- Living with another human being long-term is difficult.
- There is a dearth of information on what it really means to stay together for decades.
- It is not just relationships that are hard to maintain long-term, but anything worthwhile: children, careers, life itself.
- The secret to maintaining integrity in long-term anything is valuing the internal more than the external as a way of life.
I have a client who was married for 25 years and is now several years post-divorce. As she contemplates getting involved with someone new, she says “I just can’t imagine listening to someone slurping soup, or chomping on chips when I’m trying to watch a TV show. I think I would stick an ice pick through their forehead.”
She’s purposely exaggerating, but she’s making a point any of us who are in long-term relationships know well: It’s not easy to live with someone. It’s the little things that can be hardest: the annoying habits, the repeated stories, the grey, gritty details of sharing a household. It’s coming to terms with the way some things won’t ever change, that the trajectory of the marriage is not—on some important metrics—a steady move toward ever better, ever stronger, ever more pleasurable. It’s coping with the feeling that some things are actually harder, less strong, and less pleasurable.
Too little of this truth is spoken about openly and responsibly, though I have taken a stab at it before. It’s often spoken about derisively or with reactivity, by people who are explaining their affairs or their decision not to settle down. I see, day in and day out, the striking difference between the youthful hopes of young couples and the lived reality several years or decades down the road. The estrangement that sets in, the loss of hope, the settling, the bickering, and fighting and alienation. Why do the vast majority of us continue to try to walk this path?
I will try to address this question, but in doing so I don’t want to negate the struggles that are involved. I very much want to avoid the puerile claptrap that so often passes for relational advice, which oversimplifies and usually marches out a stream of “how to” suggestions that are woefully inadequate to the reality of living with another human. (I had one client tell me that when a therapist suggests “date night” for his marriage he knows he needs to keep looking for another therapist.)
For starters, I want to remind us all that simply living a long life is hard work, not just living through a long marriage. In our 20s and 30s, when we have boundless energy and enthusiasm for the task ahead, we exist mostly in the hope of who we think we will become more than the reality of who we actually are. This is also true for careers we embark upon—we can be enthusiastic and passionate because we are still largely untested, still thinking in terms of an imagined future more than how it is in the present.
Life, work, children, and pretty much anything worth investing in requires an awful lot of hard work that is less pretty and glamorous in the day-to-day than it is on Instagram. Changing diapers or dealing with screaming children who won’t go to bed is not fun. Working hard to climb a corporate ladder only to discover the venality and political brinkmanship at the top is disheartening. And making it to your 30th wedding anniversary while being annoyed by slurping soup can make you wonder: Just what is this about?
To my mind, the answer to all of these questions is one and the same: it’s about valuing long-term integrity more than short-term pleasure, the internal more than the external, and the spiritual more than the material. If it were easy, everyone would finish life as they started it, gorgeous and sexy and young. But the bruises and disappointments we suffer along the way should help us develop an inner resilience and the strength and wisdom that makes it ultimately worthwhile, seasoning us and making us more tolerant and understanding and compassionate for what is involved in being human. Even while the slurping soup still drives us crazy.
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