Realizing that "long-term relationship" is a choice

June 12 |
Photo by Myles Katherine Photography.
My husband and I have been married for six and a half years. We met when we were in college, and eloped after three months of dating when we were 21 and 22. We had a pretty good run of it until two years ago, when our relationship seemingly imploded and we found ourselves without the necessary skills to deal with it. Instead of communicating, we did a lot of silent brooding, which turned into passive-aggressive blaming, which turned into alternating trips away from one another and plotting the happier days in which we'd be free of one another's tyrannical claws.

This was two years ago, and somehow we find ourselves in this place: making the choice to happily work on our relationship.

I'm 28, and my friend circle (both close and extended) is definitely experiencing the first wave of divorces. As someone who regularly contemplated divorce for two years, I can see the appeal: freeeeeeeeeedom. I'm also someone who is adamantly pro-divorce: if it's not working and you want out, get out. To me, divorce is nothing to be ashamed of regardless of the reasons leading up to it.

But yet… I remain un-divorced. Like I said, I'm even happy about it. Why?

I'm lucky: my husband and I weren't ready to divorce because someone cheated or someone was emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive to someone else. While I was the primary breadwinner, my husband had a job. We have a great kid, and we're a seriously cohesive and positive family. In short, things were good enough: nice, respectful man with a nice, respectful woman who are raising a (mostly) nice, (mostly) respectful kid. Throw in our dogs and bright yellow car and you have some "Awws" just waiting to come out of your mouths.

We were ready to divorce because we were just so fucking tired of having to deal with each other. We weren't yelling or raging, we were just… done. Part of this was due to only having been together three months before we eloped — a situation I totally think can work, but it does leave you without any clue as to how your partner deals with stress, or even how he or she fights in an argument. We didn't have several years experience dealing with one another, and when we got married we didn't even know what one another's buttons or triggers were. It was all very fast and romantic, but when things started to get hard two years later we were suddenly hit with the realization that there were huge areas of our lives that we had no idea about.

Instead of doing what everyone tells you to do (communicate, go to therapy), we retreated. We became like ships passing in the night, not even turning on the light to acknowledge one another. We communicated mostly about our son, and put on big smiles for nearly everyone in our lives. It sucked.

We went through good periods in which we would talk our problems out and pledge our loyalty — to each other and to the relationship itself. It was clear that we didn't necessarily want things to end as much as we wanted them to change, but since we didn't have the relationship skills to help them change… it seemed like only ending it would work. My husband moved out, he moved back in, he moved out, he moved back in. Close family and friends heard that it was over three times, and each time we really thought it was.

But still: we kept coming back to one another.

I would love to be able to say that the reason we kept coming back together was because of some inexplicable, magical bond that was pre-determined by fate and will keep us together always, but the real reason is significantly more practical than that: we were making a choice. Somewhere along the line, in between silent dinners and hours spent watching TV alone on the couch, we each made a choice to stick it out, to keep trying. We were choosing even when we were both miserable, choosing even when telling the other that we weren't.

I grew up a really quiet, idealistic, romantic kid and teen. I subscribed to all of the books, movies, and songs that tell you how love is supposed to be. I'm still this way — my favorite book is Love in the Time of Cholera, and I will defend the idea of fate and soul mates and true love until I'm out of breath. But what I'm realizing is what many a person in a long-term relationship will tell you: "forever" is a choice that you make. As sweet as it is to say you're the one for me and I'm the one for you, I think most of us realize there are many, many "ones" out there in the world that we could easily be happy with — but we're choosing to be with the one we have.

In its own way, making that choice is ridiculously romantic. Staring divorce in the face and saying, "You know what? Maybe later" is kind of hot. It doesn't mean that it won't happen, and it doesn't mean that we won't continue to have shitty periods in our life, but for now we're choosing to have those awful times together over potentially amazing times with someone else. This isn't news to anyone who has been in a relationship longer than I have, but it's a realization I'm happy to have made.

  1. Thank you for this lovely article.

    My husband (and thus I) have had a rough few years – lost his job, got a really hard job in a new field, was depressed, got better, got cancer, got better, got another new job, got cancer again. It's been tough. But I think the most powerful thing that I've said or felt in that whole time was "If I had to do it again, I would still choose you." Reaffirming our decisions can be extremely powerful.

