“Relationships are hard work.”
“The first year of marriage is the hardest.”
“Marriage is HARD.”
“You have to work really hard for a good relationship.”
Will and I have had this conversation at every major junction in our relationship: “Do you think this part of our relationship is hard?” We have discussed it after moving in together. After getting engaged and planning a wedding. After buying our first house. After our first year of marriage where I spent the most of the year pregnant. After having our daughter and caring for an infant together. After being a family with a toddler. Each time we look at eachother and ask the question: “Do you feel like our relationship is work now?” And each time we will look at eachother and smile and one of us will say it: “Not at all.”
Because it is my anniversary tomorrow, I’m being unusually bold and am just going to come out and say it. My marriage isn’t hard. And it isn’t work. There are a lot of things about life that I think are hard, but my relationship isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the wisdom behind these common phrases. I know some relationships are HARD. I have been in relationships like that.
My views on relationships are ever-evolving. I used to think there were only a finite number of characteristics of “good” relationships. The older I get, the more I toss that idea completely out the window. I would explore each criteria of a “perfect” relationship and realize that it didn’t exist. Studies would show people who fight break up. People who don’t fight enough break up. People who live together before marriage break up. People who don’t live together before marriage break up. We all have known the “perfect” couple whose break-up blows us away. And we all have known that couple who are on the verge of breaking up at any moment but for some crazy reason stay together forever.
What I’m saying is, I think it’s a little bit of a crap shoot, the whole “finding your soul-mate” thing. I don’t profess to be an expert. But I have noticed some differences in my relationship compared with relationships where one person looks longingly at the horizon and sighs deeply, “why are relationships so HARD?”
And these are the top ten reasons I think that led me to this conclusion:
1. I am with someone whose life plan looks exactly like mine. I MASSIVELY undervalued this quality for most of my dating life. I assumed the future would get figured out along the way. No need to worry about things that were still years down the road. To be brutally honest, I just assumed I could get any boyfriend to do whatever I wanted. I assumed I could pick the city we lived in, when we got married, when we would have kids, and how many we would have. I felt that I could make someone want the same things as me.
Ok. If you are reading this right now, I want to share that this line of thinking is literally one of the biggest mistakes I have made in my entire life. Not only is it incredibly selfish, it is setting you up for some potentially HUGE resentment down the road, when someone inevitably “gives up” his or her dream life for you. You may secretly feel that the other person will eventually want to get married, or live in a certain place, or have children. You may feel that if they would just do it, they would see that they liked it. And I can’t lie, we have all heard stories where sometimes this is the case. But speaking as someone who has been there and done that, I can tell you that the feeling of being in a relationship where you are pushing your own agenda, hoping that your partner will eventually start to want the same things, versus the feeling of being in a relationship where you both already are on the exact same path of what you want, the feeling of being in these two different relationships is the difference between hard, frustrating, sometimes soul-crushing work and effortless, harmonious joy.
When Will and I started dating the second time around, I knew what he wanted. Because I asked and I listened. I knew he wanted to live in our hometown, to get married, and to have kids – identical to what I wanted. I didn’t ever have to coerce him, persuade him, force him, or trick him into wanting these things. I didn’t have to cross my fingers that “someday” he would “realize” he wanted the same things. Even if it wasn’t me he ended up with, I knew these were the things he would seek out. And they were the same things I would seek out. This has made planning our future, in this sense, effortless. We want the same things. We have the same vision.
2. I am with someone who has the same values as me. Note: I did not say I picked someone with the same personality as me (thank GOD). But I picked someone who prioritized the same values as me.
Probably the best example of this for me and Will is that family is ALWAYS going to come first. Always. Spending time with family will always be more important than making money and climbing the corporate ladder, more important than travel, more important than hanging out with friends, more important than having expensive things. If offered either a) more money or b) more free time with family, there is absolutely no question which either of us will pick. I will say it again: Family is always going to come first. This is the number one reason I chose to cut my hours in half and work from home as soon as Gia was born. Yeah, things would be A LOT easier financially if I had kept working full-time, but it wasn’t even a question in my mind as soon as she was born that I would do absolutely everything in my power to stay home with her. And luckily, Will supported that 100% and promised me he would do everything in HIS power to make sure that happened.
