It’s been a busy month for most of us. And cold and snowy for many of us, at least in our area of Ontario.
I also know it’s a really hard month for people. Even for those who celebrate and love the holiday season, it’s hard. Keeping spirits up when there’s so much to do, when expectations are high (especially our own), through the emotional ups and downs of social occasions, anticipation and letdown, hopes and dreads.
I love this time of year, and I find it hard too. I love the music and the food and the family and friends. Gifts are fun too, especially when you get to give gifts to children.
But I still fight depressing thoughts. I worry that materialism and greed will take over my kids, despite our best efforts. I worry about the germs that spread scarily fast in winter. Especially when it’s really cold out, I worry about the people who don’t have someplace warm to be. I feel the emptiness when Christmas ends. And I struggle with the darkness. It makes me dwell on the things that are wrong in the world. It makes them seem overwhelming.
This has always been somewhat true for me. I remember the way it would feel on winter evenings when I was young… I would consciously turn on my warm yellow desk lamp and read an L.M. Montgomery book, to fend off the creeping knowledge that the world is dangerous and violent and dark and cold. I had to deliberately keep these thoughts at bay, even though I had very little actual experience with suffering. I can only imagine how hard it must be for people who don’t have loving families, who don’t feel safe, who spend their days hungry or in pain.
Right now, I’m hoping that you are okay, and have found some beauty in this month.
I hope you have spent time with people you love.
I hope you have also spent at least a little time just for you, doing what you love most.
I hope you felt awe in Nature, despite the darkness – a sunbeam when you really needed it, a bright star, a pink sunrise, the deep hush of a snowfall in progress.
I hope the shortening of nights has been a comfort, even though it’s hard to see.
I hope that if you were grieving, you did not feel alone.
I hope you deeply felt the support, purpose, creativity, and unity you needed.
I hope you’ve had a really good laugh.
I hope you saw – or were part of – generosity in action.
I hope your home was warm, and your candles burned bright.
I hope you’ve felt some true wonder lately.
And some joy.
Today is a beautiful snowy day. (And it’s packing snow, miracle of miracles!) Our tree is still up and smells sweet. Our kids are not completely healthy right now, but healthy enough to play. We have been blessed to visit with all family branches this month. There’s been singing, which is important to me. Also family games and jigsaw puzzles, which I love. Sean has actually had significant time off, which is a treat for all of us. I’m very grateful for all these things.
2016 has been a rough and upsetting year in many ways, but it’s almost done. We in this house are choosing to be optimistic about 2017.
“How’s your relationship these days?” is not a question most of us ever ask people. I’ve probably only ever asked it of newlyweds (where it’s more like “How’s married life?” nudge-nudge) or of very close friends with whom I have a precedent of relationship discussions.
It is a bit odd, though. Among parents, there are the constant “how are your kids” conversations, and it’s expected that you’ll dish on the hard parts as well as the fun parts. But for some reason, even though Sean and I are at the age where the majority of our friends are in committed relationships, we rarely discuss that very important aspect of daily life. Somehow, it feels rude or intrusive to ask, even though we certainly care about the answer.
One result of this is that when friends have major relationship troubles or break up, it’s often a complete shock – sometimes even to close friends. You think, But they always seemed fine!
Obviously, the reasons to break up are as diverse and numerous as the couples who do it. For the couples who stay together, there are myriad reasons for that, too. Presumably, though, most couples who’ve had a long-term relationship – whatever its future – had a period of awesomeness at some point. A chapter, of whatever length, where the connection was uplifting and the chemistry was wild and both parties thought, “This could be IT!”
Setting aside the Big Bad Wolves of Relationship Destruction (infidelity, abuse, addiction, etc.), how else do those paths diverge, such that some couples stay together and some split up?
I can only speak for myself in this, of course. I’m no expert. If someone asked me, “How can you be sure you’ll be together forever?” I’d say, “I’m not. It’s impossible to be a hundred percent sure. But I am supremely confident.”
