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Mission Impossible 8: ‘Til Death Do Us Part

No, seriously. How do people make long-term relationships work?

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“It’s Over. Check, Please!”

Portland’s Best Restaurants and Bars for Kicking Your Lover to the Curb

I Find My Love Awake

How Paul McCartney's album Ram helped heal a broken heart.

I don’t remember ever having faith that love lasts forever. In my teen years, it became pretty clear that my parents never should’ve married, as evidenced by the fact that they had almost nothing in common and barely spoke to one another. They weren’t mad at each other, they just had nothing to talk about. I imagine they both prayed constantly for a weather event just to jazz up the day’s conversational menu.

Due to my family history and my partner’s relationship history, even in my current nine-year relationship, neither of us is really sure of anything. If one of us walks through the patio door at the end of a workday to find the other standing in the kitchen, we say, “Oh. You’re still here? Cool! Do you want to order dinner then?”

Because I am clearly not good at this and I would like to be, I went to my version of the experts: friends in marriages that 1) had lasted and 2) I still admired; as in, they didn’t appear to hate each other and/or you couldn’t read a Moby Dick’s worth of subtext in every exchange they had. 

I spoke to five couples who have been together from one to almost six decades; their combined relationships adding up to approximately 150 years. I also looked to the work of an actual expert on this subject, Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute and world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. 

The interviews and Gottman’s work had some shared themes, which I’ve outlined below. So if you’re also trying to figure out how this whole “let’s agree to love each other until one of us dies and also not end up in a true crime documentary” thing, read on!

Learn to listen generously.

Not to start off by getting too heady, but there’s a moment on The Kardashians where Kris Jenner is sitting with her daughter/client/meal ticket, Khloe, about to tell her yet another story from her youth. 

“When I was a flight attendant…” Kris begins.

“Hold on, hold on,” Khloe interrupts, holding up one of her stiletto-nailed claws.

Kris waits. 

Khloe clears her throat and pauses. 

“Just trying to muster up the ‘I give a fuck’ energy for this, so I need a second.” 

We’ve all had these moments with our partners. We’re just usually not that vicious about it.

Whether it’s a rant about feelings we can’t relate to, another complaint sesh about an aspect of their life they hate but will never change, or a work story that makes you want to claw your eyes out just so you can feel something, we’ve all been Khloe at least once, and—let’s be real—we’ve also been Kris (sans the super-villain shoulderpads). Part of the battle is remembering that last bit so we can be emotionally generous when we’re on the other side. 

If there’s something they’re excited about that you don’t understand, try to understand it. Ask questions that may help you see what they see. Or, take it apart a little to parse out some aspect—any aspect—that might excite you about it. 

And if the subject of discussion is that they’re hurt, angry, sad, or confused by something you’ve done or said, don’t “listen back on your heels,” as one friend put it, waiting to pounce with your brilliant defense. 

“When she’s feeling any of those ways,” my friend K says of his wife of 10 years. “She’s not attacking me, she’s revealing a vulnerability. And all she needs is to be heard and understood.”

His wife, C, agrees. The key for her?

“Learning how to not be defensive, how to listen deeply and not be stingy with apologies,” she says. “In all of this is the realization of what wounded, punishing assholes we can be. We had to learn to moderate our reactivity to maintain a dialogue rather than engage in diatribes.”

But how did they do that? 

Therapy, AKA, “For the love of God, get some help.”

Like some of the other couples I spoke to, they went to therapy, largely to learn how to fight constructively and avoid each other’s triggers.

I have friends who believe you only go to couples counseling to help you uncouple consciously. Not true. With the right therapist, Dr. Gottman claims counseling can improve communication skills and conflict resolution as well as teach couples to turn toward each other instead of away, as many couples tend to do when they’re navigating rocky territory. 

One of Gottman’s most important tenets of a healthy relationship is accepting “bids”—essentially the “yes, and”-ing of marriage. 

