On September 10th, 2016, I married the love of my life, and it was the happiest day of my life. After a day of love and fun surrounded by family and our closest friends, I’ve come back to Earth a bit. Reflecting on that special day, I realized that in the process of finding and marrying my wife, I have learned a lot of hard lessons about relationships and love, and I felt compelled to share them.
This may very well be the most painfully honest piece I’ve ever written. Love is a deeply personal topic, and as such, it tends to bring us to the heights of joy, and the depths of hurt. Learning means making mistakes and failing. Learning lessons about love and relationships means the same thing. And that’s hard. And it hurts. It’s even harder and hurts even more to admit when things go wrong and you’re at fault.
Despite all of that, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned in the hopes that maybe it will help someone else recognize and avoid some of the pitfalls, and speed them along on their path to happiness. Or maybe, it’ll just make you laugh at me. Either way, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about relationships over the course of a couple of decades.
Every Relationship Is a Learning Experience
For the majority of people, every single relationship they have will end, except for one. As a result, basic math tells me that most of us have more failed relationships than successful ones. I used to think of those relationships as just that: failures. With time, and distance, I’ve come to appreciate that we take something away from every relationship. We learn something from each breakup. As strange as it sounds, every ex-girlfriend helped to shape who I am, and as a result, got me closer to being the man that my wife wanted to marry. If it weren’t for those “failures” who knows if I would have wound up where I am?
Lesson: Learn to cherish the old relationships. Even the ones that seemed like they were utter failures brought something into your life. It’s just a matter of finding it.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
If you’ve ever broken up with someone, chances are you’ve used the line, “It’s not you, it’s me.” And chances are when you said it, you didn’t believe it. You were just trying to be nice. But after time and introspection, I’ve come to realize that in almost every past relationship, it was me.
Maybe not completely, and maybe not even mostly, but to some degree, the reason a relationship doesn’t work out has always been at least partly my fault. No matter how you slice it, a romantic relationship needs two partners in order to work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s a shared responsibility.
Here’s an example.
Years ago, I had quit my job, given up my apartment and was a was about to move to a different country so that my then-girlfriend and I could finally put an end to several years of long-distance. We had both agreed on this course of action. Then, a week before I was set to move, she called me and told me she wasn’t ready for this, and I shouldn’t move. Uhh… now you tell me? I was angry. I was hurt. I was bitter. (Silver lining: it made for a good story. If you’ve read my fiction, you might recognize this as the opening chapter of my novel First World Problems – I assure you that that first chapter is about the only autobiographical portion of that book!).
But, with time, I realized that even in this, I shared some of the blame.
Sure, she could have done it before we’d agreed that I was going to start my life over, but then again, she also could have done it after I’d actually moved. It took me a while to make peace with it, but the reality is that for her to back out of such an arrangement at the very last minute meant that I had pressured her to accept it until that point. Sure, we discussed it, but did I really give her the option to disagree without sounding like a bad person? Was I listening to all the subtle queues that maybe I was more invested in this than she was? Was I anticipating her needs?
Of course not. And I needed to own that and learn from it.
Lesson: Understand what your part is in every failed relationship.
Passion is Not Love
Most people I talk to have had at least one relationship that went something like this:
They met someone new and it was love at first sight. They spent the next two weeks either locked in a bedroom or doing nothing but thinking about the other person. Then, after some period of time, something happens, it doesn’t matter what. In fact, usually, they can’t remember what it was. But there’s a big fight. Tears are shed. Maybe objects are thrown. They’re the worst person in the world. A few days after that, they regret everything. They promise things will be different, and they disappear back onto cloud nine. Some weeks later, a new nothing happens, and more tears, followed by more making up, and so the cycle continues.
Super high high’s followed by super low low’s repeating themselves.
Ever been part of a relationship like that? If you haven’t, save yourself the trouble, and go watch a Hollywood movie.
Hollywood love is based on passion, romance, drama and perseverance. That makes for great entertainment, but for a poor life. When was the last time you watched a really good movie or TV show where the characters were happy? It doesn’t happen, because happy is boring. We want to be happy, but watching happy people bores us.
Writers purposely create tortured characters and relationships, and then we go off and use these as templates for our relationships. How’s that for messed up?
Passion is not love. It might make for entertaining film-making, but it does not make for a good life. So, stop chasing the passion, because that’s not what love is.
So, if that’s not love, what is? Read on to find out.
Lesson: Real love would make for a really boring movie.
You Don’t Know Someone Until You’ve Lived With Them
There’s an old adage about relationships that you don’t really know your partner until you’ve traveled with them. I think that’s true, but I push it one step further. You don’t really know a person until you’ve lived with them. There are a lot of small quirks that you can gloss over when you’re not spending every spare minute with a person. It’s only once you start sharing a living space that a person’s true personality comes out.
Only then do you realize how neat or messy a person is. Or how laid back or stressed out a person is. Or how patient or hot tempered a person is. Only when you strip away the mask a person puts on every day when they leave the house do you get a true sense of who s/he is.
