Keeping It Together:
12 Tips for Making Your Relationship Last 20 Years
I met Justin in the late mid-90s. I was just shy of 20 years old and working as a server at a Don Pablo’s Mexican restaurant. That job was the worst. I used to spend hours scrubbing salsa off of my white canvas K-Swiss sneakers with a toothbrush because when your employees serve literal gallons of salsa every night, white sneakers are clearly the most logical uniform choice.
I remember the actual first moment I saw him. He was a new hire sitting at a round table, the kind that seats eight of the most demanding free-refill customers you’ll ever serve, talking to a manager, his dangerously blue eyes like electrified ice. All the trainers were out that day, so by sheer luck, I got the job of showing him around. He was quiet and intense, kind of the embodiment of the phrase “still waters run deep,” and I could tell he liked me. I told him two awkward elephant jokes and helped him roll his silverware and we lived happily ever after.
Just kidding. He totally walked off the job in the middle of a shift a couple of weeks later, ostensibly never to be heard from again. I repeat: That. Job. Sucked.
Luckily for us, there were only so many crappy chain restaurant jobs in Tulsa back then, and within a matter of months, we were both working at the Olive Garden in Utica Square. Back then, mobile phones were giant bricks operated by FBI agents on TV and the affluent, but like every other bachelor in America, Justin had a pager and a bucket of silver change. I knew he liked me because when I paged him, he had to trek to a payphone and sacrifice 35 cents to call me back. From the beginning, our relationship was always very natural and almost familial. We liked spending time together, and we never had to have a conversation about whether we planned to start seeing each other exclusively because we just fell into that pattern.
I can still vividly recall so many moments from our early days. I remember wearing a black velvet dress with glittery black leggings and chunky black heels, my short platinum blonde hair parted in the middle like Drew Barrymore, the day we went to see Titanic at the newly-built AMC Southroads 20. We flipped up the arm between us, snuggling close as Rose let go of Jack. My face was wet for a solid ten minutes, but he didn’t judge.
Later that year, because he wanted to take me in a nice vehicle, he borrowed his parents’ car to take me to see Carmina Burana at the PAC for Valentine’s Day.
I remember how nervous I was when I met his parents for the first time; that time we were shopping in Mexico and the guy who really wanted to sell us a hammock; buying our first house; the moment he proposed, last minute on the way out the door to his parents’ house on Christmas because he hadn’t really planned to; our wedding, beads of sweat in the hot sunset chapel window overlooking Beaver Lake; all night dancing in the cool, dark mountain mist of glowsticks and glitter and sound at Bonnaroo Music Festival; how scared he was when I had my scooter wreck, my helmet grated on the pavement; the mentally ill cockatiel we inherited from his grandmother; stepping off the train at Central Station to a cold March morning in Amsterdam; the night we lost our first baby and I thought my heart would stop beating; our rainbow children’s births; living on my parents’ land while I cared for my mother as she died; loss, life, joy, death, the thousands upon thousands of moments and thousands upon thousands of days that woven together make up the fabric of the life we have created together.
20 years later, we still love each other’s company.
I think it can be easy to make the mistaken assumption that all those years together mean it’s always been smooth sailing, but we have had our challenges. There are a solid two years we just don’t speak of if we can avoid it; I call those the Dark Years. That said, there are a few things that we believe have helped us stay together. Every couple is different, so what works for us may not be what works for everyone. But hey, it can’t hurt to try.
1. Don’t be hung up on romantic relationship stereotypes.
I’ve had friends whose SOs showered them with gifts and heavily prioritized romance (not to be confused with intimacy), then years down the road, they took this happening less often as a bad sign. I think it’s great if you have a partner who loves showering you with songs of faith and devotion or if you love doing it for your SO, but not all relationships have to look like that. We have always looked from the outside more like a friendship than a romantic relationship. There’s not a lot of “my sun and my stars” talk. But when he makes my coffee perfectly every time he pours his own cup or asks me if I want to watch an episode of Star Trek with him at bedtime knowing that’s really my thing, not his, that is worth more than a dozen roses. Maybe the romance already is there, but you can’t see what’s right in front of you.