He defines a bid as “any physical or verbal attempt for attention, affirmation, affection, or connection.” 

In a healthy relationship, the partner responds to the bid, no matter how small. Gottman illustrates this with what he calls the “Bird Bid Theory.” 

“Oh, look,” a man might say to his wife at brunch on an outdoor patio, “That bird is just like the one we saw on Maui.” 

Now, his wife may not give a flying fuck about that bird. Maybe they all look the same to her. Maybe she’s deeply engrossed in her eggs benedict and all she can remember about Maui is that the $500-a-night hotel they booked didn’t have air conditioning and HOW DOES SOMEONE BOOKING A RESERVATION NOT ASK THAT QUESTION??? 

But if that relationship is still in a good place, she’ll look up from her poached revelry and say, “Ohmygod, it does! Maybe it’s the same bird! Or maybe it’s one of those robot birds and it followed us back to the mainland to get the codes.” 

“What codes?” her husband might ask.

“I don’t know,” she may posit. “Someone’s always looking for codes.”

And then suddenly they’re in a conversation about why they still use thumb drives in spy movies when the rest of the world has moved on to SSD technology.

If she rejects the bid, she either ignores the bird comment and rolls her eyes or instead reminds him of his air conditioner gaffe and now they’re fighting again. 

Pay attention to whether or not your partner responds to your bids and vice versa. Bids can be tiny, but accepting them can be powerful and healing. Rejecting them repeatedly can lead to emotional distance, contempt or even outright conflict.

Conflict: It’s a family affair.

In my friends’ responses to my questions, no subject was mentioned more than their families of origin. 

“Both my partner and I grew up in families that fought a LOT,” my friend L, who has been with her wife for over 30 years, said. “So we both know our families are crazy… they’re just different flavors of crazy.”

Gottman broadly categorizes conflict resolution styles into three types: avoiders, validators, and volatiles—in other words, those who avoid it, those who seek compromise, and those who confront it head-on—and traces those dynamics back to their upbringing. In other words, their family’s flavor of crazy.

So when you’re in conflict, consider where your partner is coming from, both figuratively and literally. In fact, the next time you’re embroiled in what seems to be an intractable argument with your partner, do this simple exercise: Look at your partner as they steep in their vexation with you, and picture their entire family standing behind them. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, their cousin Rick who always seems to be holding a Hamm’s. Because they’re there. 

Maybe your partner gets defensive and yells at the tiniest disagreement or criticism. Thank their family of origin. 

Maybe they clam up completely and avoid conflict altogether. Thank their family of origin for one of two things: either raising them in a conflict-avoidant household (probably in the Pacific Northwest) so it’s all they know OR raising them in a family that flew off the handle so often that they learned to bend themselves into a tightly-wound pretzel of unexpressed anger, then served themselves up on a silver platter like warm, chewy communion and smiled quietly when their family mentioned they could use more salt. 

This happened to another friend who’s been with her husband for over 25 years.

“I grew up in a house where I thought fighting was the path to divorce, so I always tried to keep the peace,” my friend P said.

Because her partner openly dealt with conflict, she became more comfortable being drawn into difficult conversations, learned to clearly communicate her needs, and started standing up for herself. She made it clear, however, that she never could’ve done that in a relationship she didn’t feel secure in. And she felt secure because thankfully, those who are adept at healthily expressing negative emotions can usually do the same with positive ones.

“He’s just generally more emotionally available than I am and forces his love and support on me even when it is uncomfortable for me,” she adds. “That really filled a void in me. After a while, I surrendered to it and understood that is what it is to be loved.”

If you and your partner find yourself getting into emotional gridlocks often, Gottman has many tools to help get out of them. One I love is to start with your solvable conflicts so you can ease your way into the ones that feel more complex. This tactic is the “add the task you just finished to your ‘to-do’ list just so you can cross it off” of conflict resolution. He also recommends learning to live with unsolvable conflicts, which might feel avoidant to many. Gottman claims it’s possible as long as both partners understand the other's point of view, even if they don't agree with it, which makes sense. In my experience, empathy can be a magic wand that reduces contempt. It won’t work for all issues, especially for people who love to dig in. But it’s something to think about.

