A Practical Peacemaker Ponders . . .

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“All You Need Is Love”—Not!

2/5/2009

Kate Lawrence and Keith Akers, both Lantern authors, are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary during the coming Valentine’s week.  Here are some of their thoughts on long term love, first Kate’s, then Keith’s.

Then

Now

Kate writes: 

We’ve long been Beatles fans, but this song of theirs is hopelessly naive.  At the beginning, yes, love is all you need, if love is defined as the attraction to, affinity with, and affection for, a partner.  There’s enough juice in the discovery, passion, and getting to know each other to last for awhile, but—I doubt this is news—it ain’t gonna cut it for the long haul.  Eventually, the partner’s little annoying habits begin to bleed through the bliss.  You discover that, for all that you have in common, you are also different, and some values may actually be in conflict with each other.  You also have to deal with problematic people outside the relationship.  Gradually you realize you’re going to need some solid relationship skills to provide a foundation for long term love.  But before I get to that, let me tell all you romantics out there how our love began.

Once upon a time, long before there were cell phones, Keith’s first book, A Vegetarian Sourcebook, found its way into my hands.  Both of us were vegans. He was living in Washington, D.C., and I in Denver.  I found his book so clearly written and helpful that I wrote a fan letter to him in care of his publisher.  (In those ancient pre-email days, this meant sending an actual typewritten letter by snail mail.)  We began a correspondence and, after a few months, I was able to arrange a short layover at Dulles airport en route home from a business conference.  Keith came out to the airport with a picnic lunch.  We liked each other.  Seven months later, he had moved to Denver, having been offered a computer consultant position there.

We chose to marry on Valentine’s weekend because, shameless publicity hounds that we were, it was the best time of the year to get some free ink for the veg cause.  Newspapers want some kind of unusual love story for Valentine’s Day, and a vegan wedding reception certainly qualified.  I contacted a veg-sympathetic reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, who interviewed us for an article (“Romance Is Rooted in Vegetarianism”) and sent a photographer to our reception. Besides the obligatory photo of the wedding couple, the article included a shot of the lion and lamb, made of frosting, that graced the top of our wedding cake.  Our honeymoon in Santa Fe was followed by real life.

Qualities we have found essential as the years roll by are humor, patience, kindness, careful listening, willingness to compromise, and surrendering the need to be right.  If anger arises, it must be transformed rather than vented.  (See The Practical Peacemaker for more about handling anger constructively.)  Unconditional love would be nice, too, but if you’ve met anyone on this planet who’s mastered that, please let us know.  One partner’s willingness to take on chores that would normally fall to the other is a lovely way to strengthen the relationship.  For example, Keith goes outside on cold mornings before I leave for work in order to scrape ice off the car windows so I won’t have to (our house doesn’t have a garage). 

Once, in a discussion on relationships held at my spiritual community, a long-time member commented, “Sometimes people think that couples who stay together are more similar to each other, or somehow luckier, than couples who split up.  That they’ve discovered some secret.  But having been married for 35 years, I’ve found the only difference is that couples who stay together have committed to each other to work things out, and those who split up haven’t.”

May you find love, and the courage and commitment to keep it.

Keith writes:

I wonder how many people are curious as to what it’s like to be married for 20 years? Of course many have been married a lot longer than that, so I’m not sure why anyone would ask me. But just in case they did, this is what I’d say.

First, you can have "love" without having romantic love. You can have a similar all-consuming and fulfilling (or not) relationship with a social cause, with God, with the dharma, with helpless refugees, homeless orphans, or hapless animals. So I don’t want people who have been left out, or who have chosen non-involvement, or have had non-involvement thrust upon them, to think that they’ve been bypassed by life.

When I started out dating my future wife, I was curious as to what things would be like down the road, since we soon agreed to stay together for, well, a long time. Of course there was no one around to tell me what to expect, and if there had been, I probably would not have listened to them anyway.

But this is what I would say. First of all, love is nice. This part probably needs no explanation. Everyone can see that it’s nice, that’s why everyone wants it. But this brings me immediately to the second point, that love is precious. I see a lot of divorces and couples splitting up, I see a lot of hurt feelings, I see a lot of really personable single people who are, well, single. I sometimes ask myself: why is this person single? Do they not want to hook up with someone else? Typically that’s transparently false, and yet there they are.

In my younger days I would smile at the character of the "matchmaker," sometimes portrayed in movies or books as an older person, somewhat out of it, who had made it their mission in life to meddle in other people’s affairs — uh, I mean, to find everyone a suitable partner. The generational misunderstandings, the attempts of an older generation to figure out the minds of those in the younger, often made this character a humorous one.

But from the perspective of age, and seeing how so difficult it is to find a suitable romantic partner, somehow this character seems considerably more sympathetic. Sometimes there are relationships which are better not continued, but if you do have a relationship, consider that having a relationship is worth fighting for and worth adjusting for. And finding someone who is like you, and also thinks that having a relationship is worth fighting for and adjusting for, you have something doubly precious.

Which brings me to my third point (I try to always make three points): in case you’re thinking that you’ll be bored being stuck with the same woman for the rest of your life, you can relax. Trust me. This won’t happen.

Finding yourself in a relationship with someone new will be a bit different from when you first met. When you met, you didn’t know her at all, she was completely new, and yet . . . you had so much in common! You shared a common chemistry! You liked the same music! You shared the same values!

Later, you’ll find that there’s someone else living in your house. Someone who certainly resembles that woman you met 20 years ago, but who is somehow, well, just different. Typically you start to notice this after about 7 years of marriage, they tell us, so by the time you get up to 20 you may have been through this several times.

This will give you a chance find out that this other woman who has somehow wandered into your life also shares a lot of things with you and seems to know rather more about you than most women, and often displays an interest in hanging out with you much of the time. So if you ever wanted to go out with a different woman but were restrained because of your marriage vows, well, here’s your chance to do it without even leaving bed. It’s something that sneaks up on you, but once you realize that it’s going to happen anyway, you look for it and anticipate it.

And you realize that it’s all right to be different, not only from each other, but from what you were to begin with. It’s all right if you like more salt or pepper than she does. I mean, would this have stopped you from dating her at the beginning, if someone had said to you, "you know, 20 years from now, you’re going to find that you don’t always agree on spices." Couples at the beginning often make tremendous changes to get together; one may move or even abandon a career. If you can handle that, you can handle salt and pepper. So get a salt and pepper shaker, for crying out loud.

Get ready for change. Don’t think of marriage as a "destination" so that after a while you’ll arrive at your "goal." As others have said, "there’s no ‘there’ there." Think of it as, you’ll always love her, but you’ll have to be constantly courting a slightly different woman in order to be continually arriving at a place just slightly different from the one you left behind.