The Key to a Healthy Relationship
What does it take to sustain a happy and successful relationship/marriage?
First off, I’m not an expert by any means. I make that distinction because it’s important to note right off the bat that I’ve consulted them many times. You know who they are: the legions of psychologists and psychiatrists, professional marriage counselors who have interesting and enlightening things to say on the topic of how to sustain a happy and successful relationship. My expertise, to the extent that I have any at all, is not theoretical or even philosophical, but comes on the road (more on this metaphor later) of an actual marriage.
In fact, the only reason to think that I might be even marginally qualified to comment on a subject so elusive and complex is the fact that a year ago, my own marriage hit the thirty-year mark. At that point, friends and fellow marrieds began looking at me as a person who had reached a special level of accomplishment, and was now in possession of a magical talisman, a mystical elixir, a secret road map (metaphor still coming) for achieving, against all odds, this incredible feat.
Unfortunately, I’m also not the holder of any of the above, though many times I wished that I were. In moments of crisis and doubt, I went searching in the same places that everyone else does, including the aforementioned professionals. But ultimately I found that the road (pesky metaphor again) always led right back to the same place, the person in the mirror. And by engaging in some honest introspection, I managed to discover a few things that were necessary for sustaining a relationship. For what it’s worth, they include (but are hardly limited to) patience, empathy, humor, adventure, romance, and of course, a little luck.
But in addition to the above, sitting above them, like a wise shaman sitting on a mountain top (with a view of the road below), is PERSPECTIVE.
Now for the metaphor.
My wife and I recently decided to take a long road trip across the country, a trip that we’d talked about for years but postponed for all the obvious reasons. I’d like to say that we conceived the idea when we first met, because that would make the story perfect (in the metaphorical sense), but that would be untrue. We did take a cross-country drive shortly after meeting, but that journey was largely practical. Driving from east coast to west, we had to arrive in a short time, belongings included. In other words, we were moving. There was little time for any of the things I mentioned earlier. In fact, I think it’s safe to say patience, empathy, humor, adventure, romance, and luck were in short supply, if not largely missing. Perspective? Well, at that point, with the relationship in its infancy, it barely existed. It wasn’t an awful trip by any means, but hardly the kind, particularly if multiplied in increments that added up to 30 years (somewhere around 2,190) that would sustain a casual friendship let alone a marriage. It seemed to me at the time that if the relationship lasted, it deserved a bigger and better road trip at some point in the future.
Thirty years later, the opportunity finally came, and we grabbed it. Ironically, this road trip would take us back east from whence we originally came, traveling up the west coast from Southern California to Portland Oregon, where we’d make a hard right turn and head across the country to the other Portland, in Maine. After a little horse trading (Columbia River Gorge for me, Fargo to visit a maiden aunt for my wife), we agreed on the itinerary. Thirteen destinations in 13 days. We made our final preparations and hit the road.
The trip started out with a bang, Carmel and Mendocino the first two nights, the honeymoon phase. The following day wasn’t too shabby either, with the spectacular Oregon coast out the window all the way. But one of the things you quickly realize when you’re making a road trip like this is that it doesn’t break into neat little increments. Like marriage itself, it resists your best attempt to plan it perfectly, lay it out neatly.
And after this near perfect day, we arrived in Coos Bay, in one of the few hotels that took dogs, overlooking a parking lot, with chain take-out food as the only option. The temperature dropped, and the fog crept in like a horror movie. It was a night so dreary that it cast a pall over the fantastic opening days. We were in the thick of the trip now, the rude awakening of the reality we’d undertaken upon us. The honeymoon phase, so to speak, was over. The following day, we tried to summon our original enthusiasm, but the drive through interior Oregon was dull and boring. Not only was the honeymoon over, but we had (much too) quickly arrived at the point where the highs and lows of the trip began to even out. And we still had, roughly speaking, 3,000 miles to go.
Anyway, I think you know where this is headed. Portland, Oregon was as good as predicted, but the rain and fog on the Columbia River Gorge (my big pick) killed the (supposedly) spectacular views. Idaho, flat out terrific; Montana, wonderful, then not so wonderful, then flat out terrible. Mount Rushmore, a highpoint; Rapid City, a low point. Amazingly enough, we realize we’re about halfway through the trip. With the longest day in front of us (the 10 hour jaunt to Fargo), most of the highlights behind us, we’re both thinking the same thing: is that all there is to the legendary road trip?
And that’s where PERSPECTIVE kicks in. Like marriage itself, the honest answer was yes, maybe, possibly, but probably not. This was the point when you realize (if you’ve learned anything at all during 30 years), that this road trip IS marriage: the good, the bad, the highlights and low points, the unexpected. And the most important thing to surviving and sustaining the journey is to embrace it all. This is the trip you agreed to take, wanted to take, chose to take. And if you let it, this is the trip that will offer you the greatest fulfillment. As long as you sit back, stay on the road, and stay open to the possibilities.
Which is exactly what we did. Fargo (which I secretly dreaded) turned out to be the most charming stop on the entire trip. Fergus Falls, Minnesota was almost as good. True, Minneapolis disappointed, but (perspective to the rescue) we missed the tornadoes that would land a day later. Madison, Wisconsin was a pleasant pit stop, and just when we’re thinking we have the whole marriage/road trip thing on cruise control, we hit Indiana and Ohio: stormy weather, two lane highway, trucks everywhere, minimal visibility. The dark night (literally) of the soul of the entire trip. I have to admit, the one-two punch of Indiana/Ohio tested the marriage. And just when we thought we had it down.
The following day began the last leg of the trip, with a long drive through New York State, and the one destination that was a complete flyer: A small, barely pronounceable town called Skaneateles (Skinny Atlas) the gateway to the Finger Lakes. We were there simply because of the math (it represented the halfway point of the last leg). To make matters more anxiety-producing, we’d run out of prep time when it came to reading up on the place. Simply put, our trip (and marriage) was finally in the hands of fate.
We pulled into the renovated motor court (a dubious proposition to begin with), on the final night of our journey. Exhausted, tired of packing and unpacking (not to mention driving) I girded for defeat. Moreover, we were lost, and our combination of trusty maps and GPS had finally failed us. I was ready for the trip to be over, and I was plum out of PERSPECTIVE.
Fortunately, my wife had a little that she’d put away for emergencies. Whatever this destination would bring, she counseled, it would neither make nor break the experience. If it turned out badly we still had a great trip, and would live to drive another day. We pulled over, figured out where we were, and expecting the worst, drove into town.
Lo and behold, we found ourselves in a place that I can only describe as timeless and magical, the road trip version of Brigadoon, one final lesson in perspective.
On any marital journey, it always helps to have perspective at your fingertips. It’s the thing that allows you to look out the windows, see where you’ve been, and where you’re headed. And most importantly, enjoy the scenery. Because that, after all, is the reason to be on the road to begin with.
– Bob De Laurentis is a screenwriter and television showrunner. He was most recently an Executive Producer of the ABC drama THE UNUSUALS.