Is the “test of time” a reliable test for love?

by Kristin on May 22, 2009

in Love, family & community,Uncategorized

Jason and I, on our honeymoon two years ago.

On Wednesday, my friend Jen and her husband Kurt celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary. Next Wednesday, Jason and I will celebrate our second.

Time is strange. On one hand, two years can seem like a serious amount of time; lined up next to 14 years, though, it’s nothing. At certain moments, I feel like Jason and I have been together for two decades—I can hardly recall my life without him—but at other times it seems like we just met.

When my friends celebrate anniversaries of ten or more years, my first feeling is pure joy. They chose well, they’ve worked hard, they’ve struggled and loved and come out mostly smiling more than a decade later. It’s an accomplishment, without a doubt.

My second wave of emotion feels more like a pang of sadness or loss than a leap of joy. I hate to admit it. It comes from that icky part of my psyche—that part that says it-somehow-must-be-about-me-even-though-it-clearly-isn’t. There’s probably a bit of my competitive side tossed in, too (Score: Jen 14, Kristin 2).

If love were a race, or a board game…

Of course, I know it’s not a competition. I also know that the number of years you’ve been married is not a true measure of love—a couple with 40 years under their belt certainly has more stories and experiences, but not necessarily more love.

I suspect it just gets at that part of me that feels like I failed when I got a divorce. Like I was running a really long race, which I was well into, when I stepped off the route to tie my shoe and was told I had to go all the way back to the beginning to start over.

Now that I think of it, there were too many board games in my childhood like that. I had a really difficult time being a good sport playing Candy Land, and Sorry! (Sorry, indeed.) The perfect metaphor for how I sometimes feel is that really long slide on Chutes and Ladders—the one that sends you all the way back to where you started, right when you are on the brink of winning. My brother would probably confirm that if I hit that slide, the game was over because I went stomping off in frustration.

Can time measure legitimacy?

The other part of my inner frustration is tied to the legitimacy we tend to yoke with time. A successful business is one that’s consistently done well for 25 years, not two. A great baseball team has a reputation for making it to the playoffs, not just one good season (which, after all, could just be luck).

When I tell someone that Jason and I are celebrating our second anniversary, it somehow feels like we still have so much to prove. I remember that feeling from high school and college—being in a relationship that felt so significant and lasting, and not wanting to tell people that in fact we’d only been together a month. The amount of time just didn’t line up with the amount of feeling.

I guess what I’m realizing is that there are things that can be tested by time and things that can’t. Time, after all, is a measurable, concrete, linear element in our lives. Not surprisingly, it’s a good indicator of those concrete aspects of love and relationships—commitment, problem-solving, the ability to withstand a variety of ups and downs.

But it’s not a good indicator of the many abstract parts of love that can hardly be articulated, let alone measured—what people often refer to as chemistry, or deep compatibility, or being soulmates.

Time can’t measure what’s simply right, at its core.

That’s what encompasses my two-year marriage. And I suspect it will serve us very well as we move forward, withstanding the test of time, just as it has been the glue for Jen and Kurt these 14 years.

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  • Meredith

    When I finished reading this, I copied the URL, emailed it to my mother and told her she had to read it.

    I think we get tripped up on the time concept, get too caught up in the numbers game – in any kind of relationship. My mom had been remarried for 4 years, my dad for 21. Does that mean my dad “won” the remarriage race? I’ve had people (even within my own family) imply that I should love my “new” stepfather, brother and sister less because they haven’t been in my life as long. As if time was the only way to bond people together (btw – if it was true that time was the only way, then theoretically, my parents would love all of my siblings more, since they’re all older than me and thus have been alive longer.)

    Time plays its part, sure, but it’s not the only way to determine the strength of a relationship. I think you got it absolutely correct: Time can’t measure what’s simply right, at its core. Numbers be damned!

