It was a stormy, atmospheric day, the sort of day where you can feel deep shifts in the wind, the birth of new things stirring. Ana and I got married that day, and it was anyone’s guess whether thunder would slide in and drown out the heavenly music we’d picked out.
It waited until we were all inside the church and then the heavens let ’er rip. Though in truth, it didn’t drown out the music so much as it punctuated the music. And by the time the ceremony was ended and the church doors opened, it had thundered itself out.
Before going to join all our friends at the reception, the two of us slipped out and climbed up Sugarloaf Mountain to see the Connecticut River skyline for ourselves.
It was magnificent.
It felt like the start of something big.
That was 2008, also the year a little book called The Go-Giver was launched into the world. In the years since then, copies of that little book have found their way into the hands of more than a million people. And the tendrils of those two events — the birth of our marriage and the launch of that book — twined around each other as they grew, until they grew together into something new.
If you take a piece of peach tree and graft it together with a piece of cherry tree, you can grow an altogether new tree that produces both peaches and cherries.
That’s what happened to us.
For years, friends have been asking us what it is that keeps our love so fresh and alive. It’s not that we live a fairy-tale life. We’ve suffered through hardships and tragedies. Just like everyone.
It’s just that hardships and tragedies tend to wear people down. Under duress, tensions thicken, irritations turns to frictions, and friction turns to fracture. Stress can start to break a marriage apart.
For us, that wasn’t happening. The more crap we went through, the more we were in love. People started asking why it was we seemed like newlyweds, even when the numbers on the calendar said we were oldyweds.
As one friend put it, “What’s your secret sauce?”
So for years, we’ve been looking at that question. Me, because I’m a writer, and my greatest love is to find perplexing and complicated issues of human experience and express them in words of simplicity and clarity. And Ana, because she has been a family therapist and coach her entire adult life and nothing brings her more joy than helping people — couples, individuals, children, anyone — live richer, more fulfilling lives.
And both of us, because we wanted to share what we had, and what we saw in other couples who seemed to have that same kind of love: a love that endures. Lasting love.
And we came up with an answer. A few, actually.
The Secret to Lasting Love
In a word (more accurately, three words), our secret sauce came down to this: we both approach our marriage with a spirit of generosity.
Meaning, we both look out for each other. Go the extra mile for each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Give each other a little extra support, when we need it, a little extra space, when we need it, a little extra care, attention, time, companionship, or solitude, when we need it.
Meaning, we both pay attention to what each other likes, loves, wants, and needs, and then do our best to provide them that.
Meaning, we look for ways to tell them, in words and specifics, what it is we love about them, admire about them, respect about them, every day, in little ways. No big deal. Not a billion roses or a shiny new car. Not that kind of generosity. Not a big production. Just the little gestures, every day. Because the big differences come from the little things.
Meaning, we don’t keep score. How many times did you do the dishes? Who cares? It’s not a busines transaction. Marriage is not fair. “Fair” is not the point. It’s not about making sure we each get our 50 percent. It’s about making sure we each give our 100 percent. And here’s the weird thing: we both end of up richer.
The Truth About Us
And that’s the other thing we discovered: the truth about “us.”
When two people come together and spend lengthy periods of time together (like marriage), something interesting happens. There’s me. There’s you. And then there’s this third entity, this third presence in the room. Not exactly me. Not exactly you. The overlap of you and me.
The us is a living, breathing organism, and like all organisms, it needs nourishment. When you give each other encouragement, affection, compassion, empathy, when you do little favors for each other without the other asking first, when you let go of your own urgencies for a moment to give the other an understanding ear or a little extra time, when you are kind to each other, when you pick up a little extra slack to give the other a break, when you open your heart and share something you’ve never shared before and that feels a little risky and thus give the other a little extra piece of your trust, you are feeding the us.
You need to feed the us every day, because when you don’t, you are starving it.
When you react defensively, when you criticize the other, out loud or just silently, in your head, when you bargain, when you do something nice for your partner only as a result of negotiation, when you tell your partner you wish they would be a little different in some way from how they are being right now, when you hold back and don’t let them know how you feel, when you push your preferences, when you know you are right and refuse to budge, you are starving the us.
At all times, you are either feeding the us, or starving it. There’s no in between.
The us is a living, breathing organism. And like all organisms, it’s growing. Or else it’s dying. As Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it really comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
There’s a reason traditional economics is called “the dismal science.” It’s all about losing. Depletion. How things get spent. Economics says, when I give you a head of cattle, now I’m out a head of cattle. You got richer, but I got poorer. I lost. Life is a zero sum game.
But human experience doesn’t work that way. Human relationships don’t work that way. When I give you my respect, I don’t lose respect. In fact, I gain respect. When I give you care, attention, compassion, collaboration, my own storehouse of these things is not diminished but increased.
It’s weird math.
And love is the weirdest math of all.
Which is why feeding the us is so powerful. When I put your needs ahead of my own and give my attention and care to what is going on for you right now, when I feed the us, instead of one of us gaining and the other one losing, we both end up richer for the experience. It creates a rising tide that lifts both our ships.
And the ships of everyone around us, for that matter.
It’s like a fire that burns and burns only as it does, instead of consuming the logs that feed it, it produces more logs.
That’s the secret sauce. That’s how love not only stays alive but thrives and grows richer and richer with each passing year. That’s the strange power of the spirit of generosity.
So we put all this into a book and called it The Go-Giver Marriage — our tree that produces both peaches and cherries.
Will it sell a million copies, like the original book? That’s the wrong question. The right question is, what happens when one person reads it? If as a result that person’s love turns into lasting love — the kind of love that survives the thunderstorms, that opens up the doors and climbs up the mountain to view the cloud-dappled skyline and know that it’s all magnificent — then we’ll be happy.
Because who knows. That could be the start of something big.