Hey, want to hear a happy story?
Three years and one week ago, I hopped on a plane to reconnect with an old friend after a period of prolonged silence between us. I’d never visited her before, and the first and last time she had come to visit me was a good three years beforehand, for about three days during the limbo between Christmas and New Years. I figured we were overdue for a meeting, so I booked quite possibly the most spontaneous flight I have ever booked and arrived in the Boston Logan aeroport (on one hour of sleep) looking to find my way across the state of Massachusetts to UMass Amherst.
We spent two days running amok on her campus, organizing a coffeehouse event for the theatre club, seeing a play, having inspiring and fulfilling conversations with friends, and making art together. At the end of the third day, a friend of Anna’s (who turns out to be a kindred spirit of my own as well) asked if we’d like to participate in her photography project. Between photos for the project, they also snapped a bunch of candids of the two of us interacting. At one point we were sitting on a couch in the lobby of the on-campus residence, warming up after a stint out in the chilly evening, and I closed my eyes, and for a moment there was silence between the three of us. Beyond my closed eyes, something was happening:
Anna Meehan was realizing she was in love.
About five days after this escapade, we confirmed our mutual interest in each other and began a relationship that is now celebrating its third anniversary. For 1095 days we’ve worked together to build a mutually beneficial relationship that prioritizes curiosity, compassion, playfulness, and self-development. And it’s been a successful endeavour: on the eve of our three-year anniversary, Anna showed up at my door (after a 9-hour drive up from the USA, no less) and proposed to me!
I couldn’t be more pleased with my match, or more excited to commit to a shared lifetime with another human. EEK. ❤
It hasn’t always been easy. Maintaining a strong and healthy relationship–over long distance, no less–isn’t exactly a walk in the park. As Massive Attack says, “Love is a verb, love is a doing word.” Love is not an achievement to be unlocked, and a relationship is not a trophy to be acquired and then promptly stuck on a shelf to gather dust. Relationships are constant works in progress. They’re projects, like anything else. And they can be scarier to navigate than anything else in the world.
So in celebration of three years of joyful and supportive partnership (and in honour of all those folks who have looked to us for relationship advice), Anna and I have penned 16 ways we engage with our relationship in order to maintain it/strengthen it/make it awesome.
Infusing Your Relationship With Awesome:
- Embrace conflict. This sounds like a terrifying piece of advice to most folks–we’re socialized to avoid conflict, to be polite, even to be deferential. We don’t like causing trouble; we don’t like making a fuss. But sometimes you need to make a little fuss to prevent a total hurricane later down the line. One of the best things Anna and I have done for ourselves and each other is attempt to accept conflict as a natural part of a) relating to other people and b) growing in our emotional maturity. Think about it: how can you achieve strong conflict resolution skills if you never test them out?
- Approach the relationship as an apprentice. You aren’t perfect, and you don’t know everything. Neither does your partner. So often in our culture, we’re punished for not already knowing something on arrival. We’re too used to trying to appear like we Know What We’re Doing. But let’s face it–most of us have no idea what we’re doing, especially when it comes to the infinitely complex universe of another person. If you can admit you’re still in a place of learnING, you’ll never get stuck in the trap of feeling like you already need to have learnED it all. This cuts way down on things like embarrassment, relationship anxiety, and stubbornness based out of fear of mistakes. Mistakes are only opportunities for learning/betterment from the perspective of an apprentice.
- Which is to say, get curious. About everything. Get curious about your partner’s home life, their childhood, the concepts and values they grew up with and how they have worked with/against those concepts and values through life. Get curious about your partner’s hopes and fears and politics and pet peeves and dealbreakers. And get curious about your own. That’s just as important. When you approach yourself and your partner as mysteries to dive into, it prevents a lot of needlessly dramatic feelings of frustration. It prevents you from feeling offended–because you’re too busy investigating to get your hackles up.
- In times when you feel you have nothing left to say, “I love you” never gets old. If ever you feel that you have nothing to contribute (say, in times of emotional crisis or hardship), know that the oldest and simplest of sentiments are often the most needed. “I’m here for you” and “it’s okay” can beat out even the most inspiring of speeches.
- Speaking of communication, commit to honesty. Right this instant. Not another lie between you. I’ve always maintained a strict Honesty Policy in my relationships, both romantic and platonic, and it’s kept my life almost entirely drama-free. Lying is exhausting; honesty keeps things simple. It also ensures that you and your partner are on the same page, which means you can address uncomfortable topics long before they get too sensitive to deal with in a civil manner.
- That said, match your honesty with your kindness. It isn’t mature to have meanness masquerading as candour, and if you want a healthy relationship, you cannot get away with saying nasty things and later claim you were “just being honest”. Take some time to find the best way to express yourself, a way that is as genuine as it is considerate. Intention is not always everything, and sometimes what you’re saying can be lost because of how bluntly or harshly you say it. If you need some time to figure out exactly how to say something, know it’s okay to ask for time! You don’t always need to resolve everything right then and there–in fact, sometimes it’s really useful to take a step back and reconvene when there’s a little distance.