My wife and I lived together for over two years before getting married. Some people teased me about procrastinating on proposing. There may have even been some who didn’t approve of us “living in sin.” But in this day and age, I think couples owe it to themselves to get to know each other by living together before they take the plunge to eternal commitment.
My wife and I didn’t have our first fight until months after we moved in together. My wife didn’t learn how anal retentive or lazy I am until we lived together (you probably thought those two things were mutually exclusive, didn’t you?). Based on what she learned, she needed to decide whether she was willing to live with me as I was before she committed.
(In case you’re wondering, she’s perfect, and the only thing I learned was how woefully inadequate I am.)
My point is, if there’s one tradition that needs to die sooner than others, it’s the idea that couples shouldn’t live together until after marriage.
Lesson: Live with your partner before getting married, even if you have to go to confession because of it.
Listen to What Others Are Saying
When I was fifteen, I had my first girlfriend. I thought I was in love. So did she (at least that’s what she told me). And we weren’t shy to tell anyone. And maybe we were in love. But the reality is that what we thought of as love at fifteen wasn’t what either of us consider love today. Maybe there are teenagers who are mature enough to know true love, but I wasn’t.
In and of itself, that’s not a problem. Where it became a problem was in the amount of myself I invested into that relationship. Adults at the time told me that I was still young and I was still going to change, and that it was difficult to remain with the same person for so long. I didn’t listen, because I thought I was different. I thought I was special. Most of us have this flaw of thinking we’re special. Usually, we’re not. I wasn’t. Sure enough, within a few years, we both began to grow up as people, and we grew apart.
Fast forward ten years, and I was in a different relationship. This was a relationship that lasted for a little less than two years, but was more on-and-off than a light switch (see previous section: Passion is Not Love). Somewhere around the halfway mark almost every person around me told me that this relationship wasn’t working. That we weren’t right for each other, and that we were just going to make each other miserable and end up resenting each other.
I didn’t listen. I should have.
The reality is that as much as we like to believe no one else understands our love, most of the time, people can get a pretty good read from the outside of whether or not a relationship is going to work or not. It’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true.
Lesson: People outside your relationship have a more objective assessment of it than you do.
Stubbornness is Not Enough
This is related to the previous lesson, but with a fine subtlety. Sometimes we stay in a relationship despite outside warnings. Other times, we stay in a relationship because we’re too stubborn to listen to ourselves.
When I was in University, I went to study in Spain for a summer. While there, I met a girl (you see where this is going right?). Within two weeks of meeting this girl, I had told her I loved her, and promised her that when we went back to our lives in North America, we would find a way to make this relationship work. A week later, she went home convinced that those were just words, and that there was no way this relationship could work.
I spent the next five years trying to prove that they were not just words.
In the beginning, I’m sure there was something. But as time went on, and the pressures of a long-distance relationship, finishing college, and starting a career mounted, the relationship became strained. Despite this, I tried to make it work. In the end, it didn’t, but not for lack of trying on my part (see ‘It’s not you, it’s me’).
Now that I look back on that relationship, I wonder whether I would have been happy if it had worked, or if I was merely trying to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could deliver on my promise?
Yes, relationships are hard work. But at some point, you need to know when you’re putting in the work because it’s worth it, and when you’re putting in the work because you’re just being stubborn.
Lesson: Proving a point is not a good reason to stay in a relationship.
Family Values Matter
We don’t want to be our parents. At least not when we’re young. But with every passing day, I see just how futile that struggle is. I see it as I stare into space while eating meals just like I watched my dad do when I was growing up. I see it as I find humor in the same terrible wordplay. I see it as I do silly little dances with kitchen utensils while I wait for food to cook (don’t judge us, it’s genetic).
So much of who we are comes from our parents whether we like it or not. And if family is at all important to you, it’s important to realize that your partner’s family will one day become your family. If your values aren’t compatible, you will be fighting an uphill battle for most of your life.
I’m not a fan of cultural isolationism, and I don’t believe that everyone should end up with someone of the same culture. But I do believe that the more different those cultures are, and the more rooted the families are, the more stress will be added to a relationship. I’ve seen happy couples dissolve because of big issues like religious differences. But, I’ve also seen couples struggle because of much smaller cultural differences like how to deal with an aging relative (do they come live with you, or do they go into a nursing home?).
Sooner or later cultural differences rear their heads in a relationship, and when they do, you need to be willing to accept and deal with them. If not, you’re fighting against the weight of generations.
Lesson: Understand that you’re getting into a relationship with an entire family.
Physical Attraction Matters
There’s a temptation as you get older to think that you’ve wizened beyond your hormones and that sexual attraction is not as important. It’s tempting to believe that relationships are actually more rational than emotional or physical. The reality is that while communication and friendship are important, I have yet to find a couple that has a loving relationship that doesn’t have at least some basis in physical attraction.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “doesn’t that mean that ugly people will always be alone?”
Or maybe you’re thinking, “What the hell gives you the right to judge people’s attractiveness?”
