I Want What We Have

The best of both worlds

My parents taught me many lessons about love. Lessons I am grateful for. Lessons such as: Infatuation has a limited lifespan, but the end of infatuation need not be the end of love. A relationship, at some point, will involve hard work, clear communication and conscious effort. Without these things you don’t actually have a relationship, just two people tiptoeing around each other. Love is an ongoing choice. You have to choose to love your partner every day.

I took these lessons to heart. Hollywood was trying to tell me that love was a magical cure-all. That in the face of love, all obstacles would shrink and become mere stepping-stones to even deeper love. That love was an instantly recognizable feeling that would never go away. I rejected what Hollywood told me about love, and believed what my parents told me.

The first time I fell in love, I was determined to put in all the requisite hard work. Determined to do whatever necessary to stay together well after the final glimmer of infatuation. (Note to my younger self: if you are fundamentally incompatible, no amount of hard work—or love—can salvage the relationship. Both your parents and Hollywood forgot to tell you that.)

My parents shared the kind of love I thought I should want. Long after they stopped displaying affection in public, long after the first rush of young love, they continued to present a united front, to make decisions together. When they disagreed with each other, they would go into a closed room and communicate until they could come to agreement. They only ever said nice things about each other in public. These things were lovely, and I admired them. But…


My parents had all of the hard work and the choosing each other every day, and none of the Hollywood sparkle. I knew that Hollywood was selling me lies, that love doesn’t really conquer all, but I still didn’t want what my parents had. I didn’t know why I didn’t want it. I just didn’t. I wanted something else. I wanted the best of both worlds. Public displays of affection AND good communication. Deep emotion AND choosing each other every day. Stars in my eyes, at least sometimes. My parents were supposed to be among that precious number of successful marriages, the ones that didn’t end in divorce. Their relationship (so society told me) was one of the good ones. It was the best I could expect. So why didn’t I want it?

When my first relationship imploded under the weight of incompatibility, I decided that maybe love and marriage just weren’t for me. Maybe I would be single forever. Maybe I would find somebody and love them, and only stay with them as long as it remained easy. Maybe I would have relationships, but not real love. Not real love, because real love would require work, and I had tried the work and it was too hard. It made me miserable. Who would want to commit long-term to that kind of work?

And then, when I was twenty-three, something completely unexpected happened. My parents separated. Two years later, they divorced. When they told me they were separating I was sad. Of course I was sad. But simultaneously my heart whispered: “Yes. This makes sense.” When I heard that the divorce had been finalized, I recognized a hope that had been slowly, quietly growing within me. Somewhere during the time it took for my parents to become independent of each other, I fell in love. Truly, madly, deeply.

My parents’ divorce was my miracle cure-all. It taught me that I could hope for more than what they had. Hollywood exaggerates, sure, but deep emotional love is not a fabrication. Some people with divorced parents ask themselves: “How will I build a strong relationship when I have no model of a strong relationship?” My parents’ divorce freed me to build my own models, to stop trying to emulate my parents and to do what works for me. It enabled me to believe in love.

My parents’ relationship was not one of the good ones. I know that the quality of a relationship is not measured by how it ends. Some affirming, beautiful relationships end in mutual agreement to part ways. But my parents’ relationship was not one of these. In conversation with my mother, I have learned that the cracks ran deep, right back to before they were married. Only rarely during their twenty-five year marriage were my parents happy together. And this is sad. Immeasurably sad. But it also gives me hope. I want something my parents didn’t have. I want something better than what they had. Now I believe it is possible.

My partner and I have lived together two years, now. It takes hard work but the work is worth it because, long past the final glimmer of infatuation, we adore each other. Occasionally we have long, sobering discussions into the night about how to make our lives together work, and the following morning I will wake up and look over at him and feel myself swell with love and gratitude at my good fortune. There are stars in my eyes, sometimes. I have hope for the future, because I know we are already off to a better start than my parents ever were. I know what I want for myself, and it is not what my parents had. I want what we have.

Featured Sponsored Content

  • JMC

    This is beautiful, thank you.

  • Amy

    This resonates with me because I like you I thought that what my parents had was the best I could hope for until they divorced amicably when I was 25 and I found out that they’d never been as happy as I’d thought. Now, seven years into a relationship likely to progress towards marriage when we can afford it I realise that I can have the best of both too. Both of us come from parents now divorced so we’re forging our own path to happiness.

  • Jen

    This story really gave me some reflection into my marriage and I am happy with what I see. Thank you for the perspective!

  • River

    Thank you for sharing, this was beautiful and really resonated with me. My parents split after 25 years together (however, I was only 11 and wasn’t able to think about it this way at the time) and they were sort of the reverse of how you describe your folks. While they had a lot of passion (too much, hah), they lacked patience and mutual respect. Discovering with my fiance that passion can be paired with kindness and understanding has been revolutionary for me.

    Good luck with continuing to build your own model of what love can be!!

