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20 Years Together: What I've Learned About Relationships

Updated: May 7

Last week, my husband Blake and I celebrated 20 years together. We met in college, while we were working at The Daily Cardinal, one of UW-Madison's campus newspapers. I was a copyeditor. He wrote a comic. I instantly liked him. He famously took a little longer. But thankfully, he came around.

Twenty years is a long time. Our relationship is older than my Facebook account, my Gmail address-- we met even before I had a Razr (the kind before smartphones). It's incredible to think how much has changed in that time-- cities, careers, fashion and facial hair. We've lost friends and family members who were dear to us, and gained many new ones.

What we've learned in our relationship continues to be a big influence and inspiration to how I think about my work in partnerships. And vice versa. So now, with 20 years experience, here's a reflection of 20 things I've learned in that time that I hope might also help in how you think about relationships personally and professionally --

  1. Start with appreciation and gratitude. This tenet that I read many years ago in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People is for me one of the most important keys to success in any relationship. When things are going well, it's easy to take things for granted and to start creating expectations. Before long, these can become unmet expectations. Appreciation and gratitude are relationship fuel. Practice every day.

  2. Each of you has to take responsibility for yourself and your own happiness. Keep in mind it is always your choices and reactions that are creating the emotions you feel. While your partner can help, when you're feeling unhappy, it's your job to find out why and fix it.

  3. "You are not enough people!" I love this advice from Kurt Vonnegut -- a lot of conflict can come from the fairytale expectation that your one partner can meet all of your needs. It's impossible. And less fun. Blake loves playing chess, and after a few years of me being an unenthusiastic opponent, he started playing more online with friends who love the game. A great outcome for both of us!

  4. "Yes, and..." I took a few improv classes in my 20s and while I want to apologize to anyone who saw us perform -- they were a gift for my mindset. "Yes, and..." is the first rule you learn-- it means you agree with anything a scene partner says and you add to it. The reasoning is, if you don't accept it-- you're both stuck. The scene can't go forward. For me, this is a key for being able to listen without defensiveness. It allows you hear what someone else is feeling, accept it and then it also gives you the space to add to it. This amazing tactic allows you to listen, see and feel seen-- even if you disagree.

  5. Create rituals. Most every weekend, we go to a coffee shop in our neighborhood and then take our drinks with us on a long walk. Every year, we like to look through the Milwaukee Film Festival booklet and choose movies we want to see. Routines like this give you things to look forward to together in the short and long term.

  6. Give joyfully. Resentment can build in relationships when you are doing things not because you want to, but because you believe you need to do them to make your partner happy. When you give what you want, when you want, without expecting anything in return-- you'll both feel happier.

  7. Ask for help. When your partner is doing something that bothers you or hurts you, rather than tell them they need to change-- ask them to help you. (This is a brilliant one of Thich Nhat Hanh's Four Mantras for Turning Fear into Love.)

  8. Strive for appreciation, not understanding. Even with the best of intentions, when you're trying to understand why a person is the way they are-- they can feel judged. While we're similar in our core values, Blake and I are very different. Trying to understand each other can be exhausting; it's easier to just accept and celebrate our differences.

  9. Focus on the strength of every 'weakness'. As I've gotten older, I've started to believe every weakness is just an overpowered strength. Used in the right context, any 'weakness' can be a superpower.

  10. Set your partner up for success. If you can help it, spare your partner from situations where they won't feel their best. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when 'Safer at Home' was extended in Wisconsin-- I remember lying on the floor in frustration at the idea of spending another month homebound. Blake came over to me and whispered in my ear jokingly, "This is how I feel when you bring me to events." We cracked up and I promised that when things got back to normal I'd always check with him before automatically RSVP'ing him as my date.

  11. Create space. Our relationship has been through a few stints of long distance for his work and mine-- and while it's not always easy, we've always come out stronger. With distance, you get better perspective. You miss each other. You have more to talk about. On a mini-scale, I've also found that often when conflict arises-- space is usually a better salve than more closeness/talking through it. In order to burn, a fire needs oxygen and I believe this is also true in relationships.

  12. "Wait for each other as you grow." My aunt Ann shared this advice this summer at my cousin Emma's wedding and I love it! Time transforms you-- but not always at the same rate. During these times, be mindful you need to extend extra patience and grace.

  13. Acknowledge and recognize signs of stress. Remember that no one is their best self when they're stressed. When you recognize yourself in a stressed state, give a warning. As you know each other better, you can often recognize the signs in each other and check in.

  14. "The one with more sense has to use it." I absolutely love this wisdom from my friend Jessica's grandma. Especially in situations where you know your partner is stressed or struggling-- do you best to support them and give them the benefit of the doubt.

  15. Even if it's not a big deal to you, it might be a big deal to them. You can hurt your partner's feelings with something you might not have given a second thought to. When this happens, apologize -- don't tell them they're overreacting.

  16. Assume good intentions. Almost always, they are.

  17. Learn what you decide, what they decide and what you need to decide together. For some things, it was obvious how we each would specialize. But, we've learned a lot of this through trial and error too. Turn every misstep into an opportunity to learn and improve.

  18. Compare leads to despair. Every relationship is different and what you see from the outside is only part of the story. Fiona Apple's song "Ladies" articulates this perfectly. She sings, "Nobody can replace anybody else. So it would be a shame to make it a competition. And, no love is like any other love. So, it would be insane to make a comparison with you." Don't worry about what anyone else is doing. Put your focus on making your relationship the best it can be.

  19. Be playful. Have fun. Save seriousness for strangers. Adventures and laughter make the best memories. My parents have been amazing role models in this, and I feel lucky to be able to continue to be inspired by them.

  20. Recognize ordinary, extraordinary moments. I'll end with another Vonnegut quote-- one that we had as a reading our wedding. "And I urge you, to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or think or murmur at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'" When you practice paying attention to little moments of joy, you can appreciate how many there are.

Some photos of us over the years - from his Theta Tau fraternity banquet (2005ish), running the Marine Corps Marathon together-- at different paces (2010), our wedding (2012), celebrating Halloween, a favorite tradition (2016), a family wedding and vacation (2023).


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1 Comment

Congratulations on your 20 (first typed as 200 which - lolzzz) years together!!! And I’m grateful that Mimi’s wise words for salty squabbling children applies to grown up’s too! We all need to use the gift of sense when it graces us! Love y’all!

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