Over the years, a fair number of people have approached my wife and me for relationship advice. I guess we look like we have our shit together.
When people ask us for the secret to our marriage, Jan often quotes an old NPR story about a couple that had been married for something like 70 years. “What’s our secret? Frequent separations and gradual loss of hearing.”
It gets a laugh, which is what we’re going for. But it’s not true. We live in each other’s pockets. For the first five years Jan and I were together, we didn’t spend a single night apart. If I’m out and hear a story on the radio, I like to call her to discuss it. She tolerates it, though she’s more phone-averse than I am (she prefers to text, and will text me throughout the day).
She’s the person I want to talk to about everything. If I have a story idea, or hear something infuriating in the news, or a sad fact from a friend, she’s the person I want to talk to about it. She fascinates me, and she seems to feel the same about me.
But that’s not the secret.
The secret isn’t any long, rambling rabbit-hole of explanation — though she and I will certainly fill the space we’re given. We like to talk. And, naturally, that’s part of our relationship — we talk to each other. We talk when we’re mad, we talk when we’re sad, we keep the other person in the loop. No surprises.
That’s not the secret, either.
We share interests. We share opinions. We share most political and religious views. We share plans for raising our kids. We share most entertainment, though I cringe at a few of her TV shows, and she’s bored by a couple of mine.
But none of those are the secret.
The secret is simple. When people ask us for relationship advice, we ask two questions. Not “Do you love her?” or “Can you imagine living without him?” No, we have a set-up question, and then the real one.
The set-up question is, “Do you like them?”
It’s a simple question, but telling. Love is a flickering flame, it’ll burn larger with more oxygen, but sometimes it burns small. Liking is much more reliable, and a better gauge of long-term durability. You can love someone and not like or respect them very much. I’ve been on both sides of that. So has she. It sucks to be in a relationship and realize you don’t like the other person very much.
But that’s not the worst thing. Nor is it the secret.
Assuming the answer to the liking question is “Yes”, we go for the real question. The only relationship question that truly matters:
“Do you like yourself when you’re with them?”
That’s the key, right there. Because if you’re with someone who you love with all your heart, but makes you hate yourself, feel “less than” or “not worthy” or any of a thousand other dreadful feelings, GET. OUT. If you’re with someone around whom you become a jealous, angry, insufferable git, GET. OUT. If you’re with someone who makes you question all the things that define you, that make you happy, GET. The Fuck. OUT.
You have to live with you. If you get together with someone around whom you become a person you wouldn’t want to know, much less be, then you’re dooming yourself to a lifetime of misery. It may not be a reflection on them. It’s a reflection of how you are together.
Aware of this, both Jan and I try to keep the other person’s self-image in mind. She works very hard to keep my bad-boy mythology alive, telling stories of my “wild” youth. And she gives me the space to write, and chase the stories I want to tell (though she will mock me mercilessly when I go too far astray). Meanwhile I try my best to bolster her ingrained ability to create theatre with the most clear-headed, practical eye I’ve ever encountered. Like I said, she fascinates me, and I let her know it.
We see who the other wants to be, and we reinforce it. Because it is so very important that the other person like themselves in the relationship.
Sure, we argue. I don’t do the dishes often enough. She doesn’t put the cap snugly back on the toothpaste. But our only bitter fights are about art, when the other cannot see our point of view. That’s when real hurt can set in, that’s when words can wound. Because it damages our sense of ourselves. Of who we are with the other person.
With us, it’s art. With other couples, it’s whatever they value, either as a couple or as individuals. If your beloved doesn’t respect what you do, that’s going to damage your sense of self. It’s going to make you resentful. It’s going to make you not like yourself when you’re with them.
A relationship is about sharing your life with someone else. You may not live in the other person’s pocket. You may not see each other all day, or feel the need to talk about current events. You may not share interests, or opinions, or even homes. Every relationship is different, and you certainly don’t need to emulate ours.
But you have to like who you are when you’re with them. They have to bring out the qualities in you that make you proud to be alive, and with them.
That’s the true secret to a lasting relationship.