Don and I have been together for seventeen years and married for thirteen. Since we became nomadic in September 2011 we have been in each other’s company almost continuously. There have been occasional breaks when I stayed home and he did the grocery shopping, or vice versa, and the even more rare times when one of us went sightseeing without the other, but these occasions have been so infrequent and of such short duration as to be insignificant. We don’t particularly want to be apart from each other.
When we had a home and a ‘normal’ life we had times apart doing different activities, usually Don with his men friends and me with my women friends, the most significant of which would be when I disappeared for days at a time to attend a figure skating competition. And of course Don was also still working a regular workweek. We had a fairly normal social life I think, spending time with friends and family. Since we began travelling we’ve been in each other’s company on an almost continual basis, largely without the companionship of others to alleviate that circumstance. And for the most part we live in one room. We rent apartments or housesit if we’re in a place for a week or more, but mostly a hotel room is home. People ask us how we do it. A frequent question is: How do you deal with being together 24/7?
We love each other of course, but so do many couples who would drive each other nuts being together all the time. We like each other. That’s a start. More importantly I think, is that we communicate well. We also usually recognize, eventually if not immediately, when we’ve been a dink for no good reason, and eventually, if not immediately, always apologize. We each will ultimately take responsibility if we’re behaving like an idiot, and then stop blaming the other for our woes. In addition we each frequently let the other know how much they are appreciated. We make jokes about being a ‘good wife’ and a ‘good husband’. We say thank you a lot: for little things frequently, and for the really big things from time to time. Ironically, or perhaps because we don’t need to, we never celebrate our wedding anniversary or buy each other gifts.
When we married I vowed to always be self-revealing, to keep nothing hidden, to always be truthful, to not keep a mental list of all the things ‘wrong’ with Don but to love anyway, to love in spite of as well as because of, and to not blame. I confess I don’t remember what Don’s vows were, and neither does he. They are buried somewhere in our wedding album in our storage locker, but they were pretty similar to mine. It all sounds pretty highfaluting doesn’t it? Good for us! All very wise and noble. The truth is it took commitment, not just to each other, but to the vows, to actually walk the walk, and it took practice. Years and years of practice.
I certainly can’t say we’ve never had difficult times. There was the time when we were in Paris many many years ago: Don caught a cold on the plane and felt lousy. For a week I nagged and nagged him to come sightseeing with me everyday when all he wanted to do was lie in bed. I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole week of our time there being wasted. To this day I don’t understand why I didn’t go alone. It’s not as if I’d never travelled alone before. Or been to Paris before. Anyway I nagged him so much, and had so little empathy for how he was feeling, that he stopped loving me. For two years! Finally when he’d grown to love me again he confessed to me how he’d been feeling. It was a kind of watermark in our relationship. And there was another deep conflict, another watermark, that took years to resolve, even continuing into the time we became nomadic. But the point is we did finally come to resolution.
Communication was always the key. Resolution was reached because of being completely self-revealing no matter how exposed we felt, because of being committed to tell the truth no matter how vulnerable we were, because we owned our own agenda and culpability instead of blaming the other. And because gradually we both became better and better at genuinely listening. I used to be a terrible listener. Instead of really taking in what the other person was saying I would be busy thinking of what I would say next, and often misinterpret what I was only half hearing. Gradually with Don I learned to listen, to actually hear what he was trying to say, and if I didn’t get it, or didn’t understand, to ask for more clarification.
With time and practice it got easier. We each became better at expressing what we needed to say, at telling the truth, at sharing vulnerable feelings. We each became better at listening. We each became less judgmental of the other. And so gradually we created a safe space with each other, an energetic container, a crucible where difficulties and disagreements could be aired without fear of put down or disrespect or being made wrong. We practice this kind of open communication and honesty with others whenever we can, but not always because sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to do so. A sense of being seen, heard and received by the other is paramount. If this is not present there can be no communication, only words back and forth.
Another thing we’ve gotten better and better at over the years is becoming aware of, and being okay with it, when the other wants to be left alone. Sometimes I’ll talk to Don and I can tell he’s not listening. ‘You’re not listening to me are you?’ ‘No. Bugger off’. Chuckle. Sometimes either one of us will say ‘Pay attention to me now!’ either as a joke and wanting a hug, or because we really do need attention in that moment. If Don approaches me and I want to be left alone I say ‘I’m watching skating’. Those few words speak volumes. More seriously, we are both completely comfortable when the other says ‘I don’t want to be interrupted’ or ‘I don’t want to deal with that right now’. Often we’ll ask ‘Is this a good time’? Again it’s about simple clear communication. I suppose it all comes down to the fact that, like many couples that have been together for a long time, we read each other very well. And rarely take offense. There’s nothing so special about all this. Many couples that have been together for a long time have developed this kind of communication and understanding. Except for us it feels special because we learned it all the hard way. Over many years. And it took a lot of patience and practice and willingness to be wrong.
We support each other now in a way we didn’t when we first got together. I don’t think we realized in the early years of our relationship that we were not fully supportive of each other, though perhaps Paris is a glaring example of how I lacked support for Don. There have been other situations where Don has not been supportive of me. What we have come to, gradually over the years, is a kind of unilateral unconditional support for each other. I support him in being exactly the way he is, his thoughts, opinions, likes, dislikes, and qualities both maddening and endearing. And he gives me the same support. It’s not that we never try the useless pastime of trying to make the other be different from how they are, but not often, and not for very long. We both know that it is a fruitless exercise, and also because we understand that each of us is perfectly ourselves and couldn’t be any other way if we tried. And neither would we want that.
Hugs. We’re extremely big on hugs. Hugs to say I’m sorry. Hugs to heal a hurt. Hugs for calming down. Hugs for sharing love. Hugs to help what needs to be endured: this too. Hugs for what needs to be celebrated. Hugs to connect. Hugs to reconnect. Hugs for the sheer simple pleasure of it. Hugs for the soul. Hugs for the body. Hugs for sadness. Hugs for joy. Hugs just because.
Since we became nomadic in September 2011, and have been thrown together in ways we never were before, all the strategies for harmonious and enjoyable cohabitation have been tested over and over. We get better and better at letting go of the need to be right. Little spats fly by in the blink of an eye. Neither of us has the energy anymore to hold on to being angry or upset with the other. ‘Life’s too short’ has become one of our favourite and most used mantras. Life’s too short to worry, about anything, and life’s too short to stay mad, to blame, to make wrong, to cling to being right, to be in disharmony with the person you care most about in the world. Loving, and being loved, teasing, laughing, celebrating the perfect unique beingness of each other is so much more fun. It’s simple really: the more we love the more we love. Which applies to pretty much everything.
Photos of the day:
Above – sunrise, Guerilla Bay, NSW, Australia
Below – Lao traditional dress, from a fashion show at The Hive, Luang Prabang, Laos
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.