How to go the distance
November 9, 2010 9:07 PM   Subscribe

You're happy in your long-term (10 years-plus?) relationship. I'm hoping to get that far someday, but I always drop out early. Tell me what it felt like at year 2-3.

I'm on the brink of ending my third three-year relationship. (All ended by me.) I know that all relationships end until the one that doesn't, but it's hard not to look at the past ~10 years and not notice that the common element is me. Maybe they weren't the right fit, or maybe I have unrealistic expectations for what relationships should feel like. So tell me what YOU felt like 2-3 years in. Were you certain? What did you know? What did you end up being wrong about? Was it different from your previous relationships?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Well, pretty much any relationship can go six months to two years, because people will put up with an awful lot while they're riding high on infatuation. What it looked like at three years, for the relationship that worked and still works, was something deeply trusting and supportive. We had not ironed out all the wrinkles then, and it sure hurt later on that we hadn't, but there was a pretty solid foundation in the following terms:
  • how much we admired one another
  • how much we gave each other physical affection as emotional encouragement and reinforcement
  • how much we still cared about our appearance for one another
  • how much we talked together
  • how much we shared the household work
  • how much we valued the same things in life
  • how much we respected each other's feelings about personal/family concerns--things inside the other's head that we could not share directly
  • how honest we were with each other
  • how much fun we had together doing hobbies and hanging out
  • and how much fun we had together in bed
If you're not getting those things three years in, it's not just you, and maybe you're right to drop out. But I don't see any mystery about how to make it last beyond that. If both you and your partner aim at all those things consciously, you'll remember your head-over-heels infatuation fondly (even feel it again in nice moments), and you'll build a loving relationship for good.

I can tell you that what our relationship looked like after 15 years was not actually so great, largely because on the two or three points above where we had real differences we had become resentful and had stopped holding up our (different) ends of those bargains, almost intentionally not meeting some needs because our own needs weren't all being met. But after some hard times, we remembered how those things had worked, aimed at them again with some effort, and got things back on track, which is really why I think it's possible to make that happen from the start. Good luck.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:01 PM on November 9, 2010 [36 favorites]

The three year mark is commonly the all-in or all-out deadline, in my experience. As Monsieur Caution says, anyone can put up with someone for a few months: It's possible to date someone you practically hate except for the sex or a few minor good qualities, without any real negative consequences, for three months to half a year. I mean, one month, depending on how fast the relationship progresses, could mean just the first few dates. From there, it's like...time flies, maybe you have a summer fling, it's sort of equivalent to having a bad roommate for a semester, it's really just a blip, it's nothing. A year is when you start talking anniversaries and Valentine's day, and that's the first real "oh hey, serious" milestone. You have to actually like each other decently to get past this, but you'd be surprised how low even that threshold is. Two years is when it starts dragging. That's anniversary two, Valentine's day two, Christmas two, vacations together, families know each other, yadda yadda. That's when you realize, "This is getting serious and our lives are intertwined" and there start to be real consequences and real plans and maybe moving in and blah blah. Right about at the third year mark is when you typically break and decide the weight of the investment is getting to be too much. Until that one time you don't.

Tldr: It's normal, keep dating.
posted by Nixy at 10:35 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Three years in was when I told my boyfriend "Soooooo are we going to go to counseling to fix these problems?" Thank god, he said yes. We were fighting all the time, but I really loved him and wanted to be with him, and he felt the same way about me. In two weeks, we'll have been together for fifteen years; two days ago, I gave birth to our second child. But it was that moment where we decided to quit coasting on momentum and instead rebuild the engine that was the deciding factor.
posted by KathrynT at 10:52 PM on November 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Basically previously.
posted by grapesaresour at 11:17 PM on November 9, 2010

Tldr: It's normal, keep dating.

I agree. But my experience has also been that the problems at year three were also visible in month three and maybe even day three -- so I think the real key here is for you to get better at evaluating things early and ending it then, rather than waiting three years.
posted by Forktine at 2:48 AM on November 10, 2010 [10 favorites]

Some of this probably depends on age -- I was 25 when I'd been with my husband for 3 years, and we'd been married for 1. And we fought ALL THE TIME. About incredibly stupid things. Because we were still growing up. Couples therapy helped and I definitely recommend it. Growing up some more helped more.

This is probably not the most useful comment since I don't have a lot of basis for comparison (having been with my husband since I was 22 means there weren't really any other adult long-term relationships), but if you are in your 20s, I really have found that EVERYTHING about my marriage (and my friendships too) has gotten easier as if moved towards and into my 30s. Practice makes perfect, as they say, which makes me hopeful that when I'm 40 I'll go, "Man, when I was 30, everything was so much harder than it is now!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:23 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


When my SO and I hit three years, we were too lazy to try to find anyone else, so we stuck together.

We're working on year 12 now.
posted by jb at 6:16 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

We've been married 36 1/2 years. The relationship has certainly evolved in many ways over the decades. The crucial factor to our longevity together is commitment. We have been and continue to be committed to one another and the relationship. That means we will never give up on one another. We have known that since date one (which lasted a week). We are able to maintain that commitment because we never doubt the integrity of the other and we try to never give the other a reason to do so.
posted by txmon at 6:23 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I like jb's answer.

My partner and I got to the 2 1/2 year mark and started having issues. But we'd both had a relationship or two before, and we noticed that we were each having the same issues we'd had with previous lovers. For both of us, it was one of those, "the common factor is me, so maybe I have something to work on here." We felt like if we broke up, and we'd both be back in exactly the same place with somebody else in three more years. Like KathrynT and her partner, we decided to go into therapy and figure it out instead. I have this mental picture of us looking heroic, planting a flag, and saying, "We are going to make our stand here!"

