My husband is my best friend. He has been for 17 years. It is, without a doubt, the most important and influential relationship of my life. He's my home and I not only love him, I just really like him a whole lot. I know, I know. Gross.
Now, I haven't been married for 17 years, we've just been together that long. I'm 32 and he's 33. If you do the math you'll figure out pretty quickly that we were 15 and 16 when we became a couple. To us, this is just how things are. To other people, it's more than a tad unusual.
I wouldn't technically call us High School Sweethearts, since we went to different schools in different states, and I think that term usually refers to people who go to the same one. But maybe it does apply. We were certainly in high school when we met. It was even, ::gasp:: partially an online relationship! This was in the 90's, way before internet dating was a common thing, and there were no official dating sites that I'm aware of, at least not the way you see them advertised on TV now. We actually had this complex relay system on Prodigy so that a group of us could all talk together in a kind of makeshift private "chat" room, and then have individual ones if we wanted. I'm sure we weren't the only ones to game the system like that. It made it so those of us in different states could still stay in touch and have legitimate friendships or relationships with people we had connected with, who just had the misfortune of living too far away for regular hang outs.
It's funny to think about this now since the internet has changed so much since then. I have so many friends in so many different locations it's pretty routine. But I think those early forays into finding people with common interests but who were not limited to your immediate geographical area was really important. One of the least realistic aspects of school is the idea that spending time with people who are the exact same age as you, that you've grown up with and been in the same classes with, with largely similar backgrounds, is in any way "normal" or indicative of the world at large. In real life you tend to associate with people of all ages, from different countries (let alone different states), with radically different backgrounds and interests. That's a good thing, especially if, like me, you really don't fit in with your peers very much. Finding people outside the forced social circle I was in helped me enormously.
When I met my husband I was 15, a social pariah, and sincerely convinced that I was too ugly/awful to be loved by anyone, ever. There's a certain kind of conviction that comes with being that young that is both misguided and yet utterly sincere. You think you really know how things are, and sometimes you do, but more often you don't. I don't think adolescents are stupid, of course. But I do think they're young and, since everything feels so very important whether it actually is or not, you tend to overestimate what you do and don't really understand. It's a time where you're trying on a lot of different identities to figure out who you are, forming a more solid sense of self that is not dependent on what other people have told you to do or be, so everything has this air of "meaning" to it. I sometimes think the real conflict of adolescence is between the excruciating importance of everything you feel and think...and the relative mundanity and boringness of most of the situations you're dealing with. But maybe that's just because I was a geeky nerd who read a lot more than she socialized.
Anyway, it's interesting to me that during this overly fraught age is when I met the person I've since spent more time partnered with than alone. Well, sort of. Our relationship was long distance for the first 7 years. We saw each about once a month, twice if we were lucky. It gave the whole thing an air of tragedy, I'll say that. I cried every single time we had to part. Some of that was an adolescent tendency towards drama...but a good part of it was that I really only felt truly understood and cared for when he was around. I felt calm and appreciated for myself. I didn't have to worry about being judged or criticized for the things I liked...and he totally put up with the weird/silly things I did...like the whole year I wrote emails in a kind of a faux Scottish accent. And I understood that he just needed to wear this ugly old man hat he called, "Fred". We were good to and for each other. We didn't really have fights, we never had that break up/make up dynamic...and even then we were kind of our own mutual appreciation society.
I think part of what really solidified us a couple, though, was that about 6 months into our being together (we didn't really "date", that's tough to do when you can't see the person very much, we just a couple)...they discovered that his chronic back pain was due to 1. a tumor on his spine and 2. rather severe scoliosis that had developed rapidly to compensate for said tumor. He needed to have spinal surgery which ran the real risk of paralyzation, not to mention they didn't know if the tumor was maligant or not. Generally it isn't in that particular location, but still. He was 16 years old and the word "tumor" is pretty terrifying no matter what. He was also told that after the surgery he'd need to wear a back brace for at least a year to make sure the spine healed and "fused" correctly. And he'd have to be careful because if anything compromised that fusion he'd have to be rushed into surgery again.
There was a moment where I was like, holy shit, this is REAL SERIOUS LIFE STUFF. This wasn't some minor sprain or an annoying rash, this was something that would probably effect him for the rest of his life, a very risky surgery, and a year of recovery that was really only the start. I had friends who were like, you don't want to deal with this, you're too young, you should date someone local...but I didn't see it that way. Even at such a young age I understood that life was not a series of happy endings like in the movies. People got sick. People died. It could happen when you were young, middle aged, old, but it was going to happen at some point. You had to deal with it. It was scary and everything, but I just didn't think that bailing on someone the second they needed you for something actually important was a particularly nice thing to do, especially if you legitimately loved them. So I did what I could to keep him upbeat about it and read up on his back condition a lot. The day of the surgery was pretty much awful and I didn't sleep the night before. I was so relieved when I got the phone call that he was okay from his mom that I went immediately to sleep and didn't get up until the next day, probably a good 14 hrs later. It was a Thursday and I would go to see him in the hospital on that Saturday.