“Roll With the Changes” isn’t just an REO Speedwagon song.

In the mid-70s, my parents had a close-knit group of friends in our sweet middle-class neighborhood in Shaker Heights, Ohio. All the wives would trade hosting cocktails at their house, sometimes with the husbands, sometimes without. On one particular “without” night, my mother got home and crawled into bed at 3 a.m. The following morning she awakened, deeply hung over, to my father sternly informing her that she needed to come with him. She put on her robe and slippers on the fly as he led her out to the snow-covered driveway where his ‘66 Mustang was parked. He pointed at the front of the car. 

“What is this?” he asked. 

There was a small bush attached to the grill of the car. My mother did remember jumping a curb briefly on the way home, she just didn’t realize there had been a landscaping casualty.

“Don’t drink and drive” is life-saving advice, both for humans and shrubbery, but it’s not the point of this story. The point is that when my father married my mother, she was a demure, self-proclaimed “good girl” who excelled at raising children and throwing beautiful parties. But the social and political ideals born in late 60’s counterculture finally reached middle-class housewives by the mid-’70s and she and all her previously perfect housewife friends now attended women’s encounter groups, aspired to be doctors and therapists, and swore (and, periodically, drank) like sailors.

Thankfully, my mother was only ever a social drinker and never drove drunk again, but she would also never return to her formerly domesticated self, which didn’t bode well for her marriage.

Out of their friend group of five couples, one marriage survived this profound shift. Recently, I asked the Last Husband Standing (who recently had a hip replacement, to help with the standing) what they did to make it.

“I think every 10-12 years of my life, I changed somehow,” D said. “And the fact that she also changed and these two changed people were somehow compatible seems a bit like magic.” 

But then he thought a bit more about it.

“But looking back, maybe some of the ways each of us modified our personalities was in an attempt to continue accepting and growing with the other.”

Seeing your partner change may trigger fear in you—fear that the more they change, the more likely they are to evolve past you. This is because humans aren’t 90 percent water as scientists say; we’re 90 percent self-loathing. 

If your partner accomplishes the remarkable feat of changing for the better in any way, it is probably not an active attempt to either show you up or evolve to the point where they can finally trade you in for a sleeker, more high-performance model. They’re just doing the same thing you are—trying to lower their self-loathing percentage to… honestly, even 83 percent would feel like a relief, wouldn’t it?

So do what Gottman recommends: embrace the inevitability of change, support your partner’s goals enthusiastically, and, if necessary, revisit your shared goals if you feel your partner is shifting away from them. (Please see earlier discussions of bids/birds, conflict strategies, and Learning Not to Listen Like a Dick for help in how to approach this conversation.)

Learn to accept love like a boss.

This is the last, and most important, bit. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to accept that even with all your flaws and at your worst, someone still actually wants to be around you. 

My friend J described the lowest moment in her life. She had just lost her sister. 

“I was splay-legged on the kitchen floor, crying,” she said. “Snot-crying, really. Long-stringy snot-crying, and gravity was trying to pull me into the earth. I felt skinned alive.” 

“You are so beautiful,” her wife said.

It was the last thing she expected to hear. 

“She still saw me when I didn’t even know what I was anymore.” 

This is the place we all aspire to. Not just being the partner who is so full of love that you see beauty in snot-crying, but being the partner who is open to the fact that you might be beautiful every minute of every day you’re alive. J learned to love herself enough to, as she said, “always take the rope my wife offered me.”

“When I feel dumpy or stupid or just lame, she still sees someone she loves,” she says. “What works about that is that I am committed to hearing and believing her, even when she loves me for no good reason at all.” 

“For no good reason at all” is the best reason to love someone I’ve ever heard.