Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Relationship's "Blue Valentine" Moment

It's been awhile since I've given much thought about love and relationships.  That's probably because my other love affair with food and travel have occupied my days for the entire holiday season up until New Year's.  I'm not complaining and neither is J since he gets to reap the benefits of our "dinner dates" in an effort to save money for our wedding.

To help us get back into a "relationships" state of mind, I had been pleading with J to watch the film Blue Valentine with me for the past few weeks.  I met a staff member who works for the Sundance Film Festival and this was one of the top films that got some buzz.  It was also a bonus for me that Ryan Gosling is one of the leads, opposite Michelle Williams.  [Potential spoiler below]

For those who aren't fanatics who like to read reviews a la Rotten Tomatoes prior to watching the movie (guilty, here), you should know that it's not your typical feel-good love story.  Just so you know what you're getting yourself into.  It's raw, emotional, at times touchingly innocent, but the overall tone is depressing and somewhat foreboding.  I knew it was a story of how a love and marriage crumbles and it was probably the worst idea ever to drag my fiance to watch this cinematic destruction as some sort of ominous warning. 

Anyone who loves a good train wreck will stop to watch anyways.   My best friend must have felt the same way because she took her husband to watch the movie the week before I saw it.  I went to bed and read a text from her stating: "Warning:  Watching Blue Valentine might cause fights with significant other during dinner."  

Alas, the train wreck was too hard to resist.  While this was likely the anti-thesis to my First Dates Project idea (more like a date deflate), I felt compelled to see whether I'd pick up glimpses of myself or J in the characters and their very-real slice of life scenes.  Would we see what could be in store for us, as well?

The film portrayed two very different couples and lives.  The first couple, the young Cindy and Dean, were in love and idealistic.  They married young and checklist prerequisites like social status and an education didn't matter.  The second couple, the older Cindy and Dean six years later, were tired, emotionally and sexually repressed, and either out of love or desperately clinging on to love.  It's gritty and real, even more so when the film juxtaposes their relationship from both extremes.  One scene they're in their teens and deliriously happy while dancing in the streets, and the next instant, it flashes to the present day and they're haggard and arguing over feeding their daughter oatmeal.  The future of marriage, as Blue Valentine portrays it, looks pretty damn awful. 

I wanted to love the movie and gain some sort of relationship insight, but it left me feeling empty and somewhat dissatisfied.  My tissue pack remained untouched and J looked thoroughly unimpressed.

"I thought it was okay..." I start off unconvincingly as we walk in the parking lot towards our car.  
"I didn't like it,"  J says.
"Well, the acting was great," I start over, trying to make sense of it in my head.  And it was. "Maybe the script wasn't well developed."  After all, I had to defend my movie choice and the 88% movie rating. 
J shrugs and says, "Eh.  That could have been a rental."
"Fine, why didn't you like it?"  I counter.  A flash of my best friend's warning text comes to mind.  He's quiet.  I realize it's probably why I didn't like the movie and I feel a twinge of irrational worry.  "Do you think we could be like that?"  
"I didn't like it because the movie doesn't really show us how their marriage ended, or why it ended.  It just shows them at the beginning and the end.  There has to be something in between for the relationship to just not work," J says thoughtfully.  
 A beat later.  
"And no, I don't think we will be like that."
"But how do you know?  How can anybody know that?" I cry, more of a rhetorical question than a direct interrogation.

I didn't love the movie, but it did represent a few of the fears that I have about marriage and lifetime commitments.  The truth is, nobody can be 100% certain of how they'll feel in the future; people can only be sure of the present.  I know that when people say their vows, they are 100% sure in the moment of that promise.  I also know that years down the road, when divorce and break-ups happen, those same people are also 100% sure of moving on with their lives.  Both J and my parents, and 50% of other divorced couples are a testament to that point.  That's the scary thing about people - their emotions and thoughts are constantly changing.  I'm fearful that one day, J and I might face our own "Blue Valentine" episode in our relationship - the point when the relationship changes for the worst because the people in it have changed.