How, you ask, can I be supremely confident without blind faith? What’s the secret? And could it be helpful to anyone else?
Well, shucks, that’s why I’m writing this. So that you can all SOAK UP MY GLORIOUS WISDOM. Alors, voilà: here is my carefully crafted counsel, based on my own untrained and entirely non-objective experience of thirteen years with the same person (9.5 of them married).
1. Let Your Inner Grub Out.
If you’re gonna be with someone for the long haul, they need to see the real you, and your real habits. Not dressed up, not scrubbed down. When Sean and I moved in together, cohabitation was our way to make sure that neither of us had habits that would be deal-breakers for the other. We are lucky to have very similar scores on the slob-to-neat-freak scale. If I forget to put the CDs back in their cases (yes, we’re sooo retro, we still have CDs), or if he forgets to put his nasal rinse packet in the garbage, we know we’re about even. We have also found we’re able to handle each other’s dirty laundry and live with each other’s stinkier sides, and we like each other even in comfy pants and scruffy hoodies.
2. Get Used To Non-Perfection.
Speaking of grubs, your personality-related grubbiness is gonna need airing out too. We all have our flaws. We all have at least one side that’s lazy or naggy or procrastinatey or judgey or grumpy or insensitive or whatever. (Fun game: guess which ones are mine!!) And if you join yourself with a person, you join yourself with their flaws. Those flaws are not going anywhere. And Sean and I are well aware of the less awesome parts of each other – and ourselves. Sometimes we drive each other a little bit bonkers with that. But even though we know we can’t change each other, we do support each other’s quests for self-improvement, which are constantly evolving.
3. Forget Sweet Talk. Try Straight Talk.
Speaking of imperfections, it’s good to know we can live with each other’s, but sometimes discussion is necessary. It’s amazing how easy it is to find yourself playing games, manipulating, expecting someone to read your mind if you’re feeling pouty. But that’s lame. If my husband is driving me bonkers in some way, and I never articulate it to him, then what chance is there to improve things? If he’s upset with me for something, I want him to tell me – even when it hurts to hear. (Contrary to some beliefs, it is NOT more respectful to say nothing in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings.) It usually hurts, although we also take pains to word things as plainly-but-tactfully as possible. Those moments are really hard, but bearable – and worth it – if they come from a place of caring. Leaving those unsaid things to fester, on the other hand, is a great way to drive spikes into the potential cracks in a relationship. (We consider that, true to our marriage vows, being irresponsible with spikes is not an option. We have invested; what we have is not disposable or replaceable; therefore, proper maintenance is necessary.)
4. Learn To Mess Up Properly.
Speaking of upsetting each other, Sean and I have learned, many times, that if you handle mistakes with honesty and sincerity, it works way better than denying or deflecting blame. THIS IS HARD, too. Admitting you’re wrong… I honestly think everyone struggles with it. True apology feels deeply vulnerable. But it’s also humbling, illuminating, disarming, and endearing. It allows a couple to be a team, with both members party to the resolution. And I’ve noticed that when a person can be candid about mistakes, those aforementioned flaws and foibles can sometimes even be… kinda cute.
5. Never Mind About That Honeymoon Phase.
Speaking of admitting things, let’s be frank: the exorbitant new-relationship ecstasy does not last forever. Sometimes Sean and I look back on how snuggly-wuggly and cutesie-wootsie we once were, and we think, Yeesh. Our friends must have been nauseated. That swooning stage is not sustainable, long-term. And to be even franker, in a long relationship, there are sometimes downright cool periods – times when you feel distant or annoyed or just not that attracted to each other, or even disconnected.
N.B.: DON’T PANIC. It doesn’t mean the spark is gone forever.
For me, those are usually the times when I’m feeling deflated about life in general. Fortunately, I’ve learned not to put stock in those times. I know that that’s just how I feel if I’m short on sleep, or not eating right, or stressed out about certain things. I wait it out. I know it will pass. It always does. If it needs a little nudge, some of that straight talk (see #3) comes in very handy. Invariably, the moment comes when I look at my husband and feel the affection/happiness/spark surge back in.