2. Don’t resort to name-calling. Ever.
This is a basic matter of human respect. If you are in a long-term relationship, you are going to get so angry at some point that you can’t see straight and you wonder if you can keep doing this. Just remember, if you do it to them, they’re gonna do it to you, and it’s a door that once opened is very hard to close. More importantly, name-calling is dehumanizing and abusive. The truth is that even in your anger, this is a person you love and want to be with, and feelings of anger pass. Make it a policy. Discuss it. Walk away. Once someone calls you a name that cuts deep, it may haunt you for a very long time, and I can guarantee it is the same for your partner.
3. Accept that bodies change.
Newsflash, beautiful. We’re all getting older. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear people talk about how lonely they are, how they’ll never find the right one, and then go on to shoot down all potential partners for being a little overweight or bald. I’ve also observed friends struggling physically and emotionally to lose weight for their partners (not themselves). Attraction and good health are both very important, as long as we keep in mind that our bodies are inevitably predisposed to aging and there is not a single thing we can do about it when it’s all said and done. If you’re planning to have babies, that also tends to make some permanent alterations to one’s physique, and although we live in a society that puts tons of pressure on women (and men, to be fair) to be tight and fit, a really good partner is going to look at those stripes and that extra extra in the post-baby belly as some of the many kinds of signs of a strong woman and encourage their partner’s general health in positive ways. Friends, it took me five years after Lucy was born to get back to a reasonable weight, and lucky for me, I married a man who probably wouldn’t be greatly affected if I shaved my head. When I lost upwards of 40 pounds, he was happy for me, not himself, essentially because he doesn’t see my body as proprietary to him and because he always thinks I am cool all the time. He even liked me when I regularly waxed my eyebrows to thinner Mommie Dearest arches in the early 2000s. In the same way, his eyes are now the lined eyes of a man in his early forties, and I imagine he sees something similar when he looks back at me. Weights fluctuate, fashions change, but what does not ever change is that we like each other better than we like anyone else. I still love those blazing blue eyes, and I am always going to.
4. Accept that people change.
I read an article about this recently, one that essentially said people duck out of partnerships because they feel their partners have changed. When I met Justin, we were barely out of our teen years and had not had much time to really establish our own identities. I almost think this has worked to our advantage because there was never a time when we weren’t growing or changing. We’ve changed careers, changed our goals, changed our minds and hearts about thousands of things. He’s not the same man he was when he was 21, but I am certainly not the same woman. I am braver, more willful, and I imagine at times he finds this beyond frustrating. He is brinier than he ever was, but he’s also softer of heart about many, many things.
5. Have each other’s back.
It’s one thing to vent a little bit to a #bff, but if you talk smack about your SO, people will believe what you say about them, and they aren’t going to have the whole picture that you do. They won’t see all the million other things your partner does that make him or her redeemable as a human being. They will only start to see the image you have painted, the ugly things you said when you are venting. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vent. Lord knows I do. But I really try not to say anything that would hurt him if he were standing right there next to me because I love him and I value his feelings. We also stand up for each other. Many times, we have been each other’s allies and ambassadors in tough situations with family or friends.
6. Don’t be afraid to disagree.
I don’t really understand why people think it’s bad to disagree with your partner. You’re just not the same person, so you are not going to see the world in the same way; hence, you’re going to disagree sometimes. We used to hang out with a couple whose opinions on everything were identical, and we often wondered if one of them was sacrificing autonomy for the sake of harmony. As for Justin and I, we argue constantly, but it’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s because we get on each other’s nerves, and sometimes it’s because we have different perspectives. But we value each other’s intellect and opinions, so we give each other respect even when we disagree, and we ultimately want the same things. We have opened each other’s minds through spirited debate on many issues, and more importantly, we aren’t afraid to call each other out on our BS. I don’t want a partner who is going to let me get away with acting in a way I should not. As my friend Vicki Mae says, iron sharpens iron. By speaking to each other directly but respectfully, we help each other to be better versions of ourselves.
