Next month, Brian and I celebrate our 10-year anniversary. We’ve actually been together for 17 years—we met in college. Some people can’t believe we’ve been together for so long. “What’s that like?” they ask. “Do you ever feel like you didn’t get to explore your life as an adult?”
Eh, that’s fair. The answer is: Kind of? Luckily, we’ve grown together in ways that have made our relationship stronger, but it could just as easily have imploded—and nearly did on a couple of occasions throughout our early 20s. I can’t “congratulate” myself too much about our longevity. Part of it is luck, and part of it is hard work. You look around, realize you’re happier together than you would be apart, and do what you can to keep things that way.
And it’s true, I missed out on the crazy dating years; when people talk about their Tinder exploits or first-date woes, I can empathize but can’t completely relate. (One of the last “first dates” I went on before meeting Brian involved eating soft-serve on the T with a fellow camp counselor who taught archery. Weep! It wasn’t meant to be.)
In our years together, we have grown—a lot. When we met, Brian was a laid-back engineering student at UMass who slept too late and drank too much; I was a Type A American studies major at Mount Holyoke who woke up at 6 a.m. to get some extra homework in before my tutoring, volunteer work or “Walking for Fitness” class. (What can I say, we had a gym requirement.) I was finishing my thesis; he was finishing a beer.
I was a year ahead of him in college (we’re the exact same age—right down to the same birthday—but I was a year ahead in school), and when I graduated, Brian announced that he was moving to Washington, D.C., with me, where I’d gotten a job at NBC News. Drama! He dropped out of college with no money to move to a strange city with someone he’d only been dating a few months. Needless to say, our families were a bit concerned. We moved into a basement apartment in Mount Pleasant—now hipster central, but heavy with the persistent aroma of urine in 2000—and we subsisted on my measly production-assistant income while he looked for a job.
Somehow, without a college degree, the Environmental Protection Agency hired him as a project manager. He then finished up his final year of school in D.C., and fast-forward 17 years later: We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary and expecting our second child in two months. (Can anyone recommend a great anniversary destination within an hour’s drive of Boston?)
We’ve been through a lot. Nothing other-worldly, but enough to test us. I dealt with a disabling episode of panic disorder and agoraphobia after our wedding and had to stop working for a month. He had to work full-time while finishing his final year of college, which he paid for himself. Then he went to grad school while I worked. I lost my job and then discovered I was pregnant. He was almost laid off a month before I went into labor. But life went on. It does that.
So what have I learned, after having been with someone half as long as I’ve been alive? Really learned? Here’s what I’d tell someone about to get married:
- Finding the right person to marry is a lot like a game of doubles tennis. It helps to be with someone strong where you’re weak. He’s logical; I’m intuitive. He adheres to meals like breakfast, lunch and dinner while I get lost in work for 12 hours and let nachos dribble down my shirt. We balance each other out. Sometimes I wish I was married to a crazy creative person who brooded all the time and wrote me pages of loose-leaf poetry, but then I remember that it’s also nice to have groceries and a savings account.
- People don’t really change. When I met Brian, people warned, “But you’ll change so much after college!” I don’t totally buy it. People don’t change—not their fundamental core selves, anyway. I’ve learned to work on my anxiety issues; he’s worked on being more assertive. But the essential person I met at 20 is still there (minus the goatee and Steve Miller Band T-shirts). You can’t expect someone to have a complete personality transplant. You cannot expect to remake someone. People grow and develop and mature. But the fundamental person? Just not going anywhere. So you’d better like it.
- Being with someone who is reliable, a good parent and a stable human being—I’m talking about someone who is essentially grounded and confident about their place in the world—only becomes more valuable with time.
- Some fights are worth having. Many aren’t. Know which is which.
- If you’re upset, say something. Nothing kills a marriage faster than festering resentment.
- Sometimes the grass really is greener, and it feels awful. Some friends have spouses who surprise them with exotic trips or dinner reservations; other friends have way more childcare help or money. It’s normal to feel jealous from time to time. Sometimes the Facebook feed truly is real life.
- Your spouse will have friends you can’t stand, or your spouse’s otherwise lovely friend might marry someone you can’t stand. It’s OK to do things separately. You needn’t be best friends with everyone your spouse likes. But if you have completely separate interests, taste in people and values, think twice.
- Trust your gut. If something seems wrong, it probably is.
- It’s important to be with someone you can talk to easily—but it’s probably even more important to marry someone with whom you feel comfortable being completely silent. If you feel like you need to be “charming” and “on” all the time, flee.
- No amount of cajoling will make a man shave his unseemly facial hair. He will only do it when he’s ready. Trust me on this.