    27 agree
  2. Thank you. I think most long term couples concur: It's really hard work maintaining a relationship, you have to be dedicated, and you need to bear in mind that if you can stand to weather the rough patches there will be times when your relationship will be great enough to make it worthwhile.

    18 agree
  3. I love this, and can relate!

    After having a few VERY passionate relationships that burned me, I settled down (mostly) happily with a very Taurus personality. He's thoughtful, steadfast, and plods along at a snail pace. I had made a conscious choice to pick a different partner, but that hasn't been easy, because the things I know are good for me often annoy me. :) About once a year, since we started dating, we have a redefine the relationship talk…we ask each other "are we still in this because we're in love, or just because it's routine and comfortable and because divorce would be time-consuming or messy?" I like that we said forever in our vows but are totally open to divorce if it was right for us. And so far, five years of marriage (and two of dating), we keep saying "yes" to being together, even if it's really annoying sometimes.

    7 agree
    • "I had made a conscious choice to pick a different partner, but that hasn't been easy, because the things I know are good for me often annoy me."

      THIS.

      I am marrying a steadfast, ploddy man, and while he is very different from anyone else I have dated, he is exactly perfect to go through life together with.

      33 agree
  4. Fantastic post. Props to you both to making the decision to work on your relationship. Whatever the resolution you two come to I hope it brings you both happiness.

    I remember when I had that "long-term relationships take work" epiphany. I was single at the time and lamenting my lack of stable relationships. While working at Borders we had only about 4 albums that played during the holiday season. Michael Buble's was among them and the song "Haven't Met You Yet" was my favorite (so upbeat!). The lyrics just hit a nerve, I guess. Despite being in customer service I had a TON of time to just focus inwardly. So I made a decision that if I wanted a solid relationship I had to, within reason, "work to make it work out."

    It's working so far! :)

    5 agree
  5. Thanks for writing this very personal piece. We got married after only four months together, also as students, so the start of your story is in some ways familiar to me. Your realisation is a version of something that my Mum said to me very early on in my relationship (I was either about to get, or very newly, married): it is a choice that you make again and again, a continuing process.

    10 agree
  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It makes me feel not so alone and helps me realise that I have made a choice, rather than be stuck.

    6 agree
  7. Excellent post. My husband and I just celebrated an anniversary, and both of us happened to pick cards for the other that referenced choice, and how choosing one another was the smartest/best/easiest choice we ever made. Which is true. Falling in love with and marrying Todd was really easy, because he's awesome.

    But the harder choices we make in our marriage are the ones that aren't so fun or glamorous, that we don't get to dress up to make, that we don't eat cake or dance together afterwards – the choice to say something nice or be understanding, even when you're feeling snarky inside, because you know your partner needs a kindness just then. Or the choice to have a difficult conversation in a calm voice instead of yelling it. Or even just the choice to turn down girls' night out, because you haven't seen your husband in a while and you kinda want to remember what his darn face looks like.

    If I had read this post the day before yesterday, I might have chosen (see what I did there?) a different anniversary card for Todd – because I agree that the sexiest, most romantical choices I've made about him aren't the ones that lead to our wedding day, they're the ones I make every day in choosing him over and over and over again.

    27 agree
    • "the sexiest, most romantical choices I've made about him aren't the ones that lead to our wedding day, they're the ones I make every day in choosing him over and over and over again."

      This totally describes my relationship with my husband too. I've made a choice to be with him, and it is a good choice that is worth it everyday. Even days when I'm mad at him!

      6 agree
  8. My husband and I just celebrated 9 years together yesterday, and 2 years of marriage back in April. We started dating in high school and were the first of our friends to get married, as such we tend to get a lot of, "I can't wait till I find someone and we can have as good a relationship as you two". (Which is funny to both of us since our relationship is based on a lot of snark and a mutual disdain for the majority of people) But the one thing we always tell them is they don't see the amount of work we put in to be at a the point we are. We've had some awful fights, some "if you walk out don't bother coming back" moments, and months where being civil is the best we can manage. Eventually though we made the decision to stick it out because we feel that we're better together than we are separate, even if it is a work-in-progress.