7. Let things go.
This kind of ties in with #6. When we argue, we just don’t hang on to it. And while some things warrant an apology, we don’t require any kind of formal armistice to make amends. Mornings are a great example of this for us. We’re wretched human beings in the morning, something Arthur inherited from us as well. Maybe it’s the bright, inexplicably cheery sun or the anxiety-riddled hustle of everyone going to work and school, but mornings have always sucked for us. Getting ready with kids is something of a horror show, and for about 45 minutes we really can’t stand the sight of each other’s stupid faces. Many mornings, the first few minutes of our ride to school has been icy as the frozen tundra of Arendelle. But about halfway there, one of us will usually start talking about the latest from Congress or something going on around town, and everything between us is instantly cool.
8. Don’t take things too seriously.
There are some arguments that you just keep having over and over again, unsolvable riddles for the ages. Life is short, and sometimes you have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it to keep wasting energy on something that probably isn’t going to change. There are things he does that make me want to scream, but I am certain if I gave him a pen and paper and told him to write down the list of things I do that he finds frustrating, he would have a great deal to say on the subject. As long as it’s not something abusive or hurtful, the items on that list might be worth filing under the category of “tolerable quirks” and moving on with your life.
9. Have fun together.
We believe this is as important as anything else you do in a relationship, as important as talking and intimacy, and it has always been a fundamental part of our marriage. When I was in high school, I had a wonderful boyfriend who taught me the value of fun in a relationship. We regularly saw movies together at the theater, played mini golf, went bowling, and just really prioritized play, and when I realized Justin appreciated the value of having fun together, it was one of the reasons I liked him. Stepping away from the responsibilities of adult life to simply have fun together is one of the fastest ways to get back to your roots. Sometimes couples will go out for the candles and wine when they’re trying to reconcile, but my advice is to do something that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on romantic expectations, like see a concert, rent some go- karts, play a game of gin rummy, or bake something together. This is a great way to see your partner as a person again rather than an opponent and begin to get back on the same wavelength.
Having fun together is key to a lasting relationship.
10. Respect each other’s space.
Consent and boundaries are at the heart of a strong relationship. One of the first things I loved about him was that he never needed to know where I was, who I was with, or what I was doing. When we were much younger, before we ever had kids, after working as a cocktail waitress and going to college full time, I would often go to dinner and a movie alone when I felt overstimulated and needed to be away from other people. Who doesn’t feel that way from time to time? One of the great things about the pre-Nokian era was how easy it was to step away from everything and find peace. We also respect each other’s virtual space. Respecting each other’s space also means we are not concerned about the gender of each other’s friends. To us, if we had reasons not to trust each other, that would be an issue we should be addressing together through some healthier means than searching each other’s private space. And it’s nice to know he’s not going to judge me for my obsession with Jason Momoa or that Star Trek: Discovery fan theory about the secret Vulcan operative.
11. Find each other interesting.
Whatever your SO is into, encourage his or her interests. Be glad that he or she is different from you and has such a rich and fulfilling life. Justin is more interested in politics and governmental workings than anyone I know, and he takes in information constantly. I have a political science degree and can hardly keep up with him. He is also passionate about vehicles and cooking and has a great deal to say on those subjects. If it’s something that isn’t particularly interesting to me or I don’t know much about it, I ask him to tell me about it, which gives him an opportunity to share something he loves with me. By the same token, Justin has participated in countless conversations about the subtext of The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica. I think we try to see what it is the other finds appealing about these things and because we value each other, it isn’t too hard to make that connection. And sometimes, I am sure he’s just humoring me, just as I am not always super into his discussion of what went wrong with the sauce he broke at lunch. But we like each other, and the truth is if he was reading the phone book, I’d still find him charming.
A good partner is comfortable with letting you do you.
12. Be kind to each other.
It might sound cliché, but your home should be a safe harbor. Try to remember when you’ve had a hard day that your SO has a lot going on, too. Try to understand who he or she is deep in their spirit and offer care and healing in the way that works best for your partner. Justin is an introvert, and I really think not understanding what that means caused me to miss many opportunities for love and empathy over the years. Having Arthur gave me a new insight into the mind of an introvert, and it informed my compassion and empathy for my partner so that now I understand part of being kind to my partner means not pressuring him to talk all the time, something I crave as an extrovert. It’s also important to be magnanimous when your SO makes a mistake, knowing that the shoe will be on the other foot soon enough.
Now that I’ve shared some of our tips, tell me what works for you. If you’re in a lasting relationship, what has kept you together? What mistakes have you learned from?