Here’s how relationships are supposed to go:
Meet. Date. Fall in love. Become official. Spend most of your free time together. Get engaged. Get married. Have kids. Live happily ever after.
When you follow the timeline, you know exactly what comes next.
Are you falling in love? Then the next step is to become official. He introduces you as his girlfriend. You change your social media status to “In a relationship.”
Are you together all the time? Then the next step is to get engaged. You watch for signs he’s hiding a large purchase from you, the jewelry store receipt itself if you’re lucky.
You rate your relationships based on where you are in the timeline.
If you’re just dating, you want to be exclusive. If you’re in a relationship, you want to talk about marriage. If you’re stuck in any one stage for too long, you get frustrated. You want to reach the next milestone.
That process is so familiar to us that we take it for granted.
But seeing relationships as a series of goals, each moving you closer to your ultimate destination of happily-ever-after, can backfire.
Where a relationship is in the timeline says little about where it is in terms of what really matters: intimacy, friendship, trust, and respect. Those qualities are what gets you to happily-ever-after, not the wedding ring.
I think back to the Zen proverb that goes:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
The proverb warns against focusing too much on the end goal. Whether you’re enlightened or not, you still need fuel to cook and water to drink.
These days, that proverb might look more like this:
“Before marriage, wash dishes, do laundry.
After marriage, wash dishes, do laundry.”
Regardless of whether you’re wearing a wedding ring, the activities that consume your time remain the same. You still have to go to work, buy groceries, keep the house clean, and get a good night’s sleep. Marriage won’t change that.
So, instead of setting your sights on reaching that next relationship goal, set your sights on building a good relationship. When you two are best friends as well as lovers, your relationship moves forward effortlessly.
But there’s a problem with good relationships…
There’s no extra social status associated with being in a healthy relationship. Nothing to “check off” to show you’ve arrived.
You can’t exactly show a healthy relationship off to friends. “Look at how easily we resolve our conflicts! Look at how respectfully we treat one another behind closed doors!”
All couples look great from the outside. Only the two people involved know what the relationship is like from the inside.
Just as chopping wood and carrying water isn’t glamorous, there’s nothing cool about reflective listening or emotional validation. There’s no end to the journey of relationship mastery, no milestones to mark off.
Instead, it’s a daily grind. Be kind. Respect one another. Forgive. Go to bed and repeat.
No wonder couples spend more time planning their wedding than planning for married life. Weddings are glitzy. Married life is mundane.
But, just as the spiritual master finds new meaning in humble tasks, so there may come a point in your relationship when you find new meaning in your everyday life together.
You’re putting things away, paying the bills, making the schedule for the week. You’re talking to each other, dividing jobs, planning ahead, making decisions, and enjoying each other’s partnership in life. In that moment of normal routine, you realize: This is love. This is what it’s all about.
Love isn’t just moonlight kisses, grand celebrations, or public declarations of commitment.
Love is washing the dishes and doing the laundry. Love is listening when you’d rather talk, and talking when you’d rather say nothing at all. Love is what you do when it’s just the two of you at home, with no one around.
Forget the timeline. Pay attention to today.
Just for today, pretend as if you already had your happily-ever-after. How would you act differently if you knew you would be with this man forever?
Would you look at him differently? Would you put more effort into the relationship? Would you be more honest, listen more carefully, share more of yourself, or negotiate conflicts more delicately?
That brings to mind another old saying, which Zen Buddhists would probably agree with:
“Take care of today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.”
It’s a simple reminder, but a powerful one.
Always on your side,