in me that would prevent it from working out. I was convinced that we were going to get divorced. That it could happen quickly, could settle in as easily as the flu. One minute you aren’t feeling 100%, and the next you’re puking into a bucket. One minute you’re fighting over which drawer in the kitchen to store the aluminum foil, and the next you’re trying to divide your assets.
People don’t usually get married thinking that the outcome will be divorce. I, daring to be different, was convinced that it was always just around the corner, lurking, waiting to strike. So I had to make sure that little fights didn’t grow into big ones. That anger never grew into resentment. Because the option of going our separate ways was always on the table, we needed to make things work. (Note: in the seven years since our wedding, I’ve become a little less paranoid about divorce attacking me while I sleep. But make no mistake: I remain haunted.)
In the end, Rand and I have the same goal: to be together forever. For him, it is inevitable. For me, it isn’t.
I try to explain this to my friend, but I’m full of curry and naan and maybe a little bit too much vodka. He is feeling intellectually generous, and tries to find more sense in my words than I’m able to convey in them. I will realize later, annoyed with myself, that my explanation has not answered his question. I’ve simply explained our motivation. I haven’t shed any light on how to do it.
Given the opportunity with a do-over, the answer I’d have given him is this: act like your spouse is a stranger.
(I promise, this is not a kinky sex thing. I mean, it can be, if you want. I have no problem with that. It’s just not the point I’m trying to make.)
Because have you ever noticed how sometimes we’re kinder to people we barely know than we are to the people we’re close to? That somehow friendship and love can cause you to take a person for granted, to treat them worse than you would strangers on the bus? That odds are, if you’ve screamed the words “I hate you” recently, it was not to someone you barely know from barre class (even though you do sort of hate them, because they have a six pack you could take to a frat party), but more likely to someone you’ve known and loved for years?
I think about this all the time. How there is often a sad trade-off to knowing someone cares about you. How easy it is to be a complete asshole to someone if you know they’ll suffer the awful things you are capable of.
Example: toddlers. Total dicks.
And yet if it’s someone you don’t know, you extend them all sorts of courtesies and niceties and display a level of patience rarely seen elsewhere. Can you imagine if a stranger did your dishes? If someone you barely knew grabbed you a glass of water? If the person in line ahead of you at the movies paid for your ticket and expected nothing in return? We’d be effusively, exceedingly grateful.
So why aren’t we like that to the people who care about us? Why does loving us entitle them to less?
I try to rectify the unfairness of that in my relationship with my husband. I thank him, every single day, for the infinite number of things he does for me. I tell him how wonderful he is and how grateful I am for him. I remember that while he’s told me time and again that he isn’t going anywhere, that doesn’t mean I can take him for granted. I think of how miraculous it would be if a stranger did all of these things for me and I remember that at one point not that long ago, he was one.
And that all of the things he does for me are still pretty miraculous.
Occasionally, I am a total dick. Sometimes, I march out of a room angrily and close doors more swiftly than I should, or I’ll shout “FINE” in a tone that suggests nothing of the sort. But I think even Rand would agree that those moments are pretty rare. That things between us are pretty damn good.
Last night, in the midst of writing this post, I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was.
“I never stop trying to be worthy of your love,” he said. That while my affection is pretty much unconditional, he was still endeavoring to deserve it. It’s not that dissimilar from my point of view. We both keep trying to deserve this ridiculous stroke of luck that fell into our pants.
But back to the table in that dark restaurant on the other side of the continent from where I now stand. Rand returns from trying to covertly snag the bill (having been thwarted), and I relay the parts of the conversation he’s missed.
“I was just saying how I think we work because I’m always convinced we’re going to get divorced-”
“What? NO. Baby, we’re never getting divorced. You’re stuck with me.”
I laugh. And I see us – the three of us, the four of us, the six of us – sitting around a table, years from now. I want to reach out and hold them all, and tell them I love them in a way that is wholly uncharacteristic of myself. I want us all to live happily ever after. I don’t think there’s any guarantee of it. I just figure you keep trying, you keep being grateful, and maybe we’ll all get there.