    6 agree
  9. when i was in my 20s i went to acting school in nyc. i had a terrible and abusive teacher whom i ended up despising. however she mentioned something one day that had a great influence on me. she was approaching her 35th wedding anniversary and offhandedly said that she and her husband renegotiated their marriage each year on their anniversary. i loved the idea and 13 years later when i was dating my husband incorporated it on the anniversary of our first date.

    so for our anniversary we have our "relationship summit." we talk about where we are and what we want and if changes need to be made. this can be anything from "i don't want children and if you do i love you and don't want to deprive you of them so maybe we should part ways" (dating anniversary #2) to "pick up your socks" (somewhere around wedding anniversary #3 or 4), to "i see recurring patterns that cause you suffering. and even though this isn't about me, i don't want to get to old age and still see you suffering. will you please think about counseling, for the both of us?" (last year).

    but what's more important is the time when we come to "i want to stay married to you for another year." it really is optional. a few years ago when mid-life crisis hit my husband and i was afraid he was thinking about leaving i reminded him that he had re-upped for at least another 10 months and he owed it to me to hang and see if we could work it out. we did.

    we shared this practice at our wedding, which was on our anniversary (which happens to be valentines day). we even had a wedding "intermission" where we went off into seclusion to do the summit. it was a great opportunity to be alone for 15 minutes and to really center ourselves.

    i remember once talking to a younger person about it in our early years (an actor most would know) and he said "that's great. that means you actually talk about stuff." it may seem like an artifice but we do, indeed, talk about stuff. usually over a nice dinner (before drinks). and it's not just limited to that once a year. a few weeks ago, after a disturbing dream where my husband told me he was leaving for greener pastures, i talked to him and said "i don't want to be just the greener pasture, i want to be the greenest pasture. and i want you to think about it for our next summit." these are the big issues. ones that can't be solved when things are heated and doors are slamming. ones that won't resolve themselves with makeup sex.

    so even though that teacher was a btch she did teach me som'n. wasn't about acting but was about life and though i still wouldn't thank her to her face i will spread her lesson. think about it. it works for us. we've been together for 19 years now and married for 13 and i see a long future ahead. one that we'll live without feeling terminally trapped but with freedom of choice.

    24 agree
    • I love this idea so much! We do it informally, but I am definitely thinking of posing this to my husband as a way of connecting and planning for the next year. Such a good idea. Thanks!

      1 agrees
    • "i see recurring patterns that cause you suffering. and even though this isn't about me, i don't want to get to old age and still see you suffering. will you please think about counseling, for the both of us?"

      Thank you for framing so beautifully what I need to say to my partner. We've been dating two and a half years, and it has gotten to the point where I don't want to be "legally bound" to him, yet I don't want our lives together to be over.

      6 agree
    • Wow, that's amazing advice! I've seen similar ideas for things like roommate agreements, chore splitting, etc. It's a work in progress to get some people in my life to agree to a set time period for reevaluating agreements–they think it's silly because they're perfectly happy with something and don't see the need to discuss it, even if I'm not necessarily happy.

      That's mostly roommates, though, and thankfully my boyfriend is a lot easier to talk to and more likely to listen if I'm unhappy about something. I find, though, that it's a lot easier to bring something up in the moment, since saying "I feel like you don't listen to me very much" isn't helpful when I can't necessarily come up with specific examples (even if I know it's a thing I feel sometimes), or even if I can he doesn't remember the incident. So instead, as long as I can calmly talk about it in the moment, I can say "when you said X or didn't look up from your computer just then it made me feel Y."

      I like your strategy of a pre-arranged summit for dealing with bigger picture things, though. How did you first frame it when you started doing it? I've been dating my dude for a few years now, but it sounds like something worth incorporating.

      0 agree
  10. This was really nice and refreshing to read.
    My husband and I got engaged after 13 days and married after four months. We've only been married a year and half, but it's been the most insanely difficult thing we've done. There are good days and there are terrible days.
    We decided to stop talking about divorce. We realize it's an option, it's just not one we're ready to have on the table. We decided we would feel more secure if there wasn't the constant threat of anyone leaving. We had some counseling and that helped us work through a lot. We are much better now and we have kind of learned better ways to deal with each other in more reasonable ways.
    We love each other, but it's nice to see that sometimes that's hard and that's OK.

