Sometimes I look at couples who have been together for a long time — and I mean a long time, like 20 to 60 years — and I wonder, “How do they do that?” The idea of two people figuring out how to make it work, time and time again, through all of the changes and trials and tribulations of life, never stops amazing me. My parents celebrated 30 years married this June — and yet somehow it still straight up looks like magic to me most of the time. There really is just something incredible about making it work in a long-term relationship.
My parents have always told me that their relationship is built on a couple of things: shared values, open communication, and good sex. (Among other things — see the last one on this list for more insights from my dad.) If my mom is feeling particularly feisty, she’ll also throw in the fact that no one thought they were going to make it when they got married because she’s a full 13 years older than him, so her attitude was basically “f*ck you, I’m going to do it anyway.” But that’s their experience and it’s definitely not universal. So I decided to ask some long-term couples in my life: What does it take to make it work in a long-term relationship? Here’s what seven of them told me.
1. Liz, Partnered With David — 5 Years, Polyamorous
I think the really key thing is an open, honest, ongoing dialogue. Communication is the best, and it's how you know that everyone is on the same page, that needs are being met, where emotional/mental/physical health is at, and it's how you can start to sort through any problems. The thing that has really helped us on our journey together has been constant communication about our needs, expectations, and feelings. It sounds exhausting, and it can be, but it's critical for us. We've lived on three continents, lived with both our families at different points, weathered depression, and transitioned to poly. Without being sh*t-hot at communicating in an open, honest way, I don't think we'd have made it one year, let alone five. So if I had to give a couple of any leaning one piece of advice, it would be to get SO F*CKING AWESOME at communicating.
2. Alex, Engaged To Allison — 7 Years
Understand your partner, don't let the little things grow into big things. Oh, and don't forget to laugh when you can.
3. Francesca, Married To Alexander — 8 Years, 1 Married
I've been together with my husband since 2008. We are best friends first and have learned to be patient with each other. We've also learned to see a relationship like a living, breathing, multi-organism that needs love, attention, and interest. If you don't feed it, take care of it, and allow it to grow up, then you will be caught in something that could potentially be stagnant. We also take time to seek help when necessary and to listen to each other's needs. Case in point: I am an introvert, he is an extrovert. At times I need to be left alone, and he has gotten very good at reading that without feeling hurt.
4. Dan, Married To Nicole — 10 Years, 3 Married
Being comfortable around one another is huge. To make things work, you really have to synergize with one another. You are a unit, so you have to think about the whole of it instead of just each individually. Also: Poop. You have to be able to talk about poop and pooping. Not with an emphasis on it, mind you, but just as one of the regular topics. You gotta be comfortable. Also, finding someone who encourages your passions, whatever they may be. Arts, sports, science, etc.. To grow together, you both have to be allowed to grow. I should probably mention love, but that's the foundation already.
5. Alyssa, Engaged To Ben — 10 Years
The best advice I can offer, is always give your partner the benefit of doubt, and support each other, even if you don't agree with their decisions. This creates trust and respect, and encourages individual growth. Also, constantly give, and take care of each other.
6. Colby, Married To Garth — 20 Years
I think one of the keys to maintaining a long-term relationship is to understand that the cliché that being with the same person forever grows tiring or boring, is all wrong. As individuals we are not static and therefore relationships are not static. My husband and I have been married for 20 years and things are changing all the time for us individually and in our relationship. We both really value those changes and find we are still learning more about each other all the time in all aspects of our relationship. We create a lot of space in our relationship to pursue individual interests, so not feeling pressure to do everything together is really helpful and allows us to continue to grow as individuals and as a couple.
We are also finding that as time passes our shared history is really helpful in navigating challenges in our lives. As you age, the challenges sometimes get more complex, and it’s grounding and reassuring to know that you can get through them with this person who knows you really well and is committed to you and even your extended family. There are ups and downs in every human relationship but if you understand this and are prepared to face unexpected challenges you get to reap the rewards of the joyful times.
7. Stu, Married To Joan — 30 years
An important thing is saying you’re sorry and meaning it. Particularly for men — men have a real tendency to not want to say they’re sorry for anything. It’s some kind of a dude thing. But it’s pretty critical that you do, if in fact you should. In the first 10 or 15 years that Joan and I were married, we were still trying to figure things out and we would fight. Sometimes things get said in the heat of them moment that upon recollection after you chill out, you think, “Man, I was dumb. That was not called for.” So my solution for it was to write little “sorry” notes: sorry about being a dick last night; sorry about that conversation we had about feeding the kids pretzels. Whatever. I’d put the post-it on the kitchen table and then after Joan read them, I’d put them up on the wall in our kitchen. I left them up there and there were a lot of post-its. I think saying sorry is important for both men and women but I think men in particular, they should think about that.
Joan taught me this one — never go to bed angry. That’s kind of huge. You get in a fight, you’re pissed, you don’t want to be around that person and you don’t want to talk to them. But if you go to bed angry you’re going to like, literally infect your dreams.
Joan and I also have a really powerful physical connection to each other. It’s a physical, emotional, and sort of person-to-person connection but it expresses itself often during sex. That’s where we really pull all of those things together. We found it was super important to make sure that no matter how busy we were, we had regular sex. We’d schedule it because we were so busy with the kids and everything else. We made sure it happened, whether we were too tired or anything else, and I think that is hugely important. Everybody has their own need for sex but for us it was a way to connect on that kind of level, that kind of way, and just be there for each other.
The last thing — and this is really important — is that long-term relationships ebb and flow. There’s time when you’re super psyched to be with that person and it can last for weeks, months, years, and there’s times when for whatever number of reasons, you’re just not. Either you’re too busy or you’ve just fallen away from that feeling. But you’ve got to trust that it’s going to come back. And it does — it always does. It literally can be weeks or even a year or two. You’ve just got to know that the good times are going to come back.
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