  • Cheryl Ensom Dack

    I completely free, Kristin. A marriage is so much more about intangibles than “measure-ables” like time. Though it’s not exactly the same thing, it’s useful to compare it to other relationships. I am “closer” to you, for example, than I am to some people I’ve known for a decade or so, in that you know more about the real me and more about the current pain I’m in than some of these “old friends” do. I think there are obviously things that a longer marriage has that a shorter one simply can’t. But there are things a shorter marriage has that a longer one doesn’t! Si many other things weigh heavier than years, I think. The length of time spent alone or in dysfunctional relationship before the marriage probably has more to do with “comparative happiness” than number of years spent together. Whether it’s a long-anticipated spouse, child or situation, we often appreciate more what we pined over. Another useful comparison is our relationship with/love for our children; I don’t love my seven-year-old more than my two-year-old just because I’ve spent five more years with her! Those five years mean we have a different relationship than I do with my son. But one love is not better or stronger than another.

    All this to say, perhaps thinking about your Chutes and Ladders board as truly flat, not three-dimensional is useful! :) your friend is indeed on a different part ofvthe board than you are, one place isn’t “better” than another…it’s all part of the experience. On this board you can jump around, slide backwards down ladders, climb up slides, skip ahead and then double back. Hell, you can bring a hammer and nails and build a new ladder, then suspend it between two slides to make monkey bars! :)

  • Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Ack! Excuse my typos! Dang iPod!

  • Cheryl Ensom Dack

    And I can’t believe I forgot to say: what a fantastic photo of you two!!! You are so beautiful and your hubby is a cutie! ;) what a perfect couple you make! If I’d known you both as singles, I would have thought, “those two would be so cuuute together!”

  • Naomi Munn

    Love isn’t linear. We can’t expect a feeling that encompasses eternity to operate under the same rule of physics as gravity or daylight. It’s not a fair game that way. I don’t think it’s a game we win or lose, either — even if we move on or remarry, love changes us for the better each time.

    Beautiful photo! Mazel tov on your celebration.

  • Christine Claire Reed

    What is that Chinese saying? You will know your best friend better after five minutes than an acquaintance in 10 years…or something like that, and I think it says it all.

    I know older, married couples who have been together for upwards of 30, 40, 50 years, and for most of those years, they barely have been able to stand one another. Part of this is anthropological — people really did marry in the earlier parts of the 20th c to have children and security and didn’t expect much more.

    Now our generations (I am an “X”) want to marry/partner our best friends. What an amazing progression…

    Imagine healthier and happier humans!? No matter how many years they’ve been together. :)

  • Writer Dad

    I agree with everything you said, but I admit I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to comment without the photo. Just adorable, Kristin. You two look very happy and make quite the handsome couple.

  • Dave Thurston

    Hmmm. Just another thought. Perhaps the duration of time is not a good test of a relationships goodness, but how about “the taking of time”.

    The taking of time to listen, to open doors, to help fold laundry, to cut the lawn, to fix the car, and/or to give a butt brush in the kitchen while cooking dinner. Over the past many months, I’ve been thinking about time and its being the most valuable, finite resourse of mine. And if I use something that is more valuable than all of my money on the one that I love, then that action – that *spending* of my time should speak volumes of my view of our relationship.

    And I bet that could be measured and a positive correlation could be made between those time-acts and a relationships goodness.

  • Kristin T.

    Meredith, it sounds like your mom will be able to completely relate to these complex emotions. It’s amazing to me, how often I imagine that my thoughts are so isolated and strange; then, when I decide to share them anyway, I inevitably find out that so many others can relate. It’s truly one of the best things about blogging. Also, what you pointed out about how people don’t love their youngest child any less than their oldest? So true, so smart.

    Cheryl, you and Meredith were thinking the exact same thing at exactly the same time. I love it! And it’s such a good way to think about love and time. This is very perceptive, too: “The length of time spent alone or in dysfunctional relationship before the marriage probably has more to do with ‘comparative happiness’ than number of years spent together.” (Btw, seeing your three comments in a row made me laugh!)

    Naomi, this is so beautifully put: “Love isn’t linear. We can’t expect a feeling that encompasses eternity to operate under the same rule of physics as gravity or daylight.” Thank you so much for your insight and congratulations.

    Christine, I don’t think I’ve heard that saying before, but I really like it. It’s so true—every so often you meet a friend and feel like you’ve known them forever. It almost makes you believe that you were together before, in another time and place. Thank goodness those deep connections are an important part of our generation’s approach to marriage. Here’s to healthier, happier humans, indeed!

    Writer Dad, awwww…so sweet of you.