I think the key thing to combat that fear is having a sense of control and choice in the relationship.  What the movie left out was the crucial part, the "in-between" piece that could have changed everything for Cindy and Dean.  That's where the real changes can happen in a relationship - not the beginning lovey dovey stage, nor the tired worn-out battle stage at the end, but in the relationship as it's happening right then and there.  Maybe it's being the first to say sorry every now and then, or ensuring that you both won't go to bed angry at night, or taking the time to say "I love you" and mean it.  It's usually these small gestures that go a long way into preventing the monsters from building up inside. 

A strong relationship can't end overnight, but a strong commitment to each other everyday in the relationship might be what saves it.  I can't say or make J say "We will never become like that" because it really can happen to anyone.  But what we both can say with certainty is that we'll be equally vigilant to make sure we won't let it lead down that path.  That's an effort that takes two equally committed people and I'm willing to risk that effort as he is, too.           



Thursday, November 4, 2010

The 7th Mile

It’s the week of our 7th year anniversary and I’m trying to recall all of the different places we’ve celebrated it in previous years.  Davis, Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles… And as any semi-competitive person in a relationship can attest, also figuring a way to one-up the previous years.  It’s the challenge I give myself, whether it be anniversaries, birthdays, and New Year celebrations:  How do I make this year better than the previous year? 

The Answer:  I can’t.  The truth is, I have no control over how a year will pan out.  Nobody does.  A year is a great one or a really dismal one based on the series of events and milestones that occur during that time.  Last year when we celebrated our 6th year anniversary, we had just gotten engaged and moved into our condo together.  Year 6 was amazing – as huge a milestone for our relationship as it was the first year we got together.  That was a happening that I didn’t plot or control.  And now that I think about it, it never would have happened if Years 2 – 5 didn’t suffer and put in the brunt work to help contribute to a happier Year 6.
And perhaps it’s not even the year in and of itself that makes the anniversary special, but the series of events and years leading up to it.  The act of even achieving it.  Every successful year that passes is a testament and marker to our relationship as a whole – a public statement that shows “Yes, we made it this far and we’re aiming for yet another year to reach together.”  When I was training for the half-marathon last year, I couldn’t measure my success by whether or not I completed the entire race.
I had to start by celebrating the mile by mile achievements – my first 3 miles, then 4, then 5, until I saw myself running my first ever 13 miles.  But during that time of training, every mile past mile 4 and up until the end was a true “milestone” for me.     

I like to measure my relationship with J by the same standard.  With our partners, every year that passes is its own mile-moment worth celebrating.  That’s another 365 days of learning how to work and compromise with another person, gaining a deeper understanding of each others’ nuanced personalities, and giving our partners’ room to change and grow as we do the same.  Every one of those days will look different as you continue to progress in this race.  While I can’t guarantee whether the year will turn out to be a great one or a difficult one, I’m still proud of us for reaching this moment.  Even with the upcoming wedding and a million distractions coming our way during this busy year, we’re taking the time to celebrate this 7th year mini-victory – one of many, many to come in this relationship marathon. 

Good thing I built up my mental endurance.

{Photobooth Pauline & J, circa 2004}

Monday, October 4, 2010

First Dates Project Idea #55: Ziplining


How to face your fears, while celebrating your partner's birthday

August and September were incredibly busy months of celebrations, food, and music festivals.  My birthday and J's birthday are a week apart in late August, which guarantees that we party all month into early September.

For J's birthday, I wanted to surprise him with a fun and memorable experience instead of buying him a gift.  For the couples in long-term relationships, I'm sure you can empathize that gift-giving for your sweetie gets MORE challenging over time.  Every year raises the bar to get a better and more unique, thoughtful gift.  Somewhere between our 3rd and 4th year together, I realized the win-win outcome of an "experience" gift - a gift we both get to join in on the fun together!  This sort of gift is admittedly slightly selfish under the guise of pure thoughtfulness; all the more reason to love this gift-giving strategy.

Ziplining was number 55 on our First Dates list, and also one of the activities that I've heard J mention quite a few times this year.  When a friend of mine was traveling to Costa Rica, he had exclaimed how great it would be to zipline through the thick rainforest.  A few months ago, San Francisco had free ziplining at the Justin Herman Plaza along the Embarcadero.  On his day off, J grabbed a friend to stand in line only to discover that all of the free passes were already gone by the early morning.  As the observant fiance, I noted these happenings and decided to plan a surprise date for us to drive to Moaning Caverns for his birthday.  We picked up a couple of his friends along the way and drove nearly 2 1/2 hours to the site.

