When I got into my first long term relationship, I was 22. My Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education was shiny and new. I had just started my very first teaching job, which was my first “grown up” job. I had a one bedroom apartment, my car, and my cat. I thought I was all grown up because I had just bought a queen sized bed. I personified everything that 22 year olds often do- I was inexperienced. Pretty innocent. Green. Now fast forward about a decade and a half. I’m 38, and life has done to me what it does to everyone privileged enough to experience it. I’ve had the highs- my daughter being born, promotions and career success, buying my first house, and good times. The lows were there, too- medical problems and their resultant financial woes, serious illness, death, and loss. 38 year old me had things and responsibilities that 22 year old me did not: cars, two houses, a child, a successful career as a school administrator.
Anyone who has done both will tell you: starting a relationship at mid-life is nothing like starting a relationship in your 20’s.
When you’re young and starting out as a couple, you have the freedom to envision your lives that still stretch out far ahead of you, and build those lives together. When you’re starting a new relationship mid-life, you already have quite a bit of life experience (the good and the bad) behind you, you’re kind of set in your ways, and you already have a pretty good idea of what you want out of the rest of your time here. You also tend to have a lot of those things that we affectionately refer to as “baggage”: kids, careers, ex-partners, real estate, debt. You carry with you all the crap that has ever happened to you and has been sneakily changing your very self at the neurological level: all the times you made horrible decisions and regretted it, all the mind-cluttering junk from unhealthy relationships, all the physical or emotional pain, all the losses.
Now, kids, we’re going to take two fully grown and functional lives, with tons of baggage, already in progress and mash them together. Ready, set, go! No wonder so many second marriages also fail, right?
I’ll probably say this a lot: Carrie and I decided very early on that for this relationship, failure was simply not an option. The first time we talked about what our commitment was to each other, she said, and I’m pretty sure this is a direct quote: “I’m not going through this again!”, “this” meaning starting out fresh with someone. Be still my heart! Ok, so, in true Carrie fashion, she didn’t put it in the most eloquent way. But what it told me was that she was committed to making it work. And, coincidentally, so was I. Great! We have two people who love each other like crazy AND are deeply committed to making the relationship work. Really, that’s all you need and the rest are details.
Ok, so it’s not exactly that simple. I mean, all that baggage…. that’s still there. You can’t just ignore it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist, or hasn’t shaped the person that you are right now, this minute. Because it has. So what is a brand-new, mid-life lesbian couple to do? We’ve decided to take all that baggage and use it to our advantage. You know, live and learn. Don’t make the same dumb mistakes twice (or 14 times).
Bad past decisions that haunt you
First of all, let’s get this out on the table: you cannot change what has already happened. It’s done. In the past. Only carry enough of the memory of it with you in order to learn from it. Carrying guilt or remorse with you over something you did but in retrospect probably shouldn’t have, only serves to keep you in a negative loop, and keeps you from 1) learning from your mistake and 2) moving on, being smarter and wiser and (hopefully), not screwing up again. Yes, sometimes we mess up so bad that it can be hard not to beat ourselves up about it for a good, long time. I think sometimes what we’re feeling is remorse; almost like a mournful emotion. Maybe it’s ok to sit with your guilt and mourn your dumb decision for a while. But eventually, it’s time to let it go. Since Carrie and I have been together, there have been a fairly surprising amount of major decisions that have come up for me, and since she and I have been together, I have never made a single one without talking to her about it first. I am so thankful to have a partner that I can do that with. Carrie is straightforward, honest, and truthfully, pretty blunt. She rarely allows emotions to crowd her decision making. And I love it! We both talk to each other before making decisions, especially pretty major ones, and voila! Less dumb decisions being made.
Losses, death, and other bad things that have happened in life
These things are unfortunately a part of life, and we can’t do anything about the fact that they happened. They’re not our fault. Friendships end. Accidents and emergencies happen. People get sick. Sometimes, they die. These experiences shape and change you. Carrie and I have talked extensively about the effects that my father’s battle with a rare neurological illness, and his eventual death, had on me. Both of us have experienced pregnancy loss, and we’ve talked numerous times into the wee hours about those experiences. We talk both to build knowledge of what the other has been through, as well as understanding and empathy.
Junk left over from past romantic relationships
They ended for a reason. Well, lots of reasons, but that’s besides the point. The point is that those relationships with those other people are over, but human nature being what it is, it is surprisingly easy to bring all that junk, all those feelings, all those relationship-damaging patterns of behavior, into your new relationship! I think out of everything, this right here came as the biggest surprise to me. I naively thought I was starting fresh with Carrie. Blank slate. New start. NOPE. Carrie is not my Ex, she does not act the same, behave the same, think the same. I cannot talk to her the same, treat her the same, and relate to her in the same way. It just doesn’t work. Like we do for everything in our relationship, we talk about it (talk, talk, and talk some more). It’s much easier to catch myself doing it now, and stop myself. Usually, I follow that up with acknowledging to Carrie what I’ve just done, and an apology, if warranted. She does the same for me. We don’t view our past relationship failures as stains on our lives and threats to our current relationship with each other. Instead, we have realized that we have a wealth of experience and knowledge at our fingertips that we can put to good use. We know what NOT to do. You can’t just stop there, though. We also know we have to actively seek learning more and more about each other so that we also learn what TO do. For example, knowing that resorting to doing passive-aggressive things to let each other know when we’re irritated with the other is an old pattern that we need to break. Ok, easy. Don’t do stupid and immature passive-aggressive stuff. Check. What’s harder to learn is the NEW pattern, the what do you do instead of the ineffective stuff you’ve done for years with other people that, in part, led those relationships to crash and burn. There’s a fair amount of soul-searching that goes on with the two of us. Why had we always resorted to those same ineffective things in the past? What was the trigger that made us resort to it again with each other? Once you have explored answers to those two things, I think you can start coming up with better patterns and solutions to any problem as a couple. In the case of us and passive aggression, we have both had to actively work on identifying when we are upset with the other, and just plain old coming out and telling her! Imagine that. I’m upset with something Carrie did or said and I just clearly communicate that to her. Gasp!! Then, she has a chance to explain why she did or said that thing and I have a chance to gain a clearer understanding into something that was (usually) a misunderstanding, or she has the opportunity to correct or apologize for something that was (usually) an innocent oversight. Imagine that. An actual adult relationship at work.