We've been together over 17 years now (15 of them happy, we joke). Just the other week my partner asked me when I thought we got married. We count our anniversary from our first sex (which, IIRC, predated our first date), and we got married at the courthouse almost ten years ago, when I was pregnant with our first child, just so I could get on his health insurance, so not for romantic reasons. I said I think of us being married from that 3-year mark when we really made the commitment to learn about how to make relationships work.

It's interesting to me that the 2-3 year thing is so common. I thought it was just us! What I remember strongly from after we got through that challenging year of working on stuff was that I was walking around saying, "It got better! Why didn't anybody tell me it gets better if you stick around? It's so much better!"
posted by not that girl at 6:27 AM on November 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry - I realize that sounded trite. But the minute I mentioned this questionto my husband, he ha the same response of "apathy".

It's our code word for our discussions when we realized that though we were both quite young (24 and 22) and things weren't always great, we shouldn't expect that magically there was someone out there who was better for us. Instead, we thought we would be better off working with what we had -- which had a much better chance of success.

It helps that we always were - and still are - good friends as well as SOs. And that our problems were neither unfixable nor DTMFA level problems. But it wasn't necessarily easy, nor are all our problems solved -- we just found new ones.

But it all was still easier than fishing and fishing trying to find a perfect partner.
posted by jb at 6:29 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

At three years, the shit hit the fan in our personal lives. We were both laid off, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and his mother was dieing. What was different was that our relationship made coping with all of that easier, not harder. It was a source of support, it was easy and it was peaceful. We grew even closer together. We realized that we were better as a unit, than as separate parts. We know that we can count on each other without reservations.
posted by kimdog at 6:30 AM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

For us, it was year 2 of the marriage (year 3-4 of the relationship) where it nearly fell apart. I was unbearable. We had different expectations. It was a tough year, but we took the word "divorce" off the table. Once we did that and we realized we didn't want our marriage to fail, we found ways to continue committing to each other every day. In January, we'll celebrate our 17 wedding anniversary. The past 17 years have been mostly good. We've had our bumps and challenges. However, we keep coming back to a daily commitment.
posted by onhazier at 7:10 AM on November 10, 2010

Three and a half years here: last night, we were both cooking at the same time. He was doing a potato-centric experiment and I was making pumpkin muffins. We glided around one another, sometimes focusing on our recipes, sometimes talking, making one another laugh, grabbing each others' butts, etc.

"Okay, nice little domestic anecdote," you're saying, "So what?"

THAT'S what. The synchrony with which you move together is being refined and perfected. Your rapport becomes more easy and comfortable. Your partner is not a built-in part of you, exactly (because you're still your own person), but more like... a pair of glasses. Things look better through the filter of their presence.

It feels settled in all the best ways... like settling into a nice squishy armchair after hiking all day. Like settling into a sort of monastic simplicity and surety after years of searching and fretting and angst-ing all over the damned place. Infatuation was great, but the long-term devotion is seriously astounding.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:14 AM on November 10, 2010 [12 favorites]

As mentioned above, have extremely high standards at the beginning of a relationship.

Things (American) people tend to ignore in early relationships that I think are important:

--Readiness and enthusiasm for marriage (or an equivalent practical commitment)
--Work ethic
--Suitability for parenting (not just willingness)
--Social connectedness
--Family's ability and willingness to support the relationship

I have always done a mental exercise I call "arranged marriage"*. I don't know if it actually works but it's fun to daydream about:

Part one:
If I someone else arranging a marriage for myself, would I pick this person? Note that you have to pretend not to know how you feel about each other. Practical issues of compatibility only.

Part two:
If I woke up tomorrow and had to marry them (no divorce!), would I be hopeful, apprehensive but willing, or full of dread?

*If you can consistently listen to this kind of practicality in the face of New Relationship Energy/Idiocy you're a stronger person than I am. My journals are littered with "it will never work...but he smells so good!"
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:39 AM on November 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

My previous relationship was five years. In year three, we got married. I've been divorced for two years now.

I know some people are being glib here, but I'm not sure it's helpful. A relationship can certainly last past three years and not get better, even if you personally try to make your stand that it will. Divorce wasn't on the table for us until it was. We tried marriage counseling, but my own therapist believed that I should leave. I was apathetic about finding a new partner until I knew that I would rather be single forever than spend the rest of my life in that relationship. I was so completely relieved when it was really, truly over.

I'm in a new relationship now, flush with New Relationship Energy, but so concerned that I'm about to make the same mistakes again that I'm hyper vigilant about possible red flags, even though there's no evidence that they exist. I would love to know how to avoid my previous mistakes and have this relationship last. I've been reading every post like this that I can find on AskMe, but the fact is that I don't know and I can't know that this one will last. I just have to keep my eyes open but jump in and try my best. Again.

That said, the marriage research by the Gottmans seems pretty solid if you're looking for some background. The part about contempt resonates with me strongly.
posted by aabbbiee at 10:04 AM on November 10, 2010

11 years now. At year 3, we'd just gotten married, and were very much in love.

We'd established ourselves as a team, shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back. We enjoyed each other's company and made each other laugh.

I think I was also very nervous, afraid we wouldn't make it, and suffering from the impossibility of predicting the future. What I've learned is that we face the unpredictable future together, and that makes life much easier than facing it alone

I still love him dearly and love being married to him.
posted by endless_forms at 11:52 AM on November 10, 2010

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