I admit I was scared, especially when I saw the large sign declaring 1500 foot ziplines, as we signed off on the liability waivers (where I noticed the words "possible risk of death" in fine print), and as we donned heavy harnesses, buckles, and a clunky helmet. 

"How often do you guys check the ropes?" I asked the staff member, hearing my voice rise in pitch.  I was in between anxiety, fear, and something that felt like nausea. 

He scratched his chin and nonchalantly answered "About every three months or so."  Upon seeing my look of terror, he laughed heartily and then looked me dead in the eye and said more seriously "Every day, miss.  We check the ropes everyday."

A dirty rickety jeep took us to the Tower, where we crossed an old wooden bridge to our station.  I squeezed J's hand and asked if he was nervous.  He smiled faintly at me and slightly nodded his head. 

At the Tower, which slightly swayed under the wind, I was disappointed to find that they closed off the companion zip line.  From the website, I read that two people could zipline side by side, which was what I wanted to do with J.  That meant only one person could go at a time and with my fear of heights, I wasn't about to be that first person. 

When the staff member, who looked like he was 18, asked who would be the first to go, no one from our group volunteered as we warily eyed the precariously thin rope.  I pushed J forward and blurted out "He is!  It's his birthday!"  He shot me a look as if to say "Thanks for throwing me under the bus."   I guess fear wins over love in this scenario.

I had a knot in my stomach as I watched the worker harness J into the rope and coach him on the proper form prior to departure.  If the rope snaps and something happens, it will all be my fault!  Who thought of ziplining anyway?  Why couldn't I have just taken him out to a nice dinner instead?  I thought to myself as I screamed and hollered watching him quickly zip down past the trees until he became a tiny speck on the horizon.  Those thoughts disappeared when it was my turn to go, which turned from fear for J into fear for myself.  However, the moment I zoomed down from the Tower, whizzing past trees, my anxiety was immediately lifted.  The rope and the harness felt surprisingly secure, so I felt comfortable stretching out my arms.  It's a fast, thrilling, and fun ride all the way down - I felt like I was flying and speeding through a time portal. 

The best part of this mini-adventure?  Seeing J waiting for me at the Arrival station with a huge grin, waving his arms, and cheering loudly for me as I landed.  We both laughed at how scared we were, only to realize that it was really fun and goes by quickly.  That's the funny thing about fear - once you face it, it's usually never as scary in real life as it is in your head.  In a big hug, J thanked me for a memorable and adrenaline-filled birthday.  And then we kissed, funny helmets and all.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The First Dates Project

After months of living together and careful observation of potential "lazy" behavior, I decide to take initiative in preventing J and myself from reaching the Relationship Comfort Zone

I propose my idea to J one night, as we snuggled into bed. 

P: Babe, remember how we talked about ways we can go out more and try new things?
J: Uh-huh...
P: I have an idea on how we can keep our relationship fresh and exciting.
J [curious]: What?
P: What if we create a long list of date ideas - anything and everything that we both like?  You know those times when we say "We should go try that restaurant in the City" or "Hey, cherry picking sounds fun, we should do it some day?"  All of those "we should" or "some day" ideas need to go on the list!  And the next time we have zero plans and free time, we'll pick something from the list.  What do you think?  
J: Is this going to include your list of wishful thinking vacation spots?
P [pauses]: No.  That's another list.

One summer afternoon at Border's (his idea), J & I sat down to make our list of the greatest dates ever.  I was inspired by one of our favorite romantic comedies "50 First Dates", in which Adam Sandler woos Drew Barrymore with a new romantic gesture every day.  Drew's chracter Lucy has a memory disorder where she can't remember anything beyond a day - thus, every outing with Adam's character always involves a "First Date" where they meet and fall in love.  The movie showed a montage of each of their first dates and first kisses, with breathtaking backdrops of the Hawaiian beaches, towering Light House, and the sugar cane fields at sunset.  The fact that First Dates was pluralized is also a charming oxymoron.  Why can't couples in long-term relationships feel like it's their first date over and over again, too?  I was determined to prove that the theory of "the first date happens only once" was false.

