April 25, 2023

Nina and Gretchen

These amazing women have been a couple for just shy of 20 years, married for 8. Nina is quiet, wise, and deep. She’s trained as a health coach and is interested in doing work around conscious aging in the future. Gretchen is gregarious, creative, and reflective. She is an actor and storyteller, and is reveling in the fact that she can finally do this work full time. They are both givers, and I was grateful they were willing to share their experience with me.

When Nina and Gretchen first met, gay marriage wasn’t a thing. Gretchen says she was always impressed with long-term gay and lesbian relationships because, without a marriage certificate, these couples made a daily choice to be together. When they met in mid- life on match.com, they had both already been in long term relationships, and knew what they were looking for: someone with the same values, who did meaningful work, treated people well, and who valued fidelity. Gretchen also knew she didn’t want kids, and wanted to find a partner with the same vision. She says “It was always hard for me to talk about not wanting to be a mother because societally that isn’t ok”. Also, being an actor meant inconsistent, sometimes intense work demands, and she hoped to find someone who could work with that.

Nina recalls, “There has been some resentment over the years about this. I used to get angry when she would be gone and I would have to pick up the slack around the house. However, I’ve recently learned this is more about the work I need to do to heal from past wounds. I’m less irritated about her schedule now. Also, I’m super proud of watching her act”.

I looked over from where I was sitting and noticed an exercise bike in the living room where one might expect to see a couch. “We’ve figured out what each of us needs to be healthy and happy”, Gretchen says. “We’ve turned our living room into a home gym because Nina uses the equipment as part of her daily routine. We’ve also found that having separate bedrooms works well for us because we have different body clocks. If we don’t sleep we get resentful of each other”.

I was intrigued. I think I’d get pretty grumpy if I had to turn my living room into a gym. I know my husband and I have had longer-than-should-be-allowed conversations about whether to even have a TV in our living room.

“Popular culture says that to be married, certain things must be true. You have to sleep in the same bed, do everything together, and have children. These don’t support people’s personal growth, or allow them to have their own lives even though they are connected”, Nina says. “We don’t hold each other back. We support each other in pursuing different interests and passions”.

Nina and Gretchen were alluding to a visual I once heard a couple share that has stuck with me over the years. You start intertwined as two hands cupping each other, over time you start to differentiate (two hands pulling apart, into two separate circles), and over time, you come back together (circles interlocking).

This got me thinking about time. I’m 14 years into my own marriage, which at times feels like a lifetime, but is beans compared to my in-laws. “You won’t open all the doors to the person you’re with right away. You think you do, but you don’t”, Gretchen says. “You won’t know their happiest day or their most scary thought right away or even 5 years in. For example, our spiritual journeys have gone places we wouldn’t have expected when we first met. This required time, though. There is also a trust element: if I tell you this thing I hold precious, will you judge me? This only comes with time. The ability to lean in to someone and trust that they will be there.”

Gretchen sees this as one reason many couples may split early on. “Our culture also says it’s got to be good, it’s got to be now, you have to have it immediately, and if it doesn’t work out right away then you move on. The speed with which things happen changes our expectations about the speed with which things SHOULD happen. This translates to our relationships: if we don’t get what we want immediately, it must not be right, it’s not worth hanging in there. This isn’t true”. I could feel myself exhaling. Hang in there, I could hear them saying. There’s a lot left to discover, explore, and learn in this journey.

In my life as a nurse practitioner, I hear a lot of people sharing how confusing it can be if the passion of an early relationship changes. Many people wonder if it means their relationship is doomed. I wondered if that was the case for this couple. “Our culture overemphasizes the importance of sexual fire throughout a relationship that is going to last more than a couple of years”, Gretchen says. “We’ve found that over time, the sexual fire may lessen but companionship matters more, being with someone who is honest and will stick around for the hard stuff. Humor is especially important when things get tough!”. Nina adds, “As you get older and you’ve been together for a long time, relationships can lose the starry-eyed quality of young love. However, we’ve found our relationship has gotten deeper with time, focused more on companionship and living our lives in the same way”.

Our time was running short. I just had to ask the question that started this whole idea many years ago. “What’s the secret?”.

They look at each other and smile. “Be patient, things take time”, Nina says. “Things are going to change, the way you feel now is not the way you will feel 10 years from now. Passion will change, but as long as you are still growing with this person it can be even better. Don’t just stay because you are married, though. Stay because you are both getting something out of it and growing.” They laugh. “Have a sense of humor”, Gretchen adds, “ You have to be able to see things from multiple perspectives and find ways to be joyful together”.