Let's Talk About Forever
From where I stand, the pressure to perform is at an all-time high. As a woman in her mid-30s, I’m expected to be settled in my career and a leader in my field. I should be carving out time for friends and family on a regular basis. My home should be in order and ready for guests at a moment’s notice. I should be eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising regularly. And somewhere in there, I need to squeeze in the time to maintain a solid marriage that will last until one of us dies.
Oh, and don’t forget the night cream.
Though much of this pressure is self-inflicted, a fair amount of it does come from society’s instructions on how to be a functioning adult. Regardless of who’s to blame, the pressure remains.
Finding a balance between working to become a better version of myself every day while also exercising grace with my shortcomings, is a line I walk daily. Growth and evolution is an irreplaceable part of the human experience and one I’m not willing to forfeit. On the other hand, accepting that imperfection will always coexist alongside my own personal progress is a necessary piece to the very growth I so desperately want.
Part of the balance I’m working to maintain, of course, pertains to my relationship.
I used to subscribe to belief that only relationships that lasted until the death of one partner could be deemed successful. “Forever”, in my mind, was a key component in a prosperous partnership.
Then, my parents’ marriage fell apart.
Though the cracks had been showing for as long as I could remember, the relationship truly started to crumble when I was about 16 and was officially over shortly after I left for college at 18.
While I wasn’t at all surprised at their decision to separate, I was forced to challenge my own ideas on what defined a successful relationship. Some of my earliest memories involved witnessing the flaws in my parents’ marriage, however much of what I remembered was also evidence of their love for one another.
My mom and dad were always on the same team. Rarely were family decisions made without the two of them talking through things together and collectively settling on what they believed was best for all of us.
My parents were affectionate. I can vividly recall evenings when my dad would come home from work – sweaty and dirty from his blue-collar job as a forklift operator. His need for a shower and a change of clothes never seemed to bother my mom, as they would share a loving embrace upon his arrival.
I refuse to accept that my parents’ 20 year marriage, though extremely flawed, was unsuccessful. During their time as a couple, they raised three children, built a life and a home together, and supported each other during the good times and the bad. Were they meant to be forever? Probably not. But, it doesn’t make sense to erase or even diminish those 20 years because the marriage didn’t endure past their 40s.
Though my ideas on forever were initially challenged almost 20 years ago, applying this to my own marriage wasn’t as easy.
Char and I always say that, no matter how evolved you are or how progressive your ideas on love and relationships, when you get married – marriage happens to you. Something shifts. And all of the expectations surrounding being married you thought you’d evolved past, come back to haunt you. It happens when you’re not looking. As much as we both believed that the guarantee of forever was unrealistic and harmful, the pressure to last persisted.
I began to notice myself shying away from confronting Char about the less than perfect aspects of our relationship. I grew more apprehensive of having those difficult, but oh-so-necessary conversations addressing the cracks in our marriage. I was fearful that even the slightest acknowledgment that we had real problems would put us on the path to divorce. And how could I allow my marriage to end after declaring my love and commitment to my wife in front of all the people we love? The pressure was ever-present – whether we were willing to look at it or not.
Somewhere along the way we slowly began to accept that, despite our progressive views of marriage and long-term love, we had absorbed those outside pressures we’d worked so hard to avoid. At that point, it was as if someone turned on the lights in a room that we hadn't realized was dark.
We’re still discovering ways in which the pressure and expectations of forever damaged our relationship.
The truth that most of us would rather not discuss is that we have no way of knowing how long our relationships will last. We can do our very best to choose a partner that we believe has “forever” potential. We can observe their behavior over time and see who they are in various situations. We can take time to ensure they are worthy of our trust and love. But, even the most stable of partnerships can fall apart on any given day. That’s the ugly truth.
And my marriage is no exception.
What I’ve discovered since working to accept my relationship’s potential for impermanence is how to truly be here, to be present, in the moment, with my wife. I’m learning to shift my focus away from forever and toward the now. I’m saddened by all the moments I missed, allowing myself to be consumed by the pressure to last.
To be clear, when I married Char, I did so with the intention to remain by her side for the rest of my life. And that intention has not changed. My plan - our plan - is to remain a couple until the end. If I didn’t have confidence that our love was strong enough to do so, I never would’ve married her. I don’t take our commitment lightly.
The message here is not to reduce the value of keeping promises and following through with commitments. It’s that, for me, being realistic about the future seems to work best. When my wife and I acknowledge the fact that our marriage isn’t invincible, much of the outside pressure is relieved. I can’t predict the future and neither can she. So, we’ve elected to continue on the path to forever while allowing space to adapt and accommodate along the way.
The irony is that, in removing the requirement of forever, I think we've actually increased our chances of accomplishing it. Turning our attention away from staying together at all costs has allowed us to focus on strengthening the trust, love, and connection we've established and want to keep. I believe this may be the very thing that takes us to the finish line.
If a means to alleviate all the pressures of long-term love actually exists, I’ve yet to find it. But, if I can free myself and my marriage of even an ounce of the weight we’ve carried, that’s a win. Recognizing and owning our imperfections as individuals and as a couple is a part of how we’ve reinvented our marriage – creating a partnership that feels more like a choice than a mandate. I’m discovering that, in facing the fallibility of my relationship, I’m experiencing more freedom as a woman and as a wife than I thought possible.
Here's what y'all had to say on whether forever is a requirement in a successful relationship...
"I think it's all a matter of perspective. I believe that, if you learn and grow with someone, it's a successful relationship, even if it ends." - Char McGaughy, my lovely & talented wife
"I completely believe in forever. My grandparents had that. They were happily married for over 50 years and, even after my grandfather passed, my grandmother never stopped loving him. For 12 years, she lived on this earth without him. She never even went on a date because she said she was still married to my grandfather and would be forever."
"I want to say that forever means forever, but I don't know. I want to believe that it's just one person. How can you love someone else after you've had the love of your life? And, if you do find love again, does that negate your first love? It's a gray area."
"I think the perfect idea of forever is taught to us by society. Honestly, the idea of forever is daunting with too many 'what ifs' and unknown. Successful relationships are between partners that work together in a positive way. The relationship doesn't have to last forever to be successful. We all grow from our life experiences and relationships are a big part of that."
"The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'successful' as 'achieving an aim or purpose.' If that's so, then I guess relationship success depends on what you're aiming for. I can't help but think that, in a love relationship, forever is the aim. We all know that doesn't always happen. Does that make the relationship unsuccessful? I think so. Wonderful things can come from the relationship, though - things you would never ever undo - lessons learned, growth, and children you could never be without. And just because it didn't reach its aim doesn't mean the whole relationship was bad. You can still look back on it in truth and love, honoring the relationship for all that it was - good and bad."
"I think longevity is possible, but I've learned to grow and learn with my wife and push past hurdles. We aren't perfect; no one is. But, I take my vows very seriously and, of course, hope for 'forever.' But, in general, forever isn't promised."
"Forever is an idea because time is limited. It's best to make the best of the time given. Love has no expiration date."
"Since growth inevitably brings change, sometimes that can lead to the dissolution of relationships. They were still successful, though, since they gave us the tools to grow individually, even if that meant we couldn't grow together."
"I believe some people stay together out of habit. They're not successful in their relationship. They're just coexisting."
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