The 36-Year Love Affair

My husband and I met when we were 12 and we have been a couple since we were in high school. For some reason, our story freaks a lot of people out.
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"That's adorable," people always say when I tell them I married my high school sweetheart. Their tone is one of charmed condescension, as if my husband and I were two feebleminded beings who didn't know any better than to run off with the first person we made out with in the backseat of a Chevy Caprice Classic.

Sometimes I tell people that Mark and I met when we were 12. If "high school sweethearts" amuses people, "12" horrifies them. "You were 12 ?" people will ask, as if we remain simultaneously jailbait and cradle robbers. All I know is that I was in the junior high jazz band playing electric guitar while Mark sang a medley of the music teacher's favorite Beatles songs in the seventh-grade chorus and I thought he looked cute in his red-and-white-checked chorus shirt.

It turns out that it's convenient to be married to someone who has known you almost your entire life. The shorthand can be useful. Mark can say of someone, "He looks like that guy from junior high who wore tater tots on his fingernails" and I'll know exactly who he means. Our personal, social, and pop culture backgrounds are nearly identical: We both watched Gilligan's Island every day after school and we danced to "Stairway to Heaven" at junior high dances. We even went to the same pediatrician, whose name, Dr. Budzeika, can still evoke terror in both of us.

Of course, we realize that there are also experiences we've missed by knowing each other so long. We didn't bring each other a whole new world, exotic and enticing. There were no childhood stories to hear, no college buddies to learn about, no wacky relatives to meet. But that's a minor complaint. It's how love works, every romance unfolding in its own way.

Ours unfolded like this: After high school, where teachers yelled at us for our daily make-out sessions in front of our lockers, the romance went long-distance. Our colleges were 400 miles apart, so we saw each other about once a month. Often we met halfway in our suburban Chicago hometown; sometimes, desperate to see each other, we would find a ride and travel eight hours each way for a weekend visit. Once, Mark totaled his roommate's car on a bridge in southern Illinois while trying to reach me during a blizzard.

It was excruciating, going from being high school sweethearts to hometown honeys. But we lasted through college. And grad school. We broke up several times, once for almost a year. Even when one of us was sure it was over, the other one hung on, convinced that we belonged together. This now strikes me as pretty good preparation for marriage.

Then came the moment of truth. After finishing grad school in Indiana, Mark was heading to New York to start his first job. I was working in Chicago. That summer we went backpacking around Scandinavia, and on a medieval street in Stockholm with a beautiful nighttime view, he proposed. I was annoyed. For reasons I couldn't begin to articulate now, I was sure we wanted "different things" and thought marriage was a bad idea. But he was sick of the long-distance romance. "This is it," he said. "Marry me now and let's go to New York together, or break up forever. I'm only going to ask you once." I said no.

I left him in Stockholm and went back to Chicago, but by the time he returned I knew I didn't want to be without him. True to his word, he wasn't going to ask me again so I had to ask him. He said yes, and in less than two weeks we were on our way to New York. Mark later told me the ultimatum was a bluff -- "I would have put up with the long-distance thing another couple of years" -- but he was happy it worked. As for me, marrying Mark was one of the best decisions I almost didn't make.

Twenty-four years and three children later, we find that people ask us for relationship advice simply because we've been married so long. Unlike parenting tips, which are easy to dole out -- "sleep when the baby sleeps," "don't give your teenager your Facebook password" -- marital wisdom is tougher to come by. Who knows why our marriage has lasted so long? Today it's because Mark made me a cup of tea just the way I like it; yesterday morning it was because he took our 7-year-old to the park so I could sleep in; Saturday night it was the way he cracked me up imitating "Herr Nanny," a scheming, skateboarding German male babysitter we used to have. I can tell you that every day since our teenage love story began, he's given me a reason to adore him. And I hope I've done the same for him.

Now that our two older children are in high school, I find myself looking carefully at the friends they bring home, thinking, Could this be the one? If these kids lack the judgment to tell if the dishwasher is actually running or not, how can they possibly know whether the awkward teenager who won't make eye contact will be the love of their life?

Neither child has had a serious romance yet, but I'm waiting. My friend Julie, whose 17-year-old daughter has a long-standing boyfriend, recently complained, "They're so serious, but when I suggest she date other boys, she looks at me like I have two heads."

"That's because you do," I answered. "How would you react if your mother said, 'You've been married 20 years now, you're closing in on 50, isn't it time to try someone else?'"

"Well..." Julie stammered.

"It's the same thing," I said. "What can you do if it's love?"

And yet the idea that Mark and I met so young strikes most people as regrettable. Shouldn't we have dated lots of people and had many relationships so we'd know when the "right one" came along? But what if the right one is the first one? Forgoing a few whirlwind romances and a couple of one-night stands seems a small price to pay for the privilege of sharing a life with someone I love.

Sure, if given a choice, I probably would have preferred not to meet Mark at 12 and start dating him at 16; then again, I know plenty of people who wish they'd met their soul mates long before they did.

In the end, does it matter when we find each other? The real miracle is that we find each other at all.

Nancy Woodruff celebrated her 24th wedding anniversary this past spring -- which means she has officially spent more of her life married than not married. And that suits her just fine.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2012.


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