The One That Didn’t Fail

Jocelyn Pihlaja essays

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Despite substantial evidence that the romantic ideal of meeting The One and living happily ever after is a crock, we are trained from birth to believe in it. Perhaps we’d do better to widen the scope of our relationship discourse and stop trying to shape everyone with the same cutter.

We also would do well to put less weight on the ideal of “one relationship, for life, equals happiness.” Rather, advice columnist Dan Savage’s notion of relationships seems more pragmatic; he asserts that “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn’t.” Somehow, that way of phrasing it eases the pressure to Arrive at One’s Destiny.

Indeed, “successful” doesn’t mean sticking to each other until you’re dropped into a pit six-feet deep. “Successful” can be ascribed to any relationship, so long as participants take something away from it when it’s over. Every failed relationship can be a success.

I dated a gay guy in high school, and although I was sick about my lack of desirability, I also gained important skills from that relationship: confidence, openness, the ability to look someone in the face and not crack when receiving bad news. Just as importantly, I learned how to keep dancing to the end of the extended six-minute remix of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Later in life, I had a taxing and joyful relationship with a troubled man; being with him taught me negotiation, self-protection, and to appreciate my own zest for adventure. Once we broke up, I entered a relationship with someone who kept me in constant doubt–yet, from our time together, I learned that it is essential to listen to my instincts, which had been screaming, ignored in the corner, for months. After that break-up, I dated a quiet man, and from that relationship I became aware of my spark, convinced that zingy is as valuable as steady; as well, I got lessons in living without resentment and an ability to recognize that, contrary to previous self-perception, I am not needy.

Each of those relationships, save for the last, played itself out. They failed. Ultimately, in terms of forming me into who I am today, they were extremely successful.

The last relationship, the one with the quiet man, continues not to fail. All predictors point towards us confounding everything I’ve just noted, as we continue to feel complete and satisfied within our monogamous commitment. A big part of why we’re so happy together is our understanding that what works for us needn’t work for everybody. Another big part of our mutual satisfaction is that we like each other better than anything.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good cook, and I’m a good eater.

Thus, I don’t entirely believe in the traditional romantic ideal, yet I’m 100% living out the traditional romantic ideal. If nothing else, our agreement means we’re fairly certain both kids are his.

We had a particularly attractive mail carrier twelve years ago, however. She was cute enough that my husband has just cause to suspect she might actually be the father.

Here’s the thing: any time I crack a stupid joke like that, my husband enjoys it.

I also know he’ll enjoy my rants about people who refuse to be reflective.

Plus, he can’t stand a martyr, nor can I.

He’s down with a deep debriefing in the kitchen after social gatherings.

When I’m stewing and tangled inside, he’ll stroll into the room with a glass of scotch and say, “Here. You need this.”

A firm pacifist, he hurls knives and axes at a target in the back yard with our son. He realizes that throwing weapons is merely the warm-up activity before baking popovers and whittling a magic wand.

He explains to our daughter the choices a scientist can make when designing an experiment. He supports the inclusion of cranberries and sunflowers, if the scientist thinks those are necessary materials.

He loves logistics. He loves maps. These are felicitous counterbalances to a partner who prefers a plunge followed by a freefall.

He has been our stay-at-home parent since we had kids. During that time, he has supplemented our income by working as a barista, a newspaper delivery boy, a teacher of cooking classes, a literacy tutor. He can do anything.

When I tell him I’ve created a situation in one of my online classes where I need an image of a four-armed Cyclops (long story), but I don’t want to deal with the copyright issues attendant to finding the necessary picture, he takes ten minutes to draw me what I need.

We are married. We are monogamous. On paper, his love of chickpeas and my love of the Arby’s drive-thru would never predict an easy compatibility.

We also prove that most long-term relationships are a matter of luck more than fate. As the years tick by, and various life circumstances crop up, I see beauties in my husband that didn’t know to vet for when we were courting. Everything I thought I wanted in a life partner? Not much of it pertained to getting through the grinding hours of daily life or periods of crisis. The questions in my mind were more “Does he want children?” than “Will he actively seek ways for me to be away from the children so that I can be happier when with them?”

All I knew, when we were courting, was that I liked his hair.

It delights me that I was fortunate enough to clod-hop my way into this relationship that is the one that didn’t fail.

Fifteen years after we married, thinking we knew each other–yet how could we know anything at all when nothing had happened to us yet?–we thank luck, affection, and jollity for carrying us through.

A shared enthusiasm for dark beer hasn’t hindered our sustained devotion, either.

We crack a few each year on our anniversary and raise our glasses to a relationship that continues to succeed even though we had no idea what we were getting into.


About the Author

Jocelyn Pihlaja

Jocelyn has been teaching writing at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting "silence" when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, .

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February 2015 – XO
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