It’s also worth mentioning that, in my experience, the settled, solid, non-swooning phase is, in many ways, more sublime than its predecessor. And it still includes kisses that make me weak in the knees.
6. Go Ahead And Take Love For Granted.
Speaking of sometimes-latent affection, one of the perks of being in a committed relationship is getting to take love for granted – in a way. It’s not that I take love in general for granted; it took me ages (years, even) to tell my high school/university boyfriend that I loved him, because I wanted to be absolutely sure I knew what I meant, and meant it well. But once you’ve taken that leap and decided that yes, this is love!, it’s your right – and responsibility – to trust that it’s there… even at times (see #5) when you feel crotchety and not-so-loving. My Hubbibi and I always end phone and text conversations with “I love you.” Especially if we’ve been exasperated with each other, or having a difficult conversation, we both know that by saying “I love you,” we’re affirming that we don’t take challenging moments as bad signs, that we both trust in the proof of our history. Unless one of us were to go through a fundamental change, we know: I’m me, and you’re you, and we love each other.
Furthermore, I really believe that the out-loud declaration of “I love you” is, for lack of a better analogy, like a valve that opens to let the love flow. The absence of “I love you,” on the other hand, is not just a silent moment; it’s a gaping hole through which the love can gradually – and painfully – drain out. I know couples have very different outlooks on when to say it, how often to say it, not wanting it to “mean nothing” if said too often. I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t think saving I love yous for special occasions makes sense. Love, with your life partner, is a gift – but not the diamond-bracelet kind of gift. It must be a practical, everyday gift, like a high-quality glue that can get kinda grungy but does not let go. Even if you say it dozens of times a day, it still means everything.
7. Love Is Not All You Need.
Speaking of love, it’s not the last word. It’s also really important to like each other. If you don’t enjoy each other’s company, all the good chemistry in the world won’t make up for it. I always smile when I see that quote on someone’s wedding program, “This day I will marry my best friend,” etc., because I think that’s the dream. What more could you want? Permanent sleepovers with your best friend! Always coming home to your favourite person! Once you cohabit, and more so once you have kids, it won’t always be “quality” time. There will be many humdrum household activities to share. Once in a while you might think, “Remember when we used to do FUN stuff together??” And you will again. But in the meantime, even if you don’t spend lots of time together (couples on opposite shifts, or with very different hobbies, for example), just sharing those run-of-the-mill activities can be lovely with a cherished friend.
8. Smarten Up And Be Grateful.
There are lots of couples out there who make their marriages function even though they’re not particularly happy or compatible together. Sean and I are fortunate in lots of ways some couples aren’t: we have very well-matched senses of humour; we enjoy the same simple ways to spend time together; we like the same music; we have similar nerdy and/or intellectual tendencies; we have harmonious politics; we genuinely love each other’s families.
We do, however, have differences that can be difficult. We aren’t passionate about all the same things; we don’t have the same style of communication; we have different instincts on a lot of minor issues; but all those things are surmountable with some conscious effort. And with the time we’ve already spent together, we owe each other that conscious effort. Who are we to let small things mess up our relationship when other couples have such larger hurdles?
Ignoring my good fortune seems spoiled to me – like living in such abundance that you feel entitled to waste perfectly good food – and I HATE wasting food. I’ve made a habit of intentionally appreciating the good things, so that when things don’t seem super-rosy, I never forget that I’m still an extremely lucky gal.
One more thing… A Note About Mental Illness.
As many of you know, my beloved Hubbibi is subject to chemical depression sometimes. It took a long time for both of us to understand that while depression can be triggered or catalyzed by circumstances, at its foundation it has nothing to do with how many things are good in one’s life. I have had to pull myself back from feeling like my failings were directly contributing to his depression.