- Collaborate on something. Passion isn’t enough to sustain a relationship past the initial period of limerence, or puppy love. I see so many relationships that die out once the passion cools, and if that’s all you’re after, then more power to you. But if you want a relationship that’s solid, a relationship that’s resilient to time, then you need something more, and I can’t think of something that bonds people more closely than creating something together. It could be art projects, joint business ventures, excellent house parties, whatever you want. Just make something.
- Get vulnerable. This is another one of those Incredibly Difficult Things. As a rule, people like to put their best selves forward, especially in front of the ones they’re attracted to/want to like them. We tend to hide anything we fear will be misunderstood or derided under the rug. We worry about insecurity, or about weakness, or about ridicule. But the only way to foster real intimacy is to allow your vulnerable bits to show, and to trust they will be cared for with all due tenderness and respect. When your partner shows you theirs, it is your duty to care for them with the same.
- Give your partner space to change/grow. This is crucial, especially for younger couples. Life changes us in all sorts of ways–that’s what life is supposed to do. We need to be given the freedom to try on different interests and passions and personality traits, to switch and swap and play with our lives until they approach something we’re content with. We tend to assume that the people we know will remain the same for as long as we know them (just one of the human brain’s many lazy shortcuts). You need to combat that–if nowhere else, then in yourself and your partner. Reconstruct your image of your partner regularly; update your assumptions of how they’ll react to situations. Let them evolve!
- Draw your social circles together. I’ve found something interesting about relationships: the more the social circles intertwine positively, the more stable and healthy the relationship is. Here’s the example: Anna and I love each other, obviously. But also, all of Anna’s friends like me, and I like all of Anna’s friends. All of my friends like Anna, and Anna likes all of my friends. And (here’s the really neat one), all of my friends like all of Anna’s friends. The circles keep getting bigger. And the more positive interaction there is between your separate social circles, the surer you can be that you’re actually good matches for each other.
- Define your relationship for yourselves instead of letting the culture define it for you. This one goes out to my fellow queer folk: there are so few healthy representations of relationships in media AT ALL, let alone of queer relationships. (Seriously. As of now most of us end up dead or otherwise miserable in the media.) Hegemony has no place in our relationship, and it shouldn’t have any place in yours. Popular culture has no right to dictate how you’re “supposed” to be in love. There are only two questions to ask: Are you enjoying yourselves? Are you becoming better people? If the answer to both is yes, proceed.
- Speaking of hegemony, eradicate power imbalances wherever you see them in your relationship. These could be imbalances related to economic class, sex and gender, race, religion, and so on, or they could be more individual power imbalances (as an example, during the beginning of our relationship, Anna suffered from some incredibly severe anxiety/depression, and I wound up in a half-partner half-therapist role; after recognizing this, we got to work recalibrating our relationship so that imbalance was set right!). Do the work to recognize where there is inequality within your relationship, and see what you can do to actively reconfigure it.
- Keep your friends close. In conjunction with # 10, and in keeping with its theme of Other People Being Important, you want to stay connected to your social circle no matter how tempting it is to be attached at the hip to your partner. People are not built to fulfill 100% of each other’s needs; spending all of your time with one person will shift that unfair burden onto them, and onto you as well. Neither of you want to be your partner’s sole support in life, so stay engaged with your social circles and–this is the important part–let them into your relationship. By this, I mean ask them for their opinions on things. Seek their guidance when relationship troubles arise. Double-check with them when you think something wasn’t okay but you aren’t sure. Your friends and family are an invaluable resource when it comes to some healthy outside perspective on the relationship, where it succeeds and where it needs improvement. Make good use of them!
- Check in regularly with your partner about the relationship. Don’t wait for hardship or conflict to re-evaluate your relationship dynamics–it works a lot better when you do it from a place of emotional stability and focus! Take some time every now and again (perhaps once a month) to review the relationship. What are your individual and shared needs? Are they still being met? How? Taking time together to ponder these questions will help you to grow your relationship without the unfortunate impetus of fighting.
- Be mindful of backgrounds, both individual and cultural. This works alongside #3 and #12. If there are things you both do differently, try to understand why those differences exist. Examples: I can get annoyed when Anna starts catastrophizing about finances, but I keep in mind that my childhood was a lot more financially stable than hers. Anna used to get offended when I would say ‘no thank you’ to material gifts she wanted to offer–this is because Anna demonstrates love/affection through material wealth, whereas I take more of a minimalist approach. And so on. Love will strengthen in understanding!
- Cultivate a sense of wonder. Wonder for your partner, for yourself, for your relationship. One of the most cited reasons for breakups is boredom–but you cannot get bored with something that awes you senseless. Don’t let anything become ordinary; take nothing for granted. Treat it all as miracle. Because it is. The mathematical chances of you or your partner existing are so slim as to be negligible, and the chances of you both meeting and forming a relationship are even moreso. Meditate on the impossibility that is the both of you, and you’ll come to feel more grateful in no time–and in the end, gratitude is the thing that will outlast everything else.
That’s all we’ve got for you today–we hope you find something useful in here! What other tips do you have for sustaining healthy relationships? Comment below and share the wealth!