What I've Learned About Making A Relationship Work Over 20 Years

by Sara Lindberg
Originally Published: 
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Marc Dufresne / iStock

When I was much younger, I used to take photographs of everything. My closet has stacks of albums detailing the moments in my life that I was able to capture. My daughter loves to look through the old pictures. Turning the pages slowly, she imagines what the story behind each picture might be.

One afternoon, I found her tucked away in the closet studying the photos, smiling as she looked through the book of her dad and me. As soon as she noticed me, she looked up from the photo she was admiring. It was one of my husband and me when we were in college; that time in our lives that feels like a lifetime ago.

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She asked me how long I have been with her dad. I found myself lost in thought for a minute thinking about what she asked. The answer usually comes to me quickly, but on this particular day, I took a moment to reflect on my response.

I’m not sure where our years together lands on the spectrum of relationships, but when I consider that I have been with the same person for half of my life, it feels fairly significant.

“Sixteen years of marriage and four years of living together,” I told her. I have been with her dad for 20-plus years and we have never spent a day away from our relationship—never split up, never took a break, never left each other for a period of time to cool off somewhere else during an argument.

Despite the challenges that have been thrown at us, we have worked through it together. Have there been moments when we have thought about giving up because it seemed like the easier option? Of course. Times when we questioned our marriage, questioned the strength of our love? Absolutely. Nights when the thought of not waking up together the next morning was explored? Yes.

We talk about those times and listen to each other’s feelings. We respect each other’s space. I truly believe that our commitment to respecting each other’s feelings during those times is what has strengthened us. We are honest with each other; we both feel safe to express our needs and share our thoughts. There is courage and kindness.

Relationships are hard. Being present with someone during the moments when you don’t like them very much is even harder. This is where strength is drawn from. This is where love is tested and reaffirmed.

In the second half of my life, I have learned a lot about how to make a relationship work:

1. We don’t ever leave. We may take a time-out until we are ready to talk, but walking away has not been an option.

2. We live the 3 Cs daily: compromise, communicate, choose (your battles).

3. We are about as different as a couple can get. But rather than be irritated by our differences, we revel in them. In all of our years together, we have learned to embrace the differences between our personalities, and we now see them as one of our greatest strengths as a couple.

4. We argue, but we always figure it out—even if figuring it out means we agree to disagree.

5. We are passionate, supportive and accepting of what the other person is doing in their personal life. We each have things we want to do with our personal time. There is a lot that we enjoy doing together, but we both feel energized when we engage in activities alone.

6. I know I will always find comfort in his arms. In those moments when words are difficult to form, sometimes all we need is to loose ourselves in the comfort of each other’s body.

7. Divorce is not an option. Almost all problems are short-term. Divorce is a long-term answer.

8. We are in this for life. There has been a lot of growing up and maturing over the years, and we will continue to honor this about each other. If we are going to make our relationship last a lifetime, we have to be willing to accept and celebrate our individual growth.

9. We are best friends. Maybe this is the one simple reason we work. We can’t imagine our lives without each other’s friendship.

10. We can admit when we are wrong. It has taken many years, but we both know when we need to get out of our own way. Our lives changed drastically when we finally realized it is so much easier to admit fault and be OK with being wrong.

11. We learn from our disagreements. We have let go of holding grudges or visiting past disagreements to make a point.

12. We say “I love you” several times a day—even when we don’t like each other.

13. We form a united front when it comes to decisions about our children. If we are not on the same page, we discuss this before we interact with our kids. They see us as one parental unit, and we feel respected and supported by each other.

14. My body has changed many times over our 20 years together. No matter how I feel about my body, he always sees me as the most beautiful woman he knows.

15. We still hold hands. This simple gesture is one of the kindest things we continue to do.

What I ended up telling my daughter is that I have been with her dad for 20-plus years and I truly believe he is the person I am meant to be with. There is trust, commitment, friendship, honesty and love.

It is all of those things that make us who we are. That is a marriage.

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