February is a double festival of love for me because my wedding anniversary falls just before Valentine’s Day. Most years we share nothing more than a slightly shifty “I haven’t got you anything,” but maybe this time we’ll push the boat out because we’ve been married for 10 years and have known each other for 30.
I’ve been thinking about this, not just because those are big numbers, but because we’re in the US and my husband is working, meaning I’m alone in a quiet suburb, walking empty, alien streets and wondering what I’m doing here. That’s pretty much how we met: I was alone in another silent, strange suburb on my pre-university year out, wondering what I was doing there. He offered to take me out to “practise his English”, took me round a hardware store, then bought me an awful burrito (it was Normandy in 1994; you can imagine). The rest is (our) history.
My son is here in the US for a year, too, with his first serious girlfriend, and it all gives me the dizzying sense that the decades are collapsing in: I’m 19 again with no plan for my life and no suspicion that it’s actually taking shape in a crappy rental with Kiss wallpaper, and with this guy, who seems fun, has a motorbike and has miraculously managed to fix my TV.
It’s interesting knowing someone – and being known – for this long. My husband has seen me at my worst – blind drunk, going bald, losing my mind and leaking bodily fluids (not all at once). He tolerates my least attractive qualities – cold, uncommunicative, recycling-obsessed – daily. I’ve watched him fill our home with technology I can’t operate and listened to thousands of his shouted work calls on speakerphone. We sometimes operate like a single organism: several times a week one of us says out loud exactly what the other was thinking; I sense tiny shifts in his mood in the way animals sense changes in barometric pressure. At other times we feel incomprehensible to each other.
As an example, last month he said casually: “I don’t see how we could possibly be happier,” to which I shrieked, only partly joking: “Why would you say that? Can’t you see it’s the foreshadowing opening sentence of a trauma memoir?”
People ask couples in long-lasting relationships to share their secrets as if there were transferable skills to be learned and applied from an entirely specific experience. I’ve browsed the internet’s gigantic archive of couples wisdom and it’s bottomless, but repetitive. Be kind, retain some mystery, work at it, communicate, never go to bed on an argument (hmm, I once slept in the bath during an argument – does that count?). Experts and researchers weigh in too: practise gratitude, frame disagreements around your feelings rather than their actions, be positive; embrace arguing (before bed, presumably).
So should I share the “secrets” of our own long relationship? Ha, as if. See the “foreshadowing” row above: I’m not a fan of tempting fate. Even mentioning our anniversary feels imprudent. Plus, I agree with the psychotherapist Philippa Perry: “We are not equations, we are humans.” But mainly, I’ve got nothing to share. I have no clue how this happened – it could so easily not have – and no sense that we’ve cracked it, or that our endurance is down to anything I’ve learned or practised. We don’t live in tranquil, loving stasis: things change all the time and we fight, misunderstand and hurt each other.
My best guess is that I got lucky, and I know it. My husband is intellectually and emotionally generous, he doesn’t take himself seriously and he welcomes the world and everything in it (except tofu and musicals), whereas I look at it as if it’s trying to steal my handbag. He is also stubborn and doesn’t give up easily, thank God. I don’t know what I bring to the table, other than loving him, making him laugh occasionally and the certainty that this is where I want to be.
I started falling for him when he fixed my telly; he did it again last week in our current crappy rental. He is still making my life better in tiny and huge ways 30 years on, and that’s the only gift I need.
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist
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