 {Imagine a relationship where everyday is a first date! Photo from MTV}

Our list of dates ranged from local dates to mini road-trip dates, from expensive and grandiose to novel and unique and to cheap and relaxing.  I started asking some friends for their input on the best dates they've been on with their significant others.  I stole ideas from movies, TV shows, and other couples - it went on the list.  With the list continuing to grow, I wanted to give structure and document the process somehow.  I've decided to showcase The First Dates Project here on my blog.  I look forward to sharing our stories and dates with you and hopefully, you'll fall in love with the project to create your own list, as well. 

If you have ideas that you would like to suggest to us - we're open!  We'd love to hear your "first dates" idea in the comment section.  It might even be our date next weekend! 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Relationship Comfort Zone

"What should we do tonight?"

At some point in a couple's relationship, it could be after 5 months or even 5 years, this question begins to carry a sense of dread.  It's weighted by the knowledge of endless possibilities, yet confined by time, energy, and pure comfortable laziness.  

"I don't know... Let's see what's on TV."  
You may rationalize with yourself, It's not like we stay in all the time.  We're both tired after work and want to relax.  Yeah, that's it.  We're relaxing; we're still spending time together...especially if we're watching old re-runs of Friends.  
It starts off with a night in every now and then.  That soon grows to once a week, then every other night.  My dear friends, before you realize it, your relationship slides snugly into The Relationship Comfort Zone.  While being comfortable can be a good thing and is the natural part of a long-term relationship, you don't want to get too comfortable to the point of laziness.  The relationship becomes stagnant, neither of you are really benefiting much from spending time together, and it's boring.  A relationship goes through several stages, but it should never ever be boring!

For those of you fans who watched Sex and the City 2, recall the poignant scene where Carrie throws a fit when Big orders in Chinese take-out for the umpteenth time in a row.  His feet are propped up on the couch and he's ready for a night of mindless TV.  Newlyweds and already resorting to Chinese take-out?!  What happened to the New York City glitzy parties and red carpet events?  What happened to the days early on in a romance when being "tired" was never thrown out as an excuse?  Needless to say, Big was too tired and too comfortable to care at that moment.

If you couldn't guess, in real life, I am Carrie and J is Big.  

Throughout our past 7 years of courtship, dating, and living together, we've hit our fair share of "the relationship comfort zone."  After the fireworks of the first year, we've constantly gone up and down in our comfort level.  In college, J would be so used to coming over my apartment after his basketball games nearly every night.  It got to the point where I felt pressured to have dinner ready, versus us going out.  I exploded at him one night "I'm not about to be your housewife!"  (Little did I know that I would eat my words seven years later).

Living in Los Angeles, we didn't venture out much together.  Most of the time, I was cajoling him to leave his grad schoolwork behind to have a nice night out.  It's LA!  We should be partying on Sunset Blvd every week!  Back home in the Bay Area, before moving in together, we only saw each other a couple of times a week.  Usually for dinner, though some of those instances would be the movies or bowling with a group - hardly romantic.  

P: I feel like we're not even trying.  We've gotten way too comfortable.  It's like we're stagnant... 
J: Why do you make being comfortable sound like a bad thing?  It means I'm happy in the relationship and that we have something good.

That was our dilemma.  We both had two completely different perspectives on what made the relationship thrive.  I live for the challenge and novelty.  J likes feeling comfortable.  

We were both wary of that dangerous combination.  If I submitted more to J's preference, I'd grow restless.  If J indulged in my constant need for fun activity, he'd become tired and irritable.  And it's not that I don't enjoy a cozy night in, or that J doesn't like to try new things - we just had to find the right balance based on our needs.  

How can we keep the excitement fresh in our relationship - so that we're still growing together as a couple and so that J doesn't feel completely drained by it?