    4 agree
    • "We decided we would feel more secure if there wasn't the constant threat of anyone leaving."
      Liked that a lot, so I had to repeat it! Helping the other person feel secure and feeling secure yourself does a LOT for a relationship- it changes the question from YES or NO to HOW?

      24 agree
      • "it changes the question from YES or NO to HOW?"
        BOOM. Perfect. Waffling over YES or NO leaves everyone sort of anxious and adrift, but HOW has such wonderful forward momentum. And honestly? Whenever I find myself in a relationship rut, forward momentum is all I need–to just feel like things are moving toward something new.

        21 agree
      • I know you posted yesterday (which is a lifetime in internet land), but I really love the YES or NO to HOW bit.
        You're right. I was talking to my husband about this last night and he said he liked to think of our "family priorities" which we established on a long distance call in the middle of the night when I fled to CA after some huge issues caused by his severely mentally ill mother living with us. We said that the problem is always "how do we stay married". Any solution to any other problem that may arise must fit that constraint.
        Like "I have to take care of my disabled and mentally ill mother that is abusive to my wife."
        The solution CAN'T be "Move mom in" because that doesn't solve the problem of "How do we stay married?

        1 agrees
    • My husband and I have an agreement to never threaten divorce as part of a disagreement or fight (fortunately, this hasn't really been an issue as yet). I've seen couples who throw the D-word around every time they get in an argument, and it becomes a cloud constantly hanging over everybody's heads. Like you said, it's hard to focus on addressing the issue at hand if either party is feeling scared or insecure.

      11 agree
  11. I have heard people say the following, and I think it is mostly true:

    You have to be as dedicated to the idea of marriage/long-term/forever/etc as you are to the person in which you've entered into it with.

    Perhaps another reason why quick marriages are harder is because we are still so wrapped up in the idea of forever with the other person instead of having a practical commitment to a lifetime relationship and all that entails.

    I am lucky to have had grandparents who had many wonderful golden years of marriage when they were older, and that is what I keep in mind when things are tough. I'm in this for a shared lifetime, not just to make RIGHT NOW easier or fleetingly happier.

    4 agree
  12. Ack, so true. My husband and I eloped to the courthouse in 2009, and I will never forget how the judge started the ceremony – she said, "In some ways, this marriage ceremony is unnecessary. For just by agreeing to come here and legalize your union, you are already married in your hearts. You have already made the decision to join together." Isn't that so true? Man, I think about it all the time.

    But it really relates here. You make that decision over and over again to stay with each other. It's a constantly changing, constantly adapting thing, and married or no, things can change and it's okay. It's okay to change. In fact, I think the couples who go into commitment expecting their partners and their relationships to stay the same forever are the ones who end up disappointed and divorced far more often.

    If you're still married and you shouldn't be – if the relationship is over – then the marriage is just paperwork. There's no point staying together just for paperwork.

    4 agree
  13. Today is my wedding anniversary (three years!), and life is hard…but good.

    My husband and I often say that we choose each other every day, and there is something beautiful in that.

    Thanks for sharing.

    0 agree
  14. Some parts of relationships are easy, where you just "click," and some parts are hard, where you have to actively negotiate. In terms of deciding to stay or leave, I think this ratio is important because you don't want each day to be a 100% struggle. But people change over time, so maybe you can ride out a rough patch. And you don't KNOW that you will be happier with someone else because the grass is always greener, right?

    My husband (married for 1 year now, dated for 7 before that) have had a lot of major life transitions during our relationship, like graduating college, long distance, moving states, graduate school, depression, unemployment, moving in together- all before we got engaged. So we were forced to deal with these changing circumstances step by step and figure out how to be with each other in each circumstance. But even after all that, there are still new things we have to learn about each other and new ways we have to facilitate our relationship. I think the "transition test" for relationships is a good indicator, but just because you made it through several transitions doesn't mean that you have it all figured out! I'm hoping that all of our transitions and adjustments have built a solid foundation for us to handle what life throws at us, but you never know!

    4 agree
  15. Great post. I've been thinking about the idea of choice a lot, lately. My partner and I have been together for almost six years, and while we lived together for two, we decided to go to different grad schools and our relationship became long distance. We see each other only rarely during semesters. We spend the summers together, though, and for the first month or so of our reunions I basically freak out. I ask myself, "Are we staying together because it's easy? Do I still love him? Why can't he understand all of my needs?" and, worst of all, "Why am I still so sad when I'm with him?"

