I don’t actually think this is very good advice. Sorry! I’m not sure what to tell other people about being married, but I know what works in mine. I also married the first person I had sex with. We met and started dating in high school. He’s the only person I ever dated. We’re still together. I’ve been in this relationship for more than half my life. 16 to 40. He was in the car when my dad taught me to drive.
I don’t think that’s typical and my experiences aren’t portable. How can I tell anyone to mimic the path to what we have together? They’d have to go back in time and erase their experiences of dating and romance. But I can say a few things that probably hold true for your relationships and mine.
For one thing, I had very good models of marriage in my life. My parents met in graduate school and married pretty fast, like you did, but at a later point. They were 30 when they met and married. And they were a good team. They worked together for many years in addition to being married partners, and this formed my concept of what a marriage is: a team working together toward mutually agreed upon goals. Yes they were loving and romantic too, but fundamentally, I saw that they trusted each other to be honest about their feelings and ideas. You cannot have a team that doesn’t share the same goals, even if each player is working toward them differently. And if you didn’t have people modeling that in your life, it can be hard to learn without a lot of emotional expense.
The second thing also relates to my parents. When I was about 10, I learned that my mother was divorced. My father was her second husband. This was not a particularly earth shattering lesson, but it helped me avoid the pitfall you describe of doing what is expected. I was never anxious to get married. In fact, we’d been dating for 10 years by the time we actually got hitched. We didn’t have kids until we’d been together for 15. There’s something else: we went to two different colleges in different cities and never broke up. This actually seems like a big part of why our relationship succeeded, in hindsight. By not constructing my life around him, I managed to live independently and learn how to be alone. I pursued my interests and my goals without sacrificing them for him and leading to resentment. At the same time, we visited often and the work it took to see each other really cemented the way I valued the relationship. I rode the bus to see him and it went the wrong way for 2 hours, creating a 5 hour one way trip. Having a relationship external to my college life made him my constant, my rock. And we cheered each other along and supported each other through the distance.
When you talk about limerence and tell people to have lots of relationships, you seem to be saying that people are all interchangeable. And that, I think, is actually a very destructive way to think about relationships. The older I get, the more I notice that the only marriage I really understand is my own. I love my parents and think their relationship is wonderful, but I could not be married to either of them. Their tics and mine do not mesh. I can say the same of all my friends’ relationships too. I don’t know how they put up with each other. I understand what you mean about the risk of infatuation and putting your partner on a pedestal, but I don’t think it’s accurate exactly to say that “there is no ‘the one’”. There may not be only one person out there for everyone, but it’s also not true that every pair (or more!) of people can be happy together. Maybe I could have been happy with someone else, but romantic love is also conditional love. As you say, as one partner changes, the relationship may end. We were lucky that we began our relationship without the baggage that often kneecaps marriages with old expectations of jealousy and pain. Because we were so young, we grew together, which is in some ways easier than learning to live with someone after you’ve grown set in your ways. I can remember epiphanies I’ve had about how to communicate and just *be* married over these years too. Realizing that he wasn’t responsible for my happiness when I was depressed ( and giving him permission not to be). Learning how to fight productively, because all couples have to fight sometimes. Recognizing how to create boundaries and carve space for yourself after marriage, with in-laws, with children. This is all work and it is joyful, but I think we do a terrible job portraying marriages in our country. Marriage is so often depicted as a goal, rather than a process. We leave people unprepared for the experience of being together after the pursuit is done. And then you have people having to make do with mythologies about sacrifice and one sided commitments, as you did.
All I can offer really, is the advice my dad gave me when we got married: only one of you is allowed to panic. Someone’s always got to be steering the ship. It shouldn’t be someone you just kind of feel eh about. It should be someone you want to travel with.