On July 20th my husband Eric and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We didn’t buy each other gifts or make a big deal out of it. We spent the day in the car, driving from one Colorado town to another, and finishing the day off at a Mexican restaurant before arriving at our 2nd Air BnB for the last leg of our vacation together. There was a time when I would have been frustrated to be spending the day driving for hours on long stretches of boring highways, but not now. A good portion of our relationship has been built by long road trips and the long talks and comfortable (and sometimes uncomfortable) silences as we logged hundreds of thousands of miles.
I can confidently say that I am happier in my marriage and more in love with my husband now than I have ever been, but we are far from being a fairy tale couple. I’ve felt overwhelmed with love for him plenty of times and still do regularly, but that was not because he, or I, or our circumstances were charmed or blissful. Quite the opposite, actually. We have been through multiple situations and circumstances that easily could have torn us apart, and in fact, almost did. I’m pretty sure that there was at least one period when Eric was so angry with me that he stuck around out of spite, because his refusal to leave made me angry.
Here’s what I know: Successful long-term relationships don’t happen because two people happened to be charmed or have especially good luck during their time together. They don’t happen because they are perfectly matched or compatible, or because they avoided hard things. Successful long-term relationships happen when we go through hard things together, believing that the preservation of the relationship is worth hardship.
Let’s say you need to go from Los Angeles, California to Baltimore, Maryland, and for whatever reason you can’t take a plane. You have to drive. After more than a week of driving through boring little towns, stopping only to get gas or use the restroom, you are bored out of your mind, and completely sick of driving. You’re sick of cheap hotels, sick of the empty deserts and the stop and go traffic of small towns that you can’t take an expressway through, and sick of staring all day at the double yellow line. Trust me, I’ve done this twice. It’s pretty awful.
Then, just when you think you would rather die than drive another mile, you see it. The St. Louis arch. You’re halfway there (roughly). You pull over at a truck stop for coffee and a short break, proud of yourself for making it this far through the monotonous miles of the western U.S. But then it occurs to you that you still have half of the country to go before you reach your destination, and it will be just as boring and just as long, or maybe even more so.
So then you think, “I’ll just stay here.” You could give up on this whole cross-country drive thing and just make it a trip to St. Louis instead of a trip to Baltimore. St. Louis is far as you’re willing to go and being able to tell your friends that you drove halfway across the country is still pretty good, right? You’ll stay in St. Louis for a couple days, and then you’ll drive back to Los Angeles.
But then you remember – your best friend is waiting for you in Baltimore, and you’re at the halfway point of your trip. You said you’d drive there to visit her, and she’s waiting for you, so if you drive back to Los Angeles, you won’t get to see her or spend time with her, meet her new baby, and visit your old hometown together. It’s a difficult decision. Which would take longer, the drive from St. Louis to Baltimore and your old friend, or the drive from St. Louis to Los Angeles and your own home?
Please don’t get caught up in the analogy too much; I know St. Louis isn’t the exact midpoint between Los Angeles and Baltimore. And if you’re thinking about rising gas prices and miles per gallon, just stop; you’ve missed the point.
If you’re at a halfway point between Point A and Point B, which would be the shorter trip – turning around, giving up on the trip idea, and going back to Point A, or continuing on to Point B as planned, persevering through the remaining half of the drive?
Bonus points to anyone who is singing Bon Jovi in their head at this point.
The simple idea I’m presenting here is this: When the path ahead of you seems too difficult to go through, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it anyway.
Maybe the drive to Baltimore will be fun and simply fly by because you’re so happy to be getting together with your old friend, or because you find a really good podcast to binge as you continue going east. Maybe the turnaround trip back to California would end up leading to a flat tire in the desert, bumper to bumper traffic, or just a sense that you gave up on a trip that could have been a really good thing for you and your friend.
Of course, I’m not just talking about decision-making. All of us face opportunities to give up on things on a regular basis. I’m tempted to give up on blogging and writing almost everyday, actually. With only 52 subscribers, the pressure to create a “brand” around my words and to present a consistent image and message across multiple social media platforms so that I can gather enough subscribers to *maybe* get a book contract and *maybe* be able to publish the book I’m already writing too is a lot when I try to think about the fact that I also have other things I need to do and want to do. When I’m doing writing-related work I’m not doing housework, which is a problem when I’m the only person in the house who cares about tidiness. And it so often flips too. Today I missed a writers’ Zoom meeting I’d been looking forward to because a planned home health visit went longer than I expected it would. Last week I ran out of clean underwear because the dishes stayed clean and the vegetable garden was well-tended while laundry piled up. Life balance is hard no matter what you do for a living, and no matter how many productivity or organization blogs you follow, that isn’t going to change.
Relationships, I think, are the same way if you want them to last, and frankly, I think struggling in an important relationship feels a lot harder than struggling to keep the laundry done and the tomatoes picked before they rot. Because people can hurt us, and the closer we are to another person, the easier it is for that person to hurt you, intentionally or otherwise. I can tell you that from experience, because my husband is my best friend, and I have loved him dearly for more than twenty years, but sometimes I didn’t feel love toward him.
You have the power to choose to love another person, even when they don’t deserve it, and even when you don’t feel like you love them.
It’s not that you can necessarily create a rosy, warm feeling in your heart when you are truly hurt and angry with a loved one. But you can choose to love by loving them in your actions. This doesn’t mean allowing a loved one to abuse or mistreat you, but it does mean that you do not have the right to abuse or mistreat them.
Love is both a noun and a verb. You can feel the emotion called love (noun). But you can also love a friend by treating them in a way that communicates love, even when they haven’t earned it. And by doing so, you can save and preserve valuable relationships or even strengthen them in the long run.
Think of it as trial-by-fire, or “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” but applied to relationships you’re committed to.
Go ahead. Cry into your pillow at night. Scream obscenities in the shower. Write out how you really feel in a letter that you won’t send. Burn a photo of the person who burned you. But don’t give up on them.
If you are in a situation where you are the victim of physical, verbal, sexual, or emotional abuse, yes, you should absolutely remove yourself, physically and emotionally, from that situation and seek help. But if someone you love has said something that hurt you, or made a poor decision, or is heading down a dangerous path, don’t give up on them. Even if you have to be apart from them for your own safety or sanity, or if you are so hurt that you can’t talk to them or even think of them without totally losing your mind, you can still pray for them. Sometimes that’s all you can do, but it’s probably the most powerful thing too.
The man I’ve been in love with for more than twenty years is also the one who’s hurt me the most, and who I’ve hurt the most. Our relationship is stronger now despite that. Or maybe even because of that.
If you can, and when you can, STICK IT OUT.