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Writing about my “modified monogamous” marriage made me curious about how other people’s relationships work (or don’t). To get some insight, I decided to interview a few friends, all representing different levels of partnership. What I discovered was something I already knew: Love is complicated. And weird. And (almost always) worth it. It’s a beautiful mess, and with their stories, I hope to showcase just how true that is.

Though Jennifer Ramirez and my brother-in-law Mike met in high school, nearly 20 years passed before they became romantically linked.

“I had a couple boyfriends in high school, but we never actually went anywhere because I wasn’t allowed to date.” Jennifer explained that her “overprotective Mexican parents” wanted her to focus on her education. It’s the same reason she and her siblings never got jobs—school needed to be their focus. “They said we could date when we graduated, but even then, we had to ask permission.”

During high school, Mike, on the other hand, only dated sporadically and in the short term.

He was a self-described “moderate slut” in the years before his first long-term relationship with a woman. He wouldn’t even call what he did “dating.”

But he and Jennifer reconnected after Mike and his long-term girlfriend—who he’d moved to New York City with—broke up. And Jennifer had just gotten a divorce.

“I was married for almost five years… it wasn’t the healthiest relationship,” she said. “[It] was emotionally abusive. I had no idea at the time, and no one mentioned it to me during the relationship.”

Hoping to escape from the aftermath of her divorce, Jennifer decided to get out of Texas for a bit. When she thought of places she’d never been before, she thought of New York and, by extension, Mike.

“We’d kept in touch off and on,” Mike said, “and we reconnected when she came to visit me.” After Jennifer returned home, the two started talking more regularly, which led to flirting and the eventual kindling of their relationship.

Starting off in a long-distance relationship had pros and cons.

Initially, Jennifer thought it was the best of both worlds. She had Mike in her life, but she was also getting to live on her own for the first time. But, there was one drawback: having to process the end of her marriage alone.

“There were many, many, many rough months,” she said. “I did have [Mike] to talk to when I needed support, but I had to kind of grieve on my own.” Since she couldn’t see Mike every time things felt particularly terrible, she said her journey through the stages of grief wasn’t any easier than if he hadn’t been in her life at all.

An even harder aspect of recovering from her divorce and transitioning into this new relationship was discovering her emotional scars. “I spent the first few months of my relationship with [Mike] afraid that I was doing something wrong and apologizing for almost everything I did.” Eventually, she realized that she was bringing unnecessary baggage into their relationship, and she worked to get past her past mistreatment—“It helped that [Mike] has always treated me really well.”

Ultimately, the distance really put a strain on things.

Fed up, they decided that Jennifer should move to New York to close the gap. However, she struggled to find a job—“I suck at interviews!”—and it wasn’t getting any cheaper to travel back and forth. Deciding that he’d had enough of New York after five years, Mike moved back to Texas… and right into Jennifer’s house.

This instant cohabitation required a lot of adjustment. “I really would have preferred that we dated and lived separately,” Jennifer said, “but it was just easier for him to move in with me. I understand that it makes more sense for people to live together before marriage, but I wasn’t raised that way.” Moreover, she feels that it’s a setup that society still frowns upon.

Mike disagrees. “I don’t think anyone thinks anything of it. Her parents put up a very half-hearted, unconvincing façade of being sure that we sleep in separate beds and are living together in wholesomeness.” (His parents, on the other hand, didn’t really care. I can vouch for this, as his brother and I lived together for three years before we got married.) Instead, he thinks the most difficult thing was adjusting to spending so much time together.

But, it’s working itself out.

This might explain why they don’t actually have a lot of rules in place to make their unexpected living situation easier to handle. Still, Jennifer has one big (though she says it’s “very lenient”) rule: by their 10th anniversary, Mike either needs to propose or pack up. “One of the things that happens when couples move in together is that they never get married,” she said, “and I’m not okay with that. I like the idea of marriage.”

(They’re a ways away from 10 years together, though, so Mike has a little bit of time. And I fully believe that when that deadline hits, we’ll get a text message saying they eloped.)

These days, the biggest issue in their relationship is the fact that their work schedules don’t line up.

“We have to make all our time together count,” Mike said. The couple has traveled out of the country together—all the way to Thailand on one occasion!—seen The Lion King musical, and gone to the bacchanalian display that is the Texas State Fair. They also have big plans, like going to Cuba, seeing Cirque du Soleil, and learning to scuba dive.

There is one thing that Mike wouldn’t mind phasing out of their quality time activities: working out. “I’ve learned it’s possible to love someone while intensely hating them at the same time when they drag you out of bed to go exercise.”

N. Alysha Lewis

N. Alysha Lewis is an editor and blogger with author aspirations whose love can absolutely be bought with french fries.

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