My relationship is so old it could have left home… | Life and style
On Saturday my boyfriend and I woke up and realised it was our 20th anniversary. Which was mathematically curious, considering that surely makes our relationship older than us, two people who battle daily with the many bruising realities of adulthood and remain bewildered by such things as decisions about taps, and how we got here. The truth of how we got here, to an anniversary so significant it has its own plate (traditional gift: china), seems to be – every month we silently agree, first, not to break up and, then, to keep going.
The popular stories we were brought up on insist that all of life happens before a person settles down – marriage, it goes, is the end. What happens next? Nobody really knows – all relationships are secret, turned inwards. All we really know about other people’s is that either they survive, inching along stickily, picking up children and grief and a passion for gardening along the way, or they don’t, exploding in glittering failure. There is no third way. But, from the inside, a thousand seasons can pass in a single morning, a combination of survivals and failures, and hate and tenderness. Love letters are disguised as text messages about lunch. Arguments about the Tesco delivery are not about the Tesco delivery, we learn, except when they are.
New realisations about each other arrive not just over candlelight or hospital beds, but at the very end of a toothpaste tube or with all eyes fixed on the telly. A relationship grows between you, grows its own arms, legs, memories. Our relationship is old enough to have left home and had kids of its own, it’s old enough to drive a forklift truck.
I find it hard to imagine the idea of getting together with someone now, as an adult, rather than as the nebulous tight-jeaned glow I was when my boyfriend and I met. We grew each other up. And around, and intertwined, like that bicycle which leaned against a tree so long the tree grew over it. And apart sometimes, a long dance performed with four left feet. Just now we bumped into each other in the kitchen, and I told him I was writing about us. Not just the love and glory, because of course the love and glory, but the more complicated feelings that come with a big anniversary. He handed me some tea.
For the past few evenings we’ve been watching an episode of Fleishman is in Trouble (about ageing and divorce) followed by an episode of Couples Therapy (about how to carry on), and the combination has tenderised us, like schnitzels. It turns out it’s led him to think about relationships, too, about how in moments of tension, you must keep a rolling conversation going with yourself, asking, “Is this a deal-breaker? OK, is this?” balancing them every time with memories of the other person’s small kindnesses or jokes. And we talked about how he’s been wondering, how long does it take to really know someone? And: “Is the pursuit of this knowledge the point of a marriage?” And then: “Can we ever really know each other? When the only you we’ll know is the you in a couple, the you with me beside it?” We wondered a bit more over lunch, quite gently, then went back to our various works.
Mostly, I don’t think about being in a long relationship, I just accept its privileges – dinner cooked, responsibilities shared, mortgage granted, a heavy arm over my body at night. But when I do, I am often bewildered again. How could we have known what we were getting into when we kissed that time outside the party? When did I realise that in order to be together I would also need plenty of time alone? Why did it take me so long to learn how to say sorry? It’s tempting to imagine all the other worlds where: I waited too long to text, or he bumped into an ex, or we drifted apart two months in, or I moved away, or we decided not to make-up after a fight, and no babies would have been born, and no washing machine would be beeping now downstairs.
But when I relax and accept the choices we made without realising we were making choices at all, I realise any questioning I do is not about him, but about the relationship itself, this invisible being that lives in our house and massages our necks and eats our time. Instead of getting married, I am coming to see the benefits of treating this relationship like a rolling contract, to be renewed yearly after a dull and loving meeting about care, babies, washing, desire. To keep choosing each other, not just in spite of all the existential irritations or what ifs, but because of them. The ways they test us, and teach us how to live among others, and remind us of our differences, and love despite it all. And remind you that, even though there’s a bicycle wedged in your trunk, its wheels sometimes spinning, you don’t ever stop being a tree.
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