    Dave, that’s a really good point. It’s important to think of time not in terms of measurable chunks—minutes, hours, days, years—but in terms of what we’re doing with that time, and how we’re caring for each other. As I mentioned in my post about Love Languages, Quality Time is what speaks love to me the most. Clearly I’m a fan of that “valuable, finite resource,” as you put it. I just don’t like the ways we typically measure it. :)

  • Jennifer

    Oh, where to start? First, yes, gorgeous smiling couple! Wowza.

    Next, we never had divorce affect our family, my husband’s or mine, until this year. I know that sounds strange. Nearly all of our college friends are children of divorce. My sister is the one going through it and we simply don’t know what to do or say. But clearly none of us thinks one more year would make a difference; that time would heal the gaping wounds the couple has. We don’t think a month or two could make it all better, dissolve the pain, undo the damage.

    We also don’t think they are “losers,’ having slid back down the slide to the beginning. In fact it’s not a competition at all. But, I do see where that idea could rear its head. As I read this piece I couldn’t help separate two main ideas, one being time and the other this idea of failure.

    As for time, my husbands’ grandparents were married 50 years and they practically hated each other. We’d joke about it, but they were down right nasty. They hadn’t shared a bedroom in over 20 years when I met my spouse.

    Having a “failed” marriage is tough enough, I assume, without the added pressure of comparing your experiences to those of your peers. But we still do it. Am I better because I stayed married longer to the same person; are you less worthy? Clearly not.

    I like what Dave writes above (esp. the butt brush :). He measure the success of his relationship with the quality of time he spends with his partner. (Meh, I can’t believe I just typed that.) And that he is actively seeking ways to express that love. I have found that when we do that, the other is more willing to reciprocate and both find fulfillment that lasts well beyond their fabulous second annivesary.


  • jenx67

    Tears streaming and teeth grinding for every jackass (not at all referring to your friend, Jennifer) who has held up their 15, 20, 25+year marriage to me in that smarmy kind of way since my divorce in 1999 (as if they conveniently forgot I’d been part of a colossal failure). It reminds me of the Jackson Browne song, “These Days.”

    These days I sit on corner stones
    And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
    Don’t confront me with my failures
    I had not forgotten them

    My modest six years (at 41) with Robert has not even reached the 7-year itch of doom. I recognize that a lot can happen in two and a half decade, and there is something very precious about holding on to the brides and the grooms of our youth. But, there is something said for “taking another lover…it’s hard to risk another, these days…” (Jackson Browne).

    Only people (like Naomi) who have gone through divorce will fully grasp the enormity of this post. The failure is always there. Like the song says, I find myself marking time in quarter tones.

    I’ve been working on a post about blended families for weeks. I just haven’t had the courage to write it. This post will help me walk toward completion a little braver.

  • Jennifer

    Okay, I’m back bc it’s like an itch I simply cannot ignore. I really appreciate the comments from Jenx67. She is right; I cannot know the feelings that you carry with you as you move past a divorce. I hope I did not imply that.

    I simply wanted to say a failed marriage does not a failed person make. And really? Can there be a better term than “failed marriage?” Ick. I sure would not like that applied to me.

    Having read this post and the helpful comments I feel like I have some insight on how to listen to my sister and to be sensitive to people in this boat. Thanks Kristin and thanks to your wonderful readers.

  • Daisy

    Love is more about quality than quantity. I feel lucky to have both; Husband and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary this June!

  • Jeb Dickerson

    Hey KT,
    I have to admit, I feel a certain pride about having been with Tess for almost 16 yrs now. But not because I feel like I’ve succeeded where others have failed. Rather, because of my background and my experience with my parents’ divorce, and the resulting relationship I had with my father, I was determined from the youngest of ages to never leave my kids feeling that way. But again, it wasn’t the divorce that caused those feelings, but the choices my father made regarding the nature of our relationship thereafter. I suppose as a child I associated the two pretty strongly, but now I can see that they needn’t be tied together. I know plenty of divorced people who’ve been (and are) excellent parents – you are a shining example of that.

