I met my husband, John on December 19th, 1995 at The Mint Bar & Cafe in Belgade, Montana. The event was a VIP party celebrating those who had built the new restaurant and it doubled as a soft opening for the staff. He was VIP and I was staff. As the story goes he didn’t want to attend, but forced himself to go for the networking opportunities. I was showing up for my first day working at my notoriously bombastic Uncle Jay’s restaurant and I was prepared to be spared any preferential treatment. I was nervous as hell. We could both read that intense energy and we made a distinct impression on one another. I remember he looked quite distinguished in his suit, complete with fedora, and was that a cape around his shoulders?! No, just his wool coat draped around him. He remembers my white headband and said I looked like a samurai (I did not!). Fittingly, I served him a sidecar.
What started that evening was a friendship that would blossom into heady romantic love over the next five months. John was going through a divorce and I was in a serious relationship at the time so we were free of the usual preconceived notions between a man and a women getting to know each other. Inside of that freedom we were vulnerable enough to skip past pretense and just be ourselves. I didn’t care about seeming cool or sexy and I was so relieved to meet someone who appreciated my mind and my sense of humor above all else. Our friendship laid the foundation for our eventual relationship and by the time we realized we were much more than just friends we were falling fast and hard in love.
From the outside our relationship looked quite unconventional. There is a 12 year age difference between us and John had two small children from his first marriage. I was relatively young, though not inexperienced, and the saying ‘when you know you know’ had never made any sense to me until I fell in love with John. It was pure kismet. What chance did we stand against it? We endured plenty of withering glares from a slew of judgmental folks in our small mountain town, but we’d just laugh it off. We noticed a strange trend among many of the people who had been so quick to judge us, they all seemed to wind up divorced themselves, eventually. Our love was holding up a mirror to something they knew was lacking in their own lives, as well as showing them the inevitable hurdle of divorce or reconciliation they would have to surmount to have a chance at what we had.
A soulmate is often said to be someone that a person feels they can be 100% authentic around and because our romance was born out of our friendship I have always believed that gives us a certain strength. Falling in love is largely a chemical reaction, a luscious, glorious, blissful reaction that can last anywhere from 16 to 18 months. Staying in love, however is a conscious choice because once the love drugs have worn off what is revealed is a true prognosis of the relationship. Without a deep and abiding friendship many people think they have fallen out of love and abandon the relationship at this point. Throughout the 20 years we have been a couple we have fallen in and out of romantic love many times, but the fact that John is my best friend has kept us bound together while riding the inevitably choppy seas of relationship.
50% of first marriages end in divorce and the statistics just get worse for second (64%) and third (73%) marriages. Understandably, John didn’t want to get married again after a traumatic divorce. Having invested two years of my life into this man and his children I didn’t want to go on in the relationship without the dignity of being recognized as the family we now were. Once he understood my perspective he agreed with me and after a beautiful dinner at John Bozeman’s Bistro feasting on medallions of bison and sipping Australian shiraz he proposed (with only the slightest cajoling from me).
We were married on the Summer Solstice in 1998 surrounded by our dearest friends and family. Our thinly veiled pagan ceremony was flawlessly conducted by a former Catholic priest in the backyard of a beautiful bed & breakfast located in my hometown. E. E. Cummings’ "i thank You God for most this amazing day" was our scripture, the community gathered together offered marital advice for our homily and a glorious Irish toast given by my father served as communion. A couple of things really stand out in my memory, one of which was my now departed aunt Susan’s advice to us that, “You will have good decades and you will have bad decades, but you will endure and even thrive.” The other bit was from my oldest stepchild who very succinctly and bluntly told us, “Try not to divorce!”
I trundled off into married life blissfully unaware about what I had signed up for as a stepmother. Suffice it to say that although John and the children and I were quite happy we encountered our share of difficulties once our family was official and legal. Under normal circumstances marriage is a challenging union, but what I faced in those early years would’ve sent more timid souls running. We had vowed to love one another unconditionally and now we were learning exactly how to do that. As the song goes, Love is a verb, love is a doing word. Soulmates come together to heal childhood wounds and a perfect love will show you perfectly what is begging for healing in your own life. A sense of humor is vital to surviving what could be considered nature's cruel joke, after all wasn’t it nature’s trick that got you into this whole thing to begin with? I certainly don’t espouse such a fatalistic viewpoint, but as Jeff Brown tells us there is a reason it’s called a relationship and not a loveship- love, alone is not enough to make a marriage last.
Along the way we have learned some invaluable things. There are so many resources available to couples who are invested in preserving their love and building a stronger relationship. Education is vital, communication is key and the openness to be vulnerable is non-negotiable. One of my favorite tools is the Imago Dialogue for effective communication. My birth order as the youngest in my family of origin makes it essential that I feel seen and heard. This issue was a big trigger for me in our relationship and using this dialogue technique has been crucial to navigating tricky conversations and arguments. Another important set of knowledge is being aware of what Dr. Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse divorce predictors: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling, as well as their antidotes: I statements, Respect, Accepting Responsibility and taking appropriate ‘time outs’ when necessary. Again, I cannot stress the importance of humor in any relationship, but particularly in a marriage. A well timed joke has diffused many a full blown row in my house more than once in twenty years.
John and I have asked a lot out of our relationship. We’re more than just husband and wife, parents, lovers and best friends, we’re also business partners. We’ve tested almost every angle of how two people can be joined together. My aunt was correct, we have had bad decades and good ones. Truthfully, without the foundation of our friendship and our commitment to either grow together or grow apart we could not have made it this far. It has required us to stretch ourselves, educate ourselves, and challenge ourselves in some very unromantic ways. Getting up close and personal with our shadow selves is scary and not sexy, at all, but the bravery and willingness required to do it is actually pretty hot. When I see how he pushes past his limits to keep our relationship alive and growing I fall in love again and again with him.
It isn’t all striving uphill to overcome difficulty in relating. There are other fabulous tools which can help us to focus positively in our love connections. Learning your own and your partners love languages is a super effective way to make sure you are getting your messages of love across. I highly recommend reading Gary Chapman’s book entitled The 5 love languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Short of that you can take a quiz to identify what your love language is and go from there. Building joy into our own lives is essential to keeping love alive in our relationships. There are so many things individuals can do to build up their oxytocin levels and bring the feelings of young love back into their relationship. Taking the time to care for yourself and pursue activities you love is far from selfish, it keeps you, and your love alive. Just as Danielle LaPorte tells me everyday in my day planner, we must prioritize pleasure!
There are phases to love and remembering that helps to keep a clear perspective. I feel blessed to have had such a hot and heavy romance in the beginning of this beautiful life we’ve built together. Without a doubt, we still experience those intense feelings again from time to time, but our enduring love is now sustained by trust, loyalty and commitment. When I look into John’s big brown eyes I feel a deep and abiding affection for him that will never falter. Our bond has grown more nuanced through hard won victories of remaining connected and committed to growing both as individuals and as a couple. Like most couples we’ve had a lot thrown at us, but we endure with grace because even when I don’t like him, I always love him, after all he is my best friend. The contrast has allowed us to develop a deeper, fuller version of love than either of us thought possible. We choose one another again every day and in that spirit of generosity we keep our hearts open and growing.