  • Katie

    As a divrocee, it is always difficult to read the posts and comments on APW where the writer is worried their own relationship is likely to fail because their parents ended their relationship. I really appreciate your point of view… our relationships and how we maintain them are the results of our own self-reflection and hard work. I think it’s more important to surround yourself with people who encourage and support your commitment to your partner than it is to try and emulate what is only an outward image of someone else.

    Good luck to your parents, too! Everyone deserves a chance at the partnership you have found.

  • STM

    Thank you! Thank you thank you. There’s this narrative around children of divorce that says that we fear commitment and emulate our parents’ unhappiness, and that’s never felt true for me. People seem to take it as a negative thing when I say that I’ve learned a lot about how I want my marriage to be from watching my parents make mistakes. But sometimes it really can be freeing to look at my parents and say “We’re already stronger than they ever were.” It gives me faith in what we’re doing.

  • Laura C

    My father’s parents not only divorced, they did so after years of horrible, vicious fighting that completely shaped his childhood. Recently I was talking to him about my fiance’s brother and his rebellion against his family’s values, and my father said “well, I rebelled against my family — I got married at 19 and still like my wife.”

  • KitBee

    “Stars in my eyes, sometimes” — YES! This is what I want also. :)

  • Lisa

    Thank you.

  • genevathene

    Sometimes, posts like this spark some anxiety within me. How can you know if you’re about to enter into a marriage that will morph into what LW’s parents had?

    • K.

      I guess the short answer is that…you can’t know? Not really? I mean, that’s exactly why marriage is accurately compared to a big leap of faith.

      Obviously, clear and open communication about what you want (i.e., that romance is a lifelong priority) can help mitigate those risks, but at the end of the day, we don’t KNOW that something won’t drastically change in unforeseen ways. All you can do is have faith in your partner and your relationship — and put in the work (similar to what the OP’s parents said), but not only for the united front, but also for the stars.

    • Meg Keene

      You don’t. All you can take care of is today. So go take care of today. That’s the best that I’ve learned in a decade of being together.

    • Lauren from NH

      I am comforted by knowing what I can do to prepare myself for either outcome. Keep yourselves healthy, bodily, mentally, socially (keeping friends and family, support systems close). Also I think pre marriage counseling will be a great exercise is IDing communication tools etc and loosing our couples-couseling-virginity so hopefully if a time arises when we really need it, we will be less afraid to go. That’s really the best you can do and like the LW says, at the end of the day if you are/become incompatible, then loving each other is going to be harder and less fulfilling and moving on may be a good thing.

      • Bets

        I’m feeling the anxiety too – how can you tell if you’re fundamentally incompatible or if you’re just not working hard enough on the relationship?

  • ruth

    I so relate to everything you wrote – thank you for sharing! I realize I have no models for the kind of marriage I want to have – my husband and I get to create it – which is terrifying and profoundly wonderful

  • laddibugg

    I would be surprised if my parents got divorced.
    Not because they have a picture perfect marriage, but because it’s the opposite. They reached a VERY low depth that spanned most of my childhood (my dad even told me literally right before I started college that when I came back in the spring that they might be divorced [seriously who does that?] but this was over 15 years ago), however, they seem to be working their way up. They’ve been married over 40 years, so at this point, at least legally speaking they are better off married.

    • Jess

      Hey, my parents told me when I was like 13 that they had almost gotten divorced before my brother was born. I would have been 2. I then got to hear and witness all their complaints for the rest of my life. So that level of up-front happens (and shouldn’t).

      I don’t remember them ever having a good relationship, or really anyone in my life having a good relationship. Like Ruth said below, it’s terrifying and wonderful in a way. No real standard to have to measure up to… but also no guiding light or proof that a relationship in which people don’t completely resent each other can happen. Tough to have hope.

      • laddibugg

        I was super pissed that he told me. I thought for years it was because I was young, but I realize it was genuinely a terrible thing to do to a child (i was 18, still a child basically) right before a turning point in her life. And then to not do it! It was never spoken of again. I have no idea what my mother thought because I never told her.

        I do have hope now, though that even the most troubled relationships have a chance. There seems to be something there that wasn’t before–they go on vacation together, which we never did when I was a child (I am 35 years old and we just went on our FIRST family vacation last year that was not to a relatives house), and they actually talk to one another.

  • Thank you for this. We have to remember that while we may be very similar, we are not our parents. Our actions and choices do change our outcomes. I have no doubt on this earth that my husband is a better man than my father. And that I made a better choice than my mom. But if I had gotten married at 19 as they had, or 22, it would have been a huge mistake and I have no doubt I would be divorced by now. Even if I had married my husband at 26 instead of 33, I would have been a different person, I wouldn’t have worked out some of what I have had to work out. We wouldn’t have been as strong.
    I guess, we make our own choices and if we discount our desires, either for passion or for security, we aren’t listening to what we need in our relationships. We aren’t listening to who we are. And we can’t be part of a unit if we can’t be true to ourselves.

  • Stefan Salvatore

    Nice! Thanks for sharing your experience.. I fell great after reading your article…
    Wedding in Hawaii

  • Ambaa

    I love this! I definitely relate to what you’ve discovered.