    Finally, this summer, I told him how unhappy I was. And I realized several things: a) I need to go to counseling for my depression, b) he is not the root of my depression, and c) I chose him, he chose me, and we did that for a lot of reasons. We may not be married, but even though my friends say "married life is sooo different, because you can't just say 'I'm done with you,'" I know that I cannot just walk away from him. I want to make us work, and so does he. And that's an important thing to realize. It's a real comfort.

    2 agree
  16. "A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person." – Mignon McLaughlin

    16 agree
  17. I really enjoyed reading this. And it's completely true, and something that I needed to be reminded of because we've been having one of those "civil is all we can manage" weeks. But still, at the end of the day, I know we'll move past it and that I'd rather be stuck in some temporary suck with him than off in rainbow-land with some hypothetical other who would no doubt also be getting on my fucking last nerve after 5 years together. :)

    7 agree
    • hehe, "temporary suck" is a great term

      2 agree
  18. Beautifully insightful piece.

    I've often thought of our relationship in this way. A series of real choices to stay together.

    My husband and I have been together for nearly a decade, married for half of that and we've honestly been through quite a lot in that time. We lived in a shitty apartment with roach problems and drug dealing neighbors when we were young, barely able to afford to keep the electricity turned on. My husband was in the Air Force during my baby bearing years, gone three weeks out of every month not counting deployments and training. I suffer from severe trauma that gives me debilitating flashbacks to this day for which I'm currently seeing a specialist for. Our boys try our marriage every single day. We picked up everything and moved across the country, twice. We've been scraping by hoping to have enough money to keep the heat on and curling up in bed with our boys when we couldn't. We've fought like cats and dogs at times and really just wanted to kill each other or ourselves many times. But we always come back. Sometimes we don't even apologize, just kiss and make up.

    It's a lot of fucking work to make that choice.

    But you know what? It's worth it. Every time we have a fight, we both make the conscience decision to come back. To stay together. To love one another.

    We are each so vastly different people than when we first met or even when we married, but through the years, we've still always chosen to stay together. Because we make each other laugh. Because we've invested so much in each other. Because, at the end of the day no matter how pissed off we are, when we think it through neither one of us would honestly choose to be with any one else.

    It's a choice, and I love how you pointed out just how romantic that is. I never thought of that before, but it really is quite romantic. It'd be easy to part ways and start again with some new puppy love, but it's terribly romantic that we always choose to tough it out through the hard shit and stay together.

    8 agree
  19. I love this post so much, I kind of want to print it out and frame it. <3

    4 agree
  20. Great article! In my opinion it is extremely important to remind yourself regularly that being together is a choice and not a habit.

    1 agrees
  21. Great post. My fiance and I have been together for seven years next month and are getting married in September. Lots of our friends have had multiple relationships and marriages in the time that we've been together and often we get comments on how long it took to get married.

    There was a point, early on, when I really wanted to get married but looking back on it I'm glad it took so long. We haven't always had an easy go of things but we learned to overcome things as a team and work on our lives together.

    3 agree
  22. I married my first serious relationship. And we hit the hell wall at 2.5 years. And stayed there for almost 2 more. We made out stronger than ever but after all that work I NEVER want it to get that bad again and it never will and I definitely don't want to start that inevitable cycle again with someone else.

    2 agree
  23. I've been married almost 35 years, and some of them were rocky. Like you, my husband and I only knew each other 5 months before we married, but we were 25 and 27, and had a certain amount of life experience previous to meeting. Both of us believed in working on our marriage and not taking the easy way out of divorce, and sometimes it was a lot of work! I think more than anything having interests and beliefs in common is of paramount importance, but also having your own interests.

    5 agree
  24. Thank you. I found this post very inspiring. I'm a newlywed and frankly, not loving it so far. I don't want to go into details, but this reminder about relationship as a choice, it helped.

    1 agrees
  25. I love this post, and all the comments, so much. Marriage is hard, all relationships are, but that's what makes it so worthwhile. I'm totally stealing the 'relationship summit' idea too, which is just so fantastic. One of the saddest things I heard recently was a friend who discovered some four years after separating from his partner, that neither of them had actually wanted to split up. Their lack of communication had just made it inevitable.

    0 agree

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