I met my fiancé almost eight years ago, when we were both 20. People seem surprised by this: I often get asked how two people in their 20s have managed to stay in a successful, happy relationship for this long without breaking up. I used to say something vague and healthy-sounding in reply, like open communication, or mutual trust, or how important it is to be friends with your partner.
And it’s true; these things are important. But I don’t think that entirely explains it. Why haven’t we broken up? We got together so young, and have spent the better part of a decade together. So why haven’t we grown apart?
I’ve had some time — eight years — to ponder these questions. And I’ve come to the conclusion that in a way, we’ve been in four different relationships with each other. I can pinpoint when each relationship phase started and ended, and so can he. Here’s what it’s looked like for us.
The Destructive Phase. We met at a house party in San Francisco. We were in college; we had zero intention of anything serious. We thought we were so cool.
We fell quickly and intensely in love and spent most of our waking hours side by side, drunkenly stumbling through the streets. We fought a lot. We were that embarrassing couple you see when you’re out bar-hopping in your 20s, yelling too loudly about things that feel too private. We were passionately in love; we had no idea what love meant. After about a year of this, we did the most “adult” thing two 21-year-olds could think of: We discussed how we were feeling. Did we want something serious, something long term? Maybe we did. Did we want to part ways? Absolutely we didn’t. And so the first shift starts.
The Faux-Adult Phase. At 21, we decided to move in together. It didn’t feel like a big decision at the time — we already spent all of our time with each other, and even my parents were very supportive of the choice. Besides, we were adults. In an adult relationship. We were serious now! This would cement our relationship into what it was destined to be. I’m sure somebody at the time suggested this was a horrible decision considering how young we were. But we were adults, dammit! And we didn’t argue in the street anymore! Now, we were only stumbling drunk in the streets on the weekends. Progress!
The Real-Life Phase. We both dreamed of making it big in the entertainment industry, so we moved from San Francisco to L.A. Suddenly we had zero friends but each other. Fuck. What were we like on our own? Did it still work?
The answer was yes, and for a couple of months we felt like the best version of ourselves. Everything was dreamy. We’d been together for two years, yet everything felt so new. We shared a studio apartment and enjoyed how “cozy” it was. Everything in it had its place, including the two of us. But then, in the midst of us thinking we’d made it to the official adult phase, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
We’d thought we were in an adult relationship, but that was a kindergarten crush in comparison to the next two and a half years. Every weekend we drove hours to my parents’ house to be with my mom. For two and a half years we were forced to face scary truths about what my family’s future held and what our future as a couple held. For two and a half years it felt like we couldn’t enjoy the usual things that a couple in their early 20s enjoyed; having fun suddenly felt so selfish. Not to mention we were still so focused on our pipe dreams, so throughout the week we threw all of our energy into work, and on the weekends we threw all of our energy into supporting my family as best we could. He was the most supportive person in my life throughout that process, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that our relationship may not survive something this huge. I secretly feared that he would get tired of having to be my shoulder to cry on, my person to lean on, but simultaneously feared that I couldn’t get through it without him.
Then, my mom died.
The Renaissance Phase. After months of utter confusion about how to move forward, we felt that familiar shift in our relationship again. At first, I was unsure if grief would overcome me and that I would change forever — and I was unsure of how that would affect our relationship. But as time pushed us further into this new phase, there was a strange sense of optimism.
We were both in our mid-20s at this point and had been in a very serious relationship for five years. Still, I felt so uncertain about our future. What was next? We’d been through so much that felt so heavy over the last couple years. But then, things began to feel lighter. We felt like we had a chance to start over. We felt like we could focus on ourselves for a while; we both had been through so much that we felt like entirely new people, with new opinions on the world around us. Now we had the opportunity to reimagine ourselves, and who we wanted to be together.
We talked about what we wanted for our future. Eventually, we got engaged, and began turning those talks into plans.