Like Carrie, I grew panicked at the thought of living together with J; imagining endless nights of movie rentals, Internet surfing, and home cooked dinners.  Now that we've lived together for over a year, I notice some of those behaviors (from both us) starting to creep in.  I am fearful that 10 years will go by with us in the exact same siutation.  I decide that it's time to take preventative measures.  

Friday, July 23, 2010

Real Love Stories

I like hearing stories from real couples.  Whether from friends, parents, acquaintances, or even strangers; I am fascinated to hear about how two loved ones met and the striking events that led them to where they stand today as a couple.  What you see is only part of the picture; the context of a couple is defined by what their stories reveal.  That's one reason why I was compelled to include our history in the Story of Lipstick on Paper.

In a world dominated by Hollywood's version of love via grandiose and dramatic stories like Twilight, nauseating romantic comedies, or ridiculously contagious reality shows like the The Bachelor , it's hard to remember that real love does not reflect Hollywood.  No dramatic music, no dates atop New Zealand or Hawai'i, or having to choose between two immortal lovers (though it is fun to root for Team Jacob).   

In real life, the greatest love stories are truly the simple ones that persist and persevere. 

Here's a simple and sweet love story shared by Pedro Moran-Palma and Hilda Chacon from New York City.  This comes from today's StoryCorps, a great program produced through NPR.  Happy Friday and hug someone you love today!  

Friday, June 25, 2010

1st Engagement Anniversary

Starting today, J and I have been engaged for one full year!  Except this time, we’re not on the warm beaches of Oahu; we’re shuffling back and forth from work to home. It’s not Hawai’i, but our home is still our small oasis from reality.

Throughout our year of living together as fiances, a few discoveries popped up along the way.  There are the little ones, such as the fact that J obsesses over an empty kitchen sink, how I can’t eat leftovers more than twice whereas he can have the same meal five days in a row, that I truly enjoy cooking for him, how frequently he hears me burp throughout the day, that J enjoys drinking carrot juice, and how our sleeping patterns are complete opposites.  So far his night owl’s habits have been winning as I indulge in his late night TV, web surfing, or online streamed episodes of Naruto.  

Then there are the surprising moments of simple joy.  When I’m the first to leave for work in the morning, I drop a kiss on his forehead.  Instead of the lingering pang that comes because I may not see him for a few days -  how I used to feel when we dated in Los Angeles - I am comforted that I’ll see him later that evening.  We make it a point to affectionately greet each other at the door when someone comes home.  I missed doing that once and J was not happy.  I don’t care for naps, whereas J loves them, but I admit that there is something incredibly cozy and serene about falling asleep on the couch together.  Especially on a lazy weekend when you sleep to the sounds of the breeze rustling the trees.  Or the time when we celebrated our first Christmas at home and created a faux fireplace by hooking the laptop to the TV, the YouTube burning log channel on repeat.  With my head resting on his shoulder, I could happily pretend that we were in our own winter retreat in front of a fireplace – even if it was a web version.  

I was also surprised at how little we fought.  You would think co-habitating immediately spotlights the other person’s every pet peeve imaginable. Actually, it does.  Though it helps A LOT when you call the person out on those actions before it becomes a habit.  Minor annoyances aside, I can count only 3 or so major fights that occurred.  3 fights:365 days is an incredible relationship ratio.    

The fights were memorable and also ridiculous.  The first one involved us storming out of a ramen shop we had driven 40 minutes to eat at, only to wind up trying out a new Indian restaurant a couple of hours later. Even angry people get hungry.  The second was an insensitive joke that I made while we stood along the windy Golden Gate Bridge for me to take pictures.  Apparently, J didn’t find it very funny.  Maybe I need to work on my delivery. That photo is now framed in our living room as a teasing reminder.  The third fight happened during the holiday season when J came home grouchy from work.  I thought he was mad at me, so then I got mad, which made him get mad at me for being mad. You know how that goes. 

Whether it’s silly, petty, or small joyful discoveries, truthfully, I’m having fun.  Even after dating for 6 years, it’s nice to know that the surprises still keep on coming. Cheers to a wonderful engaged year of random findings, simple moments, and ridiculous fights!  I can’t wait to experience more with you, J.  

And yes, I’m very happy that you planned out a special date for us to celebrate this occasion.