Both those questions miss the point. I’m not saying that in order to be happy in a relationship you need to go and find Mr. or Mrs. Universe. To use a cliche: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
You need to be physically attracted to your mate, not me, and not anyone else. My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. You can disagree, and that’s okay, because I don’t care (and you’re wrong). You’re not married to her, I am. In the same way, I might think your husband looks like he just walked out from under a bridge, but if you’re attracted to him, who the hell cares what I think? As long as you have that physical attraction.
Sex matters. Chemistry matters. That spark is what makes you more than roommates. If it dies, either find a way to rekindle it, or start asking yourself some serious questions.
Lesson: Sexual compatibility is as important as emotional compatibility.
Every Relationship is a Compromise
Have you ever seen that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets engaged to a woman because she’s exactly like him, only to realize he’s made a huge mistake, because the last thing in the world he wants is to be with a person like himself? If you haven’t seen it, find it. It’s a good one.
Regardless, you get the point. The right person for you is probably not like you. Your differences are what attract you to them. I still haven’t quite figured out why this is, but it has held true in pretty much every successful relationships I’ve observed, including my own. Maybe it’s because we’re looking for people to round out our weaknesses? Maybe it’s because we’re hardwired to look for balance? Maybe it’s because we all have a subtle masochistic streak. I don’t know, but it’s true.
So, if you’re going to spend the rest of your life with someone who is not your carbon copy, the only way to make it work is to learn to compromise. For some people, compromise comes easy. For others, not so much.
The people who have the hardest time with this are people like me: anal retentive, borderline OCD, everything-must-be-just-so types. This is especially true if these people have lived on their own for any significant period of time, because they are not in the habit of compromise.
So, if you fall into the latter category, all I can say is, start working on your patience, and start learning how to negotiate, because otherwise you’re destined to drive away all hope for a mate.
Lesson: If you don’t want to compromise, learn to be happy as a single person.
Always Act Like It’s the Beginning
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen/read/heard regarding relationships comes from a strange source: Tony Robbins. The master of motivational speaking and personal development also has some pretty profound thoughts on relationships it would seem.
Given that I just got married, I’m probably unqualified to deliver this advice, but intuitively, it makes sense: “Always act like it’s the beginning of your relationship.”
If you’re not sure what that means, just think back to the first few weeks of any of your relationships. Chances are during those first few weeks, your partner couldn’t do anything wrong and there was no chance of you getting into a fight.
Why? Because in those first few weeks (and hopefully long after that), no one is keeping score. All that matters is making your partner happy. You don’t think about who did the dishes more often, or who did the last load of laundry. Instead, you think of what you can do to show this person just how much you love them, and how much they mean to you.
Imagine if we could do this throughout our entire lives? Perfect harmony in all relationships!
Lesson: Don’t keep score. Instead, constantly try to show how much you love your partner.
Every Day is a New Day
My wife’s grandparents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary the weekend after our wedding. In his toast, her grandfather said that the secret to being married for 65 years is to know that ”every day is a new day.”
The amount of wisdom packed into that single sentence is incredible.
No matter how bad a day you’re having, tomorrow will be a brand new day, with a brand new opportunity to conquer the world together. There will be rough days. There will be fights. Some silly. Some not. But you know what happens tomorrow? A new day. Every single time. Life gives us a new beginning every single morning. How awesome is that?
Doesn’t matter what yesterday was like, you have a chance to do better today.
Lesson: No matter what happened in the past, there’s always a chance to make things right.
How to Know
The last lesson is the answer to the question I get most often from single people: “How did you know she was the one?”
The truth is, I really have no idea. There is no checklist with boxes that were all ticked off. In fact, if you had asked me to describe my ideal woman before I met my wife, I don’t know what I would have answered, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have described her. Not because she’s not perfect for me in every way, but because I didn’t know what I needed until I found it.
And therein lies the answer to the question, “how do you know?” You don’t know until you do. In every previous relationship where I thought I had found the one, I only realized how far I was when I actually found her.
I know that sounds like absolutely useless advice, but maybe I can make it slightly more useful by saying this: if you’re not sure, don’t settle. Chances are your parents said this to you, because you’re their special boy/girl and they think you deserve the best. I think you deserve the best, too. But that’s not why I’m telling you this. No, I’m telling you this, because if you settle for a relationship that you’re not sure of, you’re just setting things up for hurt and failure for yourself and for your partner.
When you find the right person, you will know. If you’re not sure. Keep looking. Not just because you’re worth it, but because they’re worth it too.
Lesson: Don’t worry about knowing whether you’ve found the one. When you have, you’ll know.
Happily Ever After…
I will end this with a hope and a wish. I hope that you find the person of your dreams and that you have a wonderful life together. I wish you love, happiness and everything that goes with it.
BUT (you knew there was a but), if you haven’t found that person, don’t despair. They will come along. Or maybe they won’t. And if they don’t, so what? I can now call myself a happily married man, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to be happy (or that it’s a way to be happy at all). Ask yourself what you need to be happy, and challenge the stereotypes. Marriage, 2.1 kids, a house in the suburbs, a minivan and a sports car for weekends is not a recipe for happiness. It’s also not a recipe for unhappiness.
You choose what makes you happy, and my last piece of advice is this: choose whatever you have right now as the thing that makes you happy. It’s a lot easier than changing your entire life.