I give this specific example not because I think everyone should feel this way, but because it illustrates how important it is to have a match in values. There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone who puts a higher value on success or hard-work or money or helping others than they do on spending time with family. But there would be something wrong if I was married to them. That would be work. Hard work.
3. I am with someone who knows me inside out. I still believe quickie marriages can result in incredibly happy, long unions. But I used to be someone who WAY over-romanticized a lightning-fast engagement and marriage. I thought it was so romantic, it was so cool to be able to show the world how you loved that person so much that you simply COULDN’T WAIT one more SECOND before marrying them. That image has lost its luster for many reasons to me.
Will and I knew eachother for eleven years, and dated for three and a half (the second time around) before getting engaged. What happened in that amount of time? We moved in together, paid bills together, saw eachother crabby, ugly, mean, and tired. We learned what made the other person tick, how to react when the other was upset, and how the other person liked to celebrate holidays. In a nut shell, we each knew EXACTLY what we were getting into by the time we got engaged. The good, bad, and the ugly were all right there out in the open, take it or leave it. And he took it. And put a ring on it.
4. I am with someone I love EXACTLY AS HE IS. I love Will for exactly who he is. Period. Yes, there are things about him that drive me CRAZY (ex: his lack of being bothered by clutter or dishes in the sink). He accepts me and all my weird quirks. (ex. One time we had a very serious conversation about how I want only ONE SIDE of the sink to have dirty dishes so that when I clean them before putting them in the dishwasher I don’t have to put my hands in wet, dirty bowls and soggy, saucy utensils. Or how I hate seeing food wrappers in any garbage but the kitchen. So yeah, I am not the picture of easy-going and carefree … but he accepts these things about me. He doesn’t try to force me to realize how INSANE it is to have certain garbages for certain wrappers. He just accepts my crazy and loves me anyway.) Going in to a relationship hoping the other person will change? Yeah, that sounds like a lot of hard work.
5. I am with someone that I would be proud to have my children turn out like. It always blows my mind when someone says they don’t want their child to turn out like their spouse. What?? Why did you marry them, then? I just don’t get it. If my children turn out like Will, I will be damn proud of myself. I am proud to teach my children exactly the person that their daddy is. They can thank me later for giving them an incredible father. Raising your children with a constant example of who you don’t want them to be, living under the same roof? Man, that would be hard work.
6. I didn’t follow any “rules”. There are a million and twelve “rules” out there for relationships. I believe it is in your best interest to forget every single one of them that doesn’t ring true in your heart. When it comes to relationships, I believe in following your gut instinct intuition 100% of the time. I broke a TON of rules in dating/marrying/falling in love with Will. There was a point we tried reconciling after our first break-up, and everyone was telling me “DO IT!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?? GET BACK TOGETHER!!” But I couldn’t yet. He couldn’t yet. There was something in my gut stopping me. I have no doubt we did the right thing staying apart for several more years. There were things I learned in those years that I never could have learned if we had gotten back together at that point. Things that have made our current relationship stronger than it ever could have possibly been had I not listened to my gut.
When we finally did get back together, we received a little criticism and lots of warnings. It was “too soon” after my break-up. Parts of Team Ashley were worried he would break my heart after it had just been broken so recently. I was encouraged to just “be alone”. Parts of Team Will weren’t necessarily huge fans of me and some of my choices following our first break-up. But I knew. I knew, you guys. And so did he. We knew. So we did it anyway, trusted our intuition and said “who cares what anyone else thinks?” And I thank God every day that we did.
7. I took every other relationship as an opportunity to learn. This sounds so cheesy, but it is absolutely true. The last relationship I had before Will and I got back together was the single biggest learning experience of my entire life. I learned what was absolutely non-negotiable. I learned about who I was, what I wanted in love and in LIFE, and what I needed to work on.
Those hard times were, in a word, humbling. I thought I knew everything. I thought for sure my marriage would last forever. I followed all the “rules”, it fit my lightning fast romantic story to a T. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I was humiliated, ashamed, and completely broken-hearted. BUT. It forced me to take a long, hard, painful look at myself.