    My point is simply that just as categorizing people as ‘divorced’ doesn’t automatically tell their story, neither does categorizing them as ‘married for 14 or 40 or 75 years’. Stereotypes never serve us, whether we apply them to others, or ourselves. And as I think many of your commenters (and you) would agree, time becomes less and less significant the older, and wiser, we get. Though this idea of living for today seems like a collective, societal movement affecting us quite poignantly just now, I suspect it’s at least partially simply a result of our individual progression along our own paths. We’re growing and changing and learning with every step, and for those of us that remain curious about that journey, said progression will most certainly lead us to the realization that quality trumps quantity every day, and twice on Sunday.

    Wishing you and Jason a wonderful celebration…every day.

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, you make me blush with the “wowza” comment. :) (And full disclosure for everyone else, this is the Jen who celebrated her 14 anniversary last week.) I imagine the story about your husband’s grandparents is a reality for all too many long-lasting marriages, particularly of those generations before us. Sometimes you see how “sticking it out” can pay off in the end, but so often the unhappiness just grows and ripples out, making many people miserable. I’m so glad you and Kurt are able to impact the people in your lives through your happiness and love—including your sister, who really needs your support right now.

    jenx67, I’m SO sorry—it sounds like you’ve really had some hurtful experiences with people. For me, all the comparisons and feelings of failure come out of my own crazy thoughts, not anything anyone else is trying to rub in my face. You’re absolutely right—only someone who’s gone through a divorce can understand how these feelings can get so twisted in our heads as we turn them over again and again. We certainly don’t need anyone to confront us with our failures. I really hope you’ll tackle that blended family post—it sounds like it would be a good process for you and a good things for many of us to read.

    Jennifer (again), thank YOU, for being so open to trying to understand something you haven’t experienced, for being so supportive of me and your sister, for being OK with me comparing myself to you in this post in the first place! Now that I think of it, that’s just a word that has always been at the heart of who you are: Open.

    Daisy, quantity and quality both are indeed worth celebrating. Congratulations to you and your husband!

    Jeb, being proud of something can be such a good and deserved feeling, and then it can so easily cross a line into something “prideful,” that can become overgrown and block the light from other young plants that are trying to grow. You SHOULD be proud of your 16 years with your wife—there’s no hint of that ugly pride in your feelings about your marriage, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think they shouldn’t celebrate and be proud of such an accomplishment. Also, it’s always good to hear the perspectives of others who have been affected by divorce but haven’t personally gone through one. Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts, friend.

  • TJ Hirst

    First of all, happy anniversary. Newer marriages of just a few hours, days, months or years have a unique quality that is feels dynamic compared to older relationships. On the other hand, older marriages can also hold within them a strength that is not easily revealed in appearances. It comes from those hills that have been climbed. And that, too, can feel superior to the other. I celebrate both for those individual characteristics and qualities that make either new or older special. And that is why we certainly cheer at all weddings and all anniversaries.

  • The Modern Gal

    I know this post is more about the time frame of a relationship, but the part that struck me was the bit about what if it were like a board game or a race?

    I’ve been struggling so much lately with being single. So many of my friends around me are married, in a strong relationship, getting engaged, etc. I feel like I’m constantly reminding myself that it’s not a game. Just because they appear to have it all together doesn’t mean they win and I lose. Still it feels that way sometimes.

  • Kristin T.

    TJ, I’m so sorry I’m just now responding to your comment on this post. Thank you for the anniversary wishes! I agree that a certain strength builds with each hill you’ve climbed together. I guess my point is that it depends, somewhat, on *how* you climb those hills, not just that you have climbed them. In other words, one couple can climb 50 hills, with one of them stomping off ahead of the other person, who is feeling resentful as they try to catch up; another couple might have only climbed 10, but with more care and respect. The strength of a relationship can’t be measured ONLY by the distance traversed, the number of years spent, or the grade of the hills climbed.

    Modern Gal, it’s interesting that you bring up the board game analogy. Do you ever have those moments, as a writer, when you find yourself writing something that you didn’t expect to? Sometimes it even feels like you didn’t actually THINK of it, the idea just started flowing through your fingers, like it bypassed your brain all together? The board game analogy felt like that, so I just went with it. I’m glad it spoke to you—I love how that happens, even to people whose experiences seem, on the surface, so different from my own. Thanks for sharing a bit of your own struggle here, too.