What My High School Sweetheart Taught Me About Love

My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We are thankful every day for the fact that we got to be each other’s first everything. We love that we grew up together and share more than a decade of memories already. And we have said more than once that God put us in each other’s lives early for plenty of good reasons—not least that we would both be terrible at dating.

In fact, sometimes we were terrible at dating—while we were dating each other. We weren’t always smart or responsible. We didn’t always treat each other well. Things were harder than they should’ve been for a while. We were selfish, silly, and ignorant on more than one occasion. But even though some of those memories are painful now, I’m thankful for them, too. Because they taught me all of this.

No one, at any point in life, is perfect. People aren’t unicorns.

Thanks to years of hard work and happy love, my marriage is strong. The soundness of my relationship with my husband is a permanent, comforting fixture in my life. We rarely fight (although we certainly bicker). We understand each other. We know each other so well that there is simply no doubt. Already, we’ve had half our lives to fall in love over and over.

But neither of us is perfect, and we are still very different from one another.

When he eats, it sounds (to me) like a water buffalo chewing mud. When I insist we each get our own meals when we eat out instead of agreeing to share one (even though we’ll never finish both entrees), it makes no sense to him. I can’t stand how he wants to listen to talk radio all the time. He is somewhat disturbed by my affinity for psychologically dramatic TV, movies, and books.

His opinions on the environment sometimes ruffle my feathers. My methods for quiet advocacy of my faith and morals sometimes aggravate him. Our minds work in vastly different ways.

In many ways, we don’t—and never did—hit many of the checkboxes on one another’s “list of desirable qualities in a spouse.” Before we started dating, I pictured myself with an artsy/alternative guy who would never condone hunting and would buy me flowers every day. He probably pictured himself with an athletic academic who loved physics and would talk politics for fun.

But you know what? Lists change. My old list sucked. My new list starts with “His name is Erik” and ends with “He makes me love myself almost as much as he loves me.”

You absolutely must fight fair.

Our first few years together were not easy. We swung on a pendulum between blissfully spending all our time together and fighting like cats and dogs at the slightest missteps. As we learned to handle our own maturing minds, bodies, and personalities, we also had to handle each other’s—and to be forgiving and intentional throughout that period of growth. It was hard. We failed a lot.

Looking back, we know that we wouldn’t tolerate each other’s behavior from back then if we were faced with it right now. We needed to be together as teenagers because only teenagers are stubborn and strong-willed enough to cling to what we wanted as tightly as we did then.

What helped was establishing some ground rules for fighting. Here are a few:

  • Do not yell at each other.
  • Never curse at or insult each other.
  • Always say “I love you” when you say goodbye or goodnight, no matter how you’re feeling.
  • If one person needs time to cool off, they should ask for it respectfully and the other needs to respect it.
  • When you say you’re sorry, mean it—and do something to fix whatever you did wrong.
  • Do not bring up past mistakes or hold grudges.
  • Don’t generalize; it’s not fair or honest.

It’s a long list (and that’s not everything). We don’t always follow them perfectly, but once we started making a real effort, our arguments became fairer, more productive, and less frequent. It kept us together.

The person you love should push you forward (and help you get there).

“Good enough” shouldn’t exist in a healthy relationship. That’s how you get stagnant and stop growing. For me, the goal of marriage is to be comfortable, but never bored—to be at ease with your spouse, so much so that encouraging one another to keep improving and growing is a natural and positive process instead of a stressful one.

My husband pushed me to work harder in school, and my work ethic now is so much better for it. I pushed him to be more forgiving, and he’s a gentler man for that. We push each other to be better parents, better spouses, and better people. We have high standards for ourselves and each other. While we are compassionate in the face of failure, we always expect each other to keep moving. And we are always there to walk the path forward, together.

Two people in a serious relationship should never be hesitant to call out a mistake, voice a concern, or talk about the future. These can be some of the most fruitful conversations you’ll ever have with your significant other or spouse. They should not be shielded by fear or shame, and you should never feel like you need to walk on eggshells around the person you love.

Happiness is made when respect is shared and the self is given.

Bringing all of this together are two core concepts: respect and generosity. For a relationship to be long-lasting, healthy, and positive, both people must give one another an abundance of respect and an abundance of themselves. You need to take on an “us” mindset instead of an “I” mindset. This is important while dating, but it’s essential in marriage.

Because we were teenagers, it was very tricky for my husband and I to focus on giving respect instead of demanding it early in our relationship. We were easily hurt, but we hurt easily, too. When you lose track of how you’re treating someone because you’re waiting for them to make some change or move to “prove” that they deserve your respect, you lose yourself—and you lose them, too. Love needs respect.

In marriage, we are privileged to offer a full gift of self to our spouse. We set aside our selfish ways in favor of living as a couple, ‘til death do us part. Of course, we’re not stainless—I often fail to give my time as selflessly as I could, or to keep my patience, or to accept a change in plans because my husband’s needs have changed. But I try. And letting go of the self is a crucial first step toward a strong and cooperative marriage. Spouses are inspired by one another’s gifts and eager to return that love. It’s a happy cycle.

There are fine lines everywhere.

Finally, I think it’s important for everyone in a relationship to know that love is grey—it isn’t black or white. Each of us requires something special to feel fulfilled in a relationship. Each of us tolerates differences in our own way. And each of us deserves respect and generosity as a matter of course. So, as you’re dating and deciding on whether the person beside you is worth your whole life, it’s important to be honest and demanding about your needs, with yourself and your partner.

Ultimately, fidelity to your beloved, authenticity with yourself, and humility before God will all lead to a happy life and a happy relationship. It can be tricky to balance all three, but that’s okay. That’s the adventure. If we simply live it and are kind along the way (to ourselves and the people at our side), we’ll come out just fine.

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