I work with the elderly population, many of whom have been in 60+ years of commitment with the same person. Occasionally, when they seem rather happy about discussing that commitment, I will ask them, “so what’s the secret to staying together for that long?” They always say without hesitation:
There is some truth to that answer, it’s really the easiest way to answer the question. However, I think the truth is a bit more complicated. The secret to still loving your partner after 60+ years is kept secret with the answer of “Compromise,” because let me tell you in my experience, compromise alone is not enough.
Something unexpected happens in the home of your mind while in a relationship… it’s unavoidable if you choose to interact and live with another human… every corner of every room in your house eventually gets visited, often uninvited and by surprise. You get to decide in that moment the door is opened if that room is nurturing and part of what is right about you, if it’s time to remove the door to make the room an open space people feel invited to walk through or if the room can be ignored, if you’re going to put a lock on the door (which can and usually does get broken into), OR if you’re going to take some time to clean it up because the mess is preventing you from feeling at peace in the rest of the house. No door gets left unopened when you are with someone for 20+ years – at least that is the case in my house, where there has been 21 years worth of doors to unlock, open, or break down. I live in a complicated house with a complicated history.
But, don’t we all?
Here’s the thing, I don’t believe you have to be with the same person for years and years for all your doors to get opened at different points in your life. And I don’t think when you are with the same person for years that THAT is the only person who will knock on your doors. I am also aware that many people walk through their lives never feeling the need to go there with those rooms.
Often people will knock on your door, or open it… friends, love ones, your children (who are especially adroit at finding the rabbit hole doors that lead into your own childhood)… and you’ll ignore the knock while you’re adding a few more bolts and directing them to the room that is easy to keep neat. Sometimes, your significant other will stumble into the room by shear accident, and you’ll shoo them out and slam the door as they leave. Sometimes, a friend will open a door to a messy room and you’ll spend some time with them cleaning the space so it’s just clean enough. Sometimes those friendships will change, grow, or even end over those messy rooms. Or, you’ll open the door for a therapist and work together to sort through the stuff worth keeping, the stuff that requires forgiving, and the memories that can be let go of – you’ll remodel the shit out of that room.
Our house can hold a lot of rooms and there isn’t just one person who will help you find those doors or one way to interact within the rooms. Sometimes, it’s not even a person who shows it to you – you’ll find it because of something that happens, something you read or heard, something new that you learned about the world and how you move through it.
The thing about your home and all those doors is that the rooms that are shut are the very rooms we need to spend time in, maybe not right away, but eventually. Maybe not for months at a time, but for moments or days. Sometimes they are dark or crowded or both. And sometimes they are the most beautiful light-filled rooms in the house and we’ve forgotten how beautiful it is in there OR we didn’t know that the room existed in the first place.
Anything or anyone can show you the door, but it’s always a person, either myself or someone else, who opens the door and enters the room – and it’s always me who decides what happens in that room.
Being with Hal for 21 years and still wanting to be with him, still feeling deep love and appreciation for him, has everything to do with him learning how to soften his walk through those rooms. He’s helped me to clean the rooms I was ready to clean and he’s respected the doors I’m not ready to open. He has even helped me find the doors to the rooms that are beautiful, the rooms I didn’t know were in my house in the first place. And he gives me the space to explore my home without him.
But that’s not all… he has given me the honor of walking through his home. He has allowed me to sit in his dark rooms, his beautiful rooms, his messy rooms that need cleaning – work only he can do. He’s learning how to respect me while in his dark rooms and is teaching me how to respect him. I am learning how to respect him while he’s in my dark rooms and teaching him how to respect me. We have both grown into adults who value respect and strive to respect each other as individuals first and interdependent partners, second.
We’ve had some difficult years. We have moments where I think WTF? And he’s like, OH NO SHE DIDN’T. There was that year I thought about divorce (last year). And we’ve had some fucking amazing years. We have some really great days and meaningful moments. We joke around and laugh a lot. We’ve found our amazing years pre-kids, and we have found them with kids – but good gawd, our relationship takes periodical upkeep and maintenance – like any home.
I wonder how I will answer when I’m asked, “what’s the secret to being married for 60+ years?”
It takes a lot of work: patience, compromise, self awareness and the willingness to learn and communicate.
HAVE FUN. LAUGH A LOT. TRAVEL: with and without your kids, with and without each other.
“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
*This is my truth – it may not be yours and I’m not declaring it as a Universal Truth. I use the word “you” in the proverbial sense, because it’s useful when expressing my thoughts.