The thing is, before our marriage, we did almost break up – several times – and I mostly blame the depression. It’s an illness that steals your mojo, takes the glow out of even your favourite people and things, makes you feel like stuff isn’t worth doing, saps your motivation to do even the things you know are good for you.
So again, speaking just from my own perspective… If your relationship seems lacklustre despite solid history, consider that mental health (or lack of it) could be an issue. Because there are ways to deal with that. We would never have gotten through those almost-breakups, not to mention having children, not to mention losing one child, without confronting those issues head-on. Being open about this, and being a united team where mental health is concerned, has saved us multiple times.
So, to sum up:
If someone were to ask me, “How did you know that Sean was THE ONE?” I’d say, “I didn’t. But I knew he was a super-special-awesome one.”
If someone were to ask me, “How do you know Sean IS the one?” I’d say something annoying like, “He is… becausehe is.”
I don’t necessarily believe there’s only one human in the world I could possibly make a life with. But Sean is the person I’ve chosen, who has also chosen me, with whom to build something special and interesting and beautiful. He is the only person with whom I can have THIS life, and this life is the one I want.
P.S.: To read more about mental health struggles and successes, please click here.
This past Thursday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day.
Please, let’s talk.
Mental health, or lack thereof, is a subject very close to my heart. Several people who share my blood have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses. So has my husband.
In fact, my Hubbibi was suffering from depression when we first got together. It had dogged him for a long time, on-and-off. I remember him explaining it to me like this: “You know how when you’re a kid, you get that feeling of euphoric excitement when you think about Christmas? At my worst moments, I would think about my own mortality and feel like that.”
Those words chilled me completely – partly because that was the love of my life talking, and partly because I’d never heard it explained quite so accessibly.
Fortunately for me, and for all of us who love him, Sean didn’t become a permanent victim of his illness. When I asked him what held him back from that terminal edge, he admitted that he would think about his mom. He knew he couldn’t do that to her.
Although I like to think that I (or at least our blossoming relationship) was somewhat helpful in Sean’s turning a corner, it is actually his mom who deserves the real credit – for literally putting the phone in his hand to call the doctor. He got back on his feet, with the help of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.
Obviously, the thought of Mom is not enough for everyone who considers suicide. I lost a friend to mental illness a few years ago, and although I know he loved his mom, the problems he faced – enlarged by depression – appeared insurmountable. Unsurvivable.
I don’t actually know how fine that line is, between enduring and evanescing. Personally, I have never come close enough to it to tell, although I can imagine situations in which I might. And I realize the precariousness of our intricate bodily chemicals, over which we have so little control. As a parent, it scares me to think of how easy it can be for someone – especially a young someone – to fall into dark places.
For Sean, it is well worth the hard journey back up the ladder. Not that you’re necessarily “home free” if you climb it; Sean has recently gone back on medication after several years off. But he’s learned to recognize warning signs in himself, and we talk about it openly. We are both optimistic.
Just this past week, Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery – a wise woman who knows a LOT about dark places – posted an essay called 5 Things I Know About the Path. It’s really good. My favourite is #4:
“You always have enough strength and courage and wisdom. You always have exactly what you need for your daily trek. Sometimes you won’t believe this- because you will encounter stretches of the path that are treacherous and terrifying, but if you give up in the middle of those stretches – if you sit down permanently in them- then you have to live there. Don’t live in the dark, scary parts. Trust and keep moving. There will be a clearing soon and you will feel the warm sun again. The One who created your path is outside of time, so your life is an epic movie that has already been scripted. Maktub – it’s already been written. You’ve already made it. So don’t plan or worry – your job is to Trust Your Path and participate fully and notice as much as you possibly can and keep on moving.”
I have a request to make. Please, if you have ever known success against mental illness, either in yourself or in someone you love, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a comment to share your insight. What helped in turning the corner or climbing the ladder? What made the most difference?
Thank you. You never know when your hard-earned lesson might be someone else’s first rung.
P.S. Sean, thank you for your openness and courage. I love you jillions, honey.