the love story project on the dangers–and pleasures–of love stories

On anniversaries

“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”

My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”

“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,’” he said.

It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.

“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”

“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books.

“Of course.”

“Ugh.” He slumped. “I knew I should’ve tried harder.”

It took me a while to pinpoint why anniversaries feel weird to me: I think it’s the implication that the real value of a relationship is in its duration. Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely impressed by people who manage to stay committed for decades. And I love almost any excuse for a celebration (as evidenced by the fact that I just typed the phrase “pick up dog cake” into my calendar–Roscoe and I have spent a full six years together!). But duration is rarely the best indicator of a relationship’s success. Certainly most of us can cite long, miserable marriages.

I spent the entirety of my last serious relationship advocating for special occasions: birthdays, holidays, Valentine’s Day. Why couldn’t we make a big deal out of things just once? And now, somehow, I have become the one who says, “Why can’t you eat take out in spandex on an anniversary?” Obviously you can and we did, but it felt problematically mundane. So we shook off our Halloween hangovers, changed clothes and went out for cocktails and dessert.

It was a nice night. Still, I never quite escaped the feeling that there was something romantic that I should be doing or saying. Over chocolate mousse I fretted that there was an appropriately sentimental note that the evening hadn’t quite hit. It’s probably this exact feeling that all those people who are “just not really into” anniversaries are trying to avoid.

Maybe I should’ve said something to him about how grateful I am for his unfailing kindness. I know I’ve already said something along these lines to a bazillion strangers on the internet (in both type and video, no less) but maybe I should’ve told him. It’s so nice to know (not to hope or to believe–to know) that even when we disagree–even when we almost break up–he is kind. But there is more to it than a nice feeling. Love is an inherently risky proposition. Writing about love is often uncomfortable. Knowing my partner will be kind, that he is in fact kind to his core, is part of what makes this risk feel manageable to me. All of this is what I should’ve said.

Instead, we found ourselves in a discussion of the role of happiness in a relationship: Is it your job to make your partner happy?

Me: No.

Him: But your happiness is important to me.

Me: I think our relationship is going well right now because I’m not trying to make you happy–because I’ve actually made a conscious effort to stop trying to please you.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–about wanting to please people. It’s a habit I’m trying to temper.

I think it took me an entire year to find ease in this relationship. Partly this is due to the fact that this has been a strange year for me–nothing has felt quite normal or predictable. And partly it’s due to the fact that love never feels normal or predictable to me. It seems to involve a lot of pleasing.

I thought a sense of ease would be the natural by-product of our month-long August road trip. I thought you couldn’t possibly spend thirty days sharing a car and a tent without feeling entirely comfortable by the end of it. But that wasn’t true. I still had this lingering self-consciousness about the relationship. I sometimes looked in the campground bathroom mirror and wondered, ‘Does he think I look less pretty without mascara?’

There was so much to manage: the constant putting up and taking down of the tent, mapping and remapping the route, and the emotional and physical risks of giving a talk and going rock climbing, all of which made it impossible to step out of the immediacy of each day. I was stuck in the moment in a way that did not match the romantic idea one has of road trips. I felt intensely vulnerable–all while posting gorgeous photos of various national parks on Instagram, of course.

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