My mom, I have to say, was always really wonderful. She let him stay with us over weekends, in my room, and never made a big deal about it. She says now that it's because we clearly weren't casual that she felt like it was important to be supportive. She's also not a prude about sex and trusted me to be sensible and safe, which we were when we eventually got to that point. I'd had very thorough sex ed from both my mom and school so we didn't rush anything and I think that was a good thing. It didn't happen until quite awhile into our relationship, and well after his surgery. I think we both kind of knew that wanting to have sex was not the same as being really ready to. For teenagers we were remarkable self-aware sometimes.
So, when the surgery happened my mom was just a totally awesome person. She drove me up to see him in the hospital and waited in the cafeteria with his mom and sister while I spent about an hour with him. I had to be careful because of the surgery, I couldn't just climb into the hospital bed and hug him like I wanted to. But I did my best to be silly, sarcastic, and positive. He looked good considering, but seeing someone you care about in a hospital bed just isn't a fun time no matter how successful whatever it is has been. I managed to be completely composed and fine up until about 3 seconds after walking out of the room. Then I burst into tears and had a good long cry.
The year after that was, to put it mildly, challenging. He was in a back brace for it, which was hard plastic, and he also had to wear a metal support part from his chin down to where the brace started at about the top of his chest. He was also stuck at home that year, which couldn't possibly have been much fun. There really aren't any words to describe not being able to hug someone without a big old plastic barrier in the way...but it was way worse for him than it was for me. When he finally got that thing off, we had the most amazing hug. I still remember how he looked standing in the sunlight, a smile on his face, and I was able to put my head against his actual chest and my arms around his waist. As much as it's not an experience I would wish on anyone, and as much as I wish he hadn't had to go through it, I sometimes think that it made us appreciate each other in a way we might not have otherwise. I don't know that for sure and it's not really important. We got through it and were stronger for it.
Throughout high school and even most of college, we never talked about The Future in any grand sense. We never planned out a wedding or how many kids we might have or even thought much about big picture type stuff. We both knew that we were really young and that life could change things at nearly any moment. We knew we wouldn't be going to the same college, we knew that relationships like ours were not generally considered realistic or likely to last. We certainly didn't treat it like it wasn't serious, but we also didn't try to force it. I think we both knew that it was important that we grow up and do things for ourselves and not let our relationship define us.
In that sense college was not as difficult for us as it is for other people trying to maintain relationships. I went to school in NYC, he went to school in CT, and we both pursued our individual interests. We both commuted from home to school and we never pressured each other to compromise on our education or interests for the sake of our relationships. I think we both knew that would kill it faster than anything.
I don't want it to sound like we were some perfect couple who never squabbled or were the same person. We've had dumb fights, a few "serious" ones, and we don't always agree. And there have been tense times other than the surgery, like when he graduated from school and couldn't find a job for a year or two, and I supported us with my first comics editing job. FYI, those don't pay very much and it was not fun to handle bills and all that real life stuff on my own. But we got through that and actually ended up in games instead of graphic design. Which has ultimately worked out better as he's always been a gamer and loves it.
Likewise, going from long distance to living together had some adjustments. I will honestly never understand people who don't live together before getting married. Sharing your space with another person is challenging no matter how much you have in common or care about one another. I can't imagine leaping into a commitment like marriage without dealing with living together first. It teaches you a lot.
Then, of course, there's the fact that we didn't get married until we'd been together for 9 years. And only then because we wanted to be under the same health insurance/dental plan. Terribly romantic, I know. Neither of us had any issue with marriage per se, we just didn't really care. We were committed, we were together, and we definitely didn't need a piece of paper to make that binding (other than legally, of course). We did have a lovely, tiny, wedding, though. We pretty much avoided anything particularly traditional and when I say tiny I mean 20 people tiny. We basically went and got the license and told people where to show up like 3 weeks later. Friends and family were very sweet and said lovely things, I wrote the extremely non-religious vows, and afterwards we had pizza. I don't know if we're just weird but I don't remember feeling any different about our relationship after...it was just a really nice day.
Fast forward to now, we've moved cross country together, and recentlyish to San Francisco. Even though every apartment hasn't been fantastic, being together with our ridiculous cats always makes it feel like home. It doesn't "feel" like 17 years. We still talk constantly. Well, I talk a lot...he listens and enjoys my chatter for some reason. We like spending time together and pretty much hate being apart because we kind of feel adrift, without our anchor. Not in any sort of clingy sense, I don't think. It's not needy, grasping, or jealous. It's just...being together feels right.
I have no idea what the future holds for us. But I know we both feel really lucky that our interests have always seemed to run parallel to each other so that, while we don't love exactly the same things all the time, we "get" what the other one is about. We trust each other, we have a kind of obnoxious shorthand that probably drives other people nuts. Mostly, though, I'm grateful that I have such a supportive and kind partner in life. I don't ever want to take that for granted. It's too rare.