Resilient Couples Do it Tandem

Why do some relationships last?

Around a decade ago, I was three hours into a seven hour flight across the pacific. My legs ached with restlessness and the promise of four more hours straining to find precious leg room. To my left, my fiance slept peacefully atop my numb shoulder and the overpriced pillow from an airport market.

To my right, an elderly couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary held hands in a comfortable and worn-in embrace. For the entire flight. Unable to contain my fascination, I eventually coaxed the couple into a conversation, certain that their hidden treasure knowledge was just the thing a young groom needed to protect against the listless marriages our culture portrays in tide commercials and hollywood dramas. I don't remember how it started, but I do remember that I eventually asked a very important question. 

How did you make it?

I can't recall exactly what she said. I was too distracted by the sight of a youthful love draped in vintage skin. I was too enraptured by a husband's fascination with his wife's laugh, trapped by beauty and wisdom that he maybe did not anticipate 50 years before. Their actions said more than her response ever could. What they did, they did together. 

They flew together. Fought together. Sat together. Aged together. Fought together. Laughed together. Played together. Fought together. Their tender touches were a testament to their resilience.

Seem too simple? I thought so too. But after nearly ten years of marriage, I'm getting close to understanding. Life and drama and conflict drive couples apart. The things that make us most vulnerable, like having children or changing careers, also have the potential to send us running from each other. One day, you're standing in the kitchen yelling at each other for the stupid things you've just said. The next? You're standing in a kitchen alone wishing you had someone to yell at, or who would yell at you. 

So how do you make sure you and your partner aren't caught standing alone in the kitchen? Take this couple's unspoken advice.

Do it tandem.

This week, I've had the pleasure of staying in beautiful Breckenridge, CO for some much needed vacation. Among our many  excursions, my favorite has been our tandem kayaking adventure on the Lake Dillon Resorvoir. In addition to the lake's glassy surface, the surrounding Aspens were filled with Canadian Geese, Ospry, and various other local wildlife. It was a nature-lover's paradise. 

But what I appreciated most was working out navigation with my rowing partner. At first it was a challenge, the two of us working toward the same goal with different ideas about how to get there. Things sometimes looked different from her position at the prow than mine at the stern. Sometimes, we had conflicting ideas about our direction, tempo, and speed. 

But we hung in there. 

She was willing to turn uncomfortably around as I voiced my concerns and commandsrequests. I was willing to make sure I did not splash her as I paddled harder than she could. Eventually, we got it figured out, and although at times we both wish we had our own kayaks, we were grateful by the time we got out of the water that we did it tandem. 

I often think of that couple on that flight over the pacific.

I remember some vague discussion about putting your spouse before yourself, which is an ideal that is completely counter-culture to our "me first" way of life. But what really stood out in this conversation was that these two rowing partners stuck together in their celebrations and their conflicts. They never went solo. Even when they wanted to let go, they hung on, and by the time they got out of the water, they were glad that they rowed together. 

That's not to say that two people should stay together forever, despite their misery. Research on divorce and new relationships demonstrates that some couples and their children are healthier apart than together. But some relationships deserve the work. Some relationships just need a little bit of time and resilience to learn to row tandem.

Dr. Mathis Kennington