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MatadorLife Editor Leigh Shulman opens up about her relationship with her husband Noah and how it has shaped her beliefs about having a long-term partner.

It was summer. Lila and her friend Maia played in the sandbox while we moms sat on benches drinking latte from the corner deli and comparing notes about the upcoming terrible twos. That’s the day I learned Talya and her husband were edging toward divorce.

“How do you know when the problems are just too big?” she asked me.

“We’ve been together long enough that…” I began, but she cut me off.

“I know,” she said. “You and Noah have been married long enough that you have all this stuff figured out.”

But that wasn’t it at all. Quite the opposite.

Noah and I have been together almost twenty years. We’ll have been married for exactly fifteen years this coming Friday, June 25, and we dated four years prior. That’s more than half our lives together.

I used to think there was such a thing as a soul mate. Years with one person has made me change my mind.

What I intended telling Talya that fine July day is that at some point in a long relationship, you’ll have at least one time when you realize, this is it, we’re breaking up.

Noah and I have had two. One happened soon after September 11th. Hindsight tells me stress did it to us. We had just witnessed the most massive human destruction we’d ever seen. We watched charred paper rain down on the roof of our building and heard sirens blazing from Brooklyn through the Battery Tunnel to the once-standing WTC buildings. Soon after, all freelance work dried up in the city and suddenly we couldn’t pay our bills.

The second time occurred around the time we decided to sell our stuff and leave New York to travel. Again, maybe it was the stress of it all. We sorted through every piece of our lives, decided what to keep with us and what to discard. Whether or not we consciously realized it, we had to be wondering if maybe we should just disconnect from each other, really start over completely. It was tempting.

But then what?

I’m the same person with Noah as I am without him. If I want to be alone for a while, fine, but what if I want another relationship? I bring to any other person the same quirks and faults as I have with Noah.

We tend to have between five and ten different disagreement at any given time. We draw the same battle lines, repeat the same arguments and generally make our way to the same conclusions. At times, it’s excruciatingly boring. Other times, it’s outright painful.

Photo of Leigh and Noah, taken by Lila

Over the years, some arguments drop off the list. Others appear. Some are stupid. Some relate to our deepest personal beliefs. Some are just sticking points, reasons to argue because you’re pissed off at each other, unable to communicate and get stuck in gridlock.

That’s when you take a deep breath.

And when you figure out what’s really getting to you. It’s never the teabag I left in the sink or the bill left unpaid that caused the electricity to be cut again. Even infidelity and the lies that go with it are not in and of themselves the issue.

It’s what those things mean to you about yourself. The anger we feel toward others, while often entirely justified, always stems from our own insecurities.

When your partner tells you you’re being a hypocrite or you’re not making enough money or you’re not supportive enough or you’re a fucking dickhead and I hope you die, or any one of a thousand things people say to each other out of honesty or anger or the desire to be hurtful, it will only cut deep if there is already a wound there.

There’s no such thing as happily ever after.

I used to think there was such a thing as a soul mate. Years with one person has made me change my mind. It’s not because I’m disenchanted with Noah, it’s more that I now believe it is possible to work through anything if you decide that’s what you want to do.

There will always be points of disagreement and discord, and even the most well suited couple, who seem to have everything in common, who agree on every point and never fight, will eventually reach a time in their relationship when it just stops working.

Does that mean you’re no longer soul mates?

Leigh at Burning Man

The way I see relationships is that when it’s good, I mean really great, those times you’re electrically charged toward each other, you can be sure those won’t last. You’ll always head into neutral or negative space again. But when they’re bad, there are no guarantees you’ll go back to the electric.

Some might call that cynical. Yes, I suppose. I see it as a reason never to take anything for granted.

Here’s the secret, I think.

You have to take care of your own needs first. Many will call that selfish, but seriously, if your head is in disarray or your body in pain, how can you possibly be there for or with anyone else?

It’s not really so much of a secret as something that’s easy to forget in the barrage of everyday life things. Whether you have kids or not, travel or not, are expats or not, there will always be something going on. Family, work, lack of work, natural disaster, death. Something will be there to stress you. Even more so, happiness can often be hard to handle. I mean, what do we do with ourselves when we actually get exactly what we want?

Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is you need in order to take care of yourself.

I like to be alone.

I don’t mean a couple hours to myself. I mean I need to get out and experience a bit of life on my own. That’s why I’m going to Burning Man this year, while Noah stays home with Lila.

I appreciate that he understands my need isn’t personal to him. In return, I try really hard to listen when Noah tells me the things he needs to take care of himself, even if it’s difficult for me to hear.

When you have that space to take care of yourself, you continue in your own development separately from your partner. You go your own directions, fuel your own interests and then can return to each other refreshed.

How do you know you’ll always come back to each other? You don’t. You just have to trust.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

How long have you been with your partner and what lessons have you learned along the way?

Check out the articles in our series Love in the Time of Matador where we explore the many facets of Matadorian love and relationships.

Relationships

 

About The Author

Leigh Shulman

Leigh Shulman is a writer, photographer and mom living in Salta, Argentina. There, she runs Cloudhead Art, an art & education group that creates collaborative art using social media to connect people and resources. You can read about her travels on her blog The Future Is Red

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    Wow Leigh, it’s nice to hear this more personal side of you. I talk to you on a daily basis and I always imagined you and Noah never went a day without fighting, haha. Silly to think that, of course. It’s not possible in any relationship.

    I’ve always been a “soulmate” kinda gal, too. I like hearing this other side of the coin, that it pays to work for it. Perhaps we all need to let go of the soulmate ideal.

  • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne

    How brave of you to be so honest! I’ve never really bought the soulmate thing. I think it’s tough for people to say that yes, arguments are a fact of relationships, sometimes you need alone time, sometimes you need to put work into it. Fifteen years later, obviously you guys are doing things right. Respect.

  • http://www.carolinanomad.com Spencer Spellman

    Great, deep personal touch Leigh. Amidst what I call my own relationship failures, this is a breath of fresh air of an approach that has really seemed to work for you guys. Cool to see the room that you give each other to do your own thing.

  • http://collazoprojects.com Julie

    Leigh-

    Like Candice said, we’ve worked together for a bit, but I obviously didn’t know this about you. I really appreciate your openness and honesty and have nothing but respect for your insight and decision to (as one poet said so beautifully) to wake up every day and say “Yes, yes, I’ll take you again.”

  • http://holisticwithhumor.com Christine Garvin

    Leigh,

    Although we’ve touched on some of the stuff you wrote here in some of our conversations, I appreciate your ability to be so candid about the reality of love and marriage. I think we both agree that the dream of “happily ever after” that has been IV’d to us from birth is more detrimental to relationships than just about anything else – that just as everything in life, there will be more than one moment we want to jump ship and not look back. But surrendering to trust is ultimately all we can do.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/juliane Juliane Huang

    Like Anne said: Respect. Thanks for contributing to the series, Leigh. Thank you for being so open and honest with us. It was really helpful, for me, to know that there are a few times couples’ll want to call it quits, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed. Like Christine said, at those points I feel “surrendering to trust is ultimately all we can do.”

  • http://www.speakingofchina.com jossailin

    Leigh, thanks for such an honest look at your relationship — especially as you are married and have children. As you say, it is so important not to take anything for granted with someone else.

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    Wow-Leigh. Thanks for such an open look into your life and relationship. This article took cajones and perspective. You don’t often get to hear people *really* talk about their relationship in real way. What I know for sure (to borrow Oprah’s opening) is that people have to absolutely be true to themselves and relationship and honor what works for them.

  • Ash

    Leigh, maybe i will see you at burning man. i too will be going solo. good for you for doing what you need to do, and to noah for understanding.

    • http://www.thefutureisred.typepad.com/ Leigh Shulman

      Hey Ash,

      I’d love to meet up with you at Burning Man! There are a bunch of us going from Matador, although I think the details and specific aren’t nailed down yet.

      I’m going to ask around and see if there’s any thought to having a central place where the Matador community can connect. And if not yet, we’ll work on pulling that together.

  • http://www.thefutureisred.typepad.com/ Leigh Shulman

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    It’s funny. When I rad your reactions to this piece, I couldn’t help but wondering what exactly had I divulged that makes this so honest and, *ulp*, brave?

    At the same time, while I posted this article here, I didn’t share it on Twitter or Facebook where my friends and family are sure to see it. They’re going to have to make an extra effort to visit Matador if they want to read this.

  • Jen

    Hi Leigh,

    A friend of mine just sent this post for me to read as I’m preparing for marriage next year. I’ve read it over and over and thought to myself, this is so refreshing to read and “hear.” I was reading comments as well and wondering exactly what you commented above…what did you write that was brave and alarming? I feel as though this is true for all of us in any relationship-figuring out what we’re willing to work through because my faults will follow me wherever I go. I just wanted to say thank you for this – I truly believe in this post!

  • http://cerusso.blogspot.com Russo

    Hey Leigh,

    I’m super late reading this, but I would kick myself if I didn’t respond. GREAT piece and, like everyone as said, very touching and brave! It is great to read something so honest and direct; a lot of people feel the ‘soul mate’ and ‘happily-ever-after’ relationships are the things to strive for, but I share your sentiments in thinking the couple should work at making it work. I don’t believe in ‘perfect’ relationships and think that disagreements, arguments, and honesty are the things that make a great relationship. Sure, you will experience your ups and downs, but I think that is only part of the ride. If your in it, you have to be in it for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Communication and hard work should be essential keys to one’s relationships.

  • Titi

    Thank you for your insight, Leigh. Definitely food for thought for the future!

  • http://www.kirstenalana.com/ Kirsten Alana

    This is my favorite of the “Love in the Time of Matador” series because I think you touched on the most important truth: that love is not always easy. But neither is it right to just give up and throw away what can be good again. And that monogomy doesn’t have to be a bad choice. And the importance of realizing the difference between relationships that have ebbs and flows and relationships that may just be plain bad.

    When I was married it was mostly bad. And while I debated as to whether or not I could stick with it through the ebbs & flows; my ex-husband simply found someone else and replaced me. And suggested divorce.

    If I am ever married again, or in a committed relationship, I don’t intend to take so much time deciding. And I intend to enter into a relationship that’s serious with someone who I want to love through the ups and downs. Not just, who excites me in the present moment.

  • Clare

    What a really great article – I feel quite moved. I’ve always found relationships incredibly hard, i.e. being with someone after the initial few weeks of ‘oh my god he’s my soulmate’ kick in. Now I’m with someone who I fell for like never before. And later down the line it HAS changed, but so far, whenever the hard times come, there’s a core underneath that reminds me it’s still something that expands my life to a level it would never get to otherwise. Really nice to hear from someone who’s 20 years down the line who still seems to have the same complex core in their relationship that I’m starting to find in mine.

  • http://www.driftingfocus.com Kelsey Freeman

    This is definitely my favourite of this series.  Great piece, and I see a lot of what you mention in my own relationship.

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