On Friday morning I went over to Vancouver Island to do some union speaking, caught the 10 am ferry and settled in to do some work on the laptop during the crossing. Unfortunately, I miscalculated my seat and found that instead of a peaceful corner in which to chill out, I was surrounded by tour bus Americans on their way to the island. Overweight, obnoxious, loud, pretty rude in a way they obviously thought was amusing. Nothing better than the seniors bus tour coming right out of Couer D’Alene in their constellation. I didn’t move though, because I wanted the table and window so I did my best to tune them out for most of the ride, though at one point I caught this conversation between an older couple (late sixties) beside me:
Him: Hm. This coffee is pretty good. (After bringing them both cups from the cafeteria).
Her: While that’s one thing you did right today I guess. (In the snappiest, most derisive tone you can imagine).
Of course every exchange during the ride was like this. He would make some observation and she would either ignore him or answer as though it caused her great pains to do so. Well beyond fondly bickering old couple, this pretty much horrified me, particularly as I imagine this pattern of communication has been going on for decades.
The concept of long term relationship frightens me for exactly this reason, and lately I’ve been a little more attuned to discovering clues that prove romantic partnerships don’t have to turn out this way. Unfortunately they seem few and far between.
Brian and I are still very much in the honeymoon phase of our relationship, not even having made a year yet; we spend a lot of time gazing at each other and we never fight – two signs that the reality of each other hasn’t quite sunk in. And as much as I love this phase of things, the fuzzy bunny happiness of it all, I am also highly aware that it does end. And then you have to somehow keep going. And I have no idea what that looks like in real life.
See, I didn’t have really positive relationship role models between my obsessive-neurotic-controlling father and my depressive-passive-agressive mother. While I love them both, the behaviours they manifested as partners to each other and as parents was less than ideal in many respects. They just made 44 years together, which is impressive until I count at least half of those spent in something approximating abject misery (on my mother’s part) and frustrated anger (on my father’s). Acknowleged, it has gotten better in the last few years in that they co-exist without tormenting each other too much, and have the home and travel companionship they wanted in retirement.
To be fair, it’s not like they had great models growing up themselves, and while my mother was a perpetual advocate of relationship counseling it was only the rare time she could convince my father to go. On the other end, it was the observation that my husband and I were sliding in the same trap after four years that encouraged me to leave him when I was still in my twenties, and while Brian fared a few years longer with his ex they didn’t exactly live in wedded bliss.
And besides just this immediate experience there is just lots and lots of evidence out there that many people are in unhappy relationships with any number of justifications (the kids, finances, school, property ownership, spite etc). Whole bulletin boards on the Internet are dedicated to “I hate my husband/wife”, 3/4s of the self-help section at Chapters is devoted to relationship-repair manuals, and a quick perusal on Craigslist casual encounters will prove that many many people are looking to cheat at any given time.
Even though I can name a handful of couples who have made ten years happily (my former bandmates Jon and Alison come to mind immediately – they are one of the most well-adjusted couples I know), it seems the odds are so much greater that a relationship will either be miserable or end after some acceptable period of misery. And I don’t want it to be that way. I don’t want to stick out decades of unhappiness just to have someone hold my hand when I’m seventy and putting my lipstick on all funny. At the same time I am realistic about the fact that every marriage (to use the term loosely) has bumps and divots along the way and that there are times when you stick out difficulty rather than immediately suggesting “we try an open relationship to see if that helps”, or leaving.
I guess what I want ultimately is some assurance that it’s possible to have a relationship that continues to be mainly positive into the far-away future. Because I’m not overly-fond of the idea that I might have to go back to dating someday, and besides that Brian is exactly who I want and I hate the thought of giving him up. Secretly, I just don’t believe it’s possible to be mostly happy with anyone – and I suppose that might be the problem right there. If I can’t believe in it, then how can I live it?
There is no question to me right now that Brian is the person I want to build a life with. We got lots in common, we want to do well by each other, and we get along easily no matter what we are doing (cooking, laundry, road trips, hanging out with friends). The thought of getting to a point where I want to post on the “I have my husband” Internet forum actually physically pains me, even though I recognize the ways in which people get to that place (I saw it in my own mother). But I want to know that I am different, that this is different, and that somehow we will be saved from the ravages of emotional time that hardens and wears us away.
I suppose it’s like anything good. You want guarantees, but there are few. And I always know I can leave rather than be miserable. But I’d rather neither of those choices which means working on a third way which might just be what love is.