We all know those people who make the same mistake over and over and over in relationships. “Why do all my girlfriends cheat on me?” “Why do I keep finding abusive men?” “Why can’t I ever find a man who will commit?” It is really easy to see what someone else does wrong. Its not so easy to look at ourselves to see what we might be choosing or valuing or ignoring. Its not so easy, but I KNOW its worth it.
8. I am with someone who makes me better. Have you ever been in a relationship that made you crazy/jealous/mean/insecure? I know I have. And guess what – those were not the right relationships for me. Being with Will makes me feel confident, beautiful, proud, secure. There is a feeling you get when you are with someone who has completely accepted you as you are. That feeling makes you feel like maybe you could be even better. Maybe you could push yourself a little, stretch yourself, try to become the best possible version of yourself. Our friend Arik married us, and before our wedding we spent some time talking to him about our relationship. He had us write up a couple things about the other person. On our wedding day, he shared these during our ceremony. We had both said some version of this truth – the other makes us better. When you are loved as you are, and you are inspired to be even better – that kind of relationship is a keeper.
9. I have learned to be transparently honest – to know how to say what I mean and ask for what I need. When Will and I first started dating again, I remember getting in one big fight with him. He couldn’t understand why I was so upset about this particular scenario. And I decided to do something scary. I told him the 100% exact truth why I was upset. I didn’t hide the parts that made me look bad. I put it all out there. I was scared to do it, and I had no idea how he would react. I told him the exact thing that hurt me and exactly why I felt hurt, even though when I said it out loud it sounded pretty ridiculous. I will never forget what happened next. He paused for a few moments and then looked up at me thoughtfully and said, “I get it.” I looked in his eyes and I knew. He really, really got it. He could have said it was crazy or I was over-reacting, but he didn’t. He got it. And it never, ever happened again.
Similarly, I have learned to ask for what I need instead of expecting Will to be a mind-reader. I need lots of attention, lots of praise, and lots of positive reinforcement. When I feel like I’m not getting what I need, I just ask for it. You can often hear me say things like “Are you proud of me for _____?” or after I clean – “So the house looks really good?” or “So you liked that blog I wrote the other day?” Even if he has already told me, he will gladly repeat what I need to hear, with sincerity in his voice. And then I’m good. I’ve got what I need and I can move on. But if I sat there, waiting for him to give me the exact right number of compliments, I could be waiting forever, insecurity brewing and resentment stewing. And that would be hard.
10. That little pinch of fate. I am the first to admit two things. #1: I think there are many people you could be with and be happy for your entire life. And #2: I do believe, as cheesy as it sounds, in one, true soul-mate. And I know I found mine. And that makes life a lot easier.
Will and I had terrible timing for many years. As Robin Sherbatsky says, “If you have chemistry you only need one other thing – timing, but timing’s a bitch.” We waited years to get the timing right. Miles, and other relationships, and college, and mistakes, and growing up, and adventures all kept us apart for years. But for us, all those things couldn’t keep us apart forever. We kept finding eachother again until we finally got that damn timing right. Because what is meant to be always finds a way.
I told Will I was writing this blog and we talked about what I was going to say in it. Then later we were driving and I had a random memory from the summer we tried to get back together, but it just wasn’t right yet. We each told our version of the story, filling in details here and there. I looked out the window at this city we grew up in and fell in love in and started a family in, and I said: “Man, that was a crappy time, that summer.” Will responded, “I’m so glad that part is over.”
So I guess, sometimes the work you do before a relationship really begins is the hard work. Maybe you are lucky enough to get the work done before you meet the love of your life. Or maybe you have to do that work together.
And also, because now I’m in a “How I Met Your Mother” kind of mood, Ted Mosby says “I think for the most part, if you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, life gives it to you.”
Yes, my relationship isn’t work anymore. It is the thing I am the proudest of in my life, the best decision I have made, the source of my greatest joy. It is completely imperfect, as it is formed from two people who are only human. I am not so naïve to believe we don’t have any challenges ahead in our story. I am not so naïve to believe we will never think our relationship is “work”. But right now I am enjoying the easy years.
“And I’d chose you; in a hundred lifetimes, in a hundred worlds, in any version of reality, I’d find you and I’d choose you.” – The Chaos of Stars