The Cardinal Value Behind Lasting Relationships
It’s humility, not commitment
My grandma has been married to my grandpa for over 50 years. One day, I asked her: “How do you do it?”
Grandma said: “You know, there were always times when either one of us could have left. But you gotta ask yourself: What truly better thing could follow?”
My grandma has never read a self-help book in her life. She does not meditate, and when she can’t sleep at night, she doesn’t buy blackout curtains, she drinks a warm beer. And yet, her simple words showed a profound sense of self-awareness.
Imagine your spouse just lost your life savings. After a heated argument, you storm off to think. In the midst of all the anger, you still remember that, even if you left them and found someone else, at the end of the day, we’re all flawed human beings. Each person has their own baggage, and while it may vary in size and color, there’ll always be baggage to carry.
Wow. Now that’s some powerful perspective. At an important crossroads like this, it might make all the difference. Instead of trading one person’s problems for another’s, you may decide to not throw away your marriage. To stick it out and find a solution together.
“That’s commitment!” I thought. My conclusion — besides the long-standing conviction that grandma was amazing — was that commitment was the most important value of lasting relationships. There certainly wasn’t a lack of commitment in my last relationship.
Right after we matched on Tinder, I promised to meet her the next day for breakfast. It was a one-hour drive, but I thought, “No effort, no reward!”
When she moved to Berlin for an internship a few weeks later, I didn’t hesitate to offer long-distance. “We’ll make it work.” Many 9-hour bus rides later, we were reunited.
Just as we were thinking about moving in together (“Of course!”), she got into another internship, this time in London. Again, we committed to making it work.
Halfway through her stay, I visited, but in the time I was alone, I realized: I didn’t miss having her around. There’s a lot more to this story, but our relationship fell apart soon thereafter.
Especially in the early stages of a relationship, commitment is important. If you never define what you’re getting into, usually, one person disappears sooner or later. They get distracted by all their options — travel, work, other people — and if the bond doesn’t feel real, they think they won’t lose anything. Only in hindsight might they realize how precious the relationship was.
Once you’re in a committed relationship, however, your promises become more about reaffirming your initial decision to be together. They will still take courage, but slowly, from each pledge to the next, commitment transforms from a big, scary jump into the unknown into an important tool you must use at critical junctures in your shared lives.
As with any tool, however, if it’s the only one you have, it’ll begin to look like the solution to every problem. As the saying goes, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
In my case, I used commitment to dig myself deeper and deeper into a relationship that, for reasons unrelated to my commitments, wasn’t working. They were acts of spite, not acts of growth. They were distractions from the differences we couldn’t resolve, differences I knew were there deep down but chose to ignore by shouting, “No! This is how it’s gonna be. I’m gonna make this work!”
For example, early in our relationship, my ex-girlfriend dabbled in being vegan. She got more and more into it, and I tried to support her by buying vegan groceries and eating almost exclusively vegan when we were together. She, in turn, once made me gratin with organic beef I had bought and even gifted me a steak dinner for my birthday.
Over time, however, shared meals became a chore. I didn’t feel like having soy milk with my cereal. She was tired of me ordering burgers. If you plan on eating 2–3 meals a day together for a long time, that’s a problem.
In hindsight, I think she underwent a deep shift in values, and while I didn’t want to belittle her ethics or worldview, I also didn’t want to give up mine. It was as if we both asked each other to change our religion — not impossible but unlikely.
Commitment couldn’t solve this problem. If anything, it intensified it.
The more I tried to support her lifestyle, the more frustrated I became with her desire to change mine. It felt like my good intentions backfired. She must have felt the same. “Why doesn’t this guy understand me?”
At the end, we were prisoners of our commitment. We used it as an excuse to tolerate a bad situation while secretly hoping the other would change their mind down the line. Never bet on someone’s core beliefs to change.
More so than committing to each other as people, what we both needed was the individual habit of accepting others as they are — including our partner.
And that brings me back to grandma’s story: The most important value in lasting relationships isn’t commitment. It’s humility.
Humility understands when commitment is necessary but acknowledges that some problems can’t be overcome. Looking back, humility could have resolved every single one of my relationship conflicts, whether it was a small miscommunication or a big argument. At the very least, it’d have helped us make progress rather than dig in our heels and spiral deeper into the problem.
My grandma has stuck with my grandpa not despite his flaws but because of her own. Whatever mistake he made, as long as she could imagine making one of similar magnitude herself, she would learn to accept and eventually forgive it — just as he would have to do whenever she messed up.
How do you turn this from a simple “he did, she did” game into a marriage that lasts over five decades? You accept the bigger truth behind the idea: Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, every human is capable of making every mistake imaginable. Priests can become murderers, just like prisoners can become presidents.
Humility is easy to talk about but hard to practice: It evens the playing field in the most literal sense. If you could, I could. If I did, so may you.
Humility is understanding the difference between an identity gap and a mistake. Only one has an offender, neither makes payback necessary.
Humility is thinking carefully before you deem someone undatable. Who are you to pass judgment? Which circumstances could have led you to make the same mistake?
Humility is saying, “I’m sorry about yelling earlier,” even before your partner demands an apology. It’s saying, “I’m not sure I expressed it right, but this is what I meant” before your partner misinterprets, not after.
Humility is living up to your commitments while looking out for patterns commitment can’t solve. Sometimes, you just have to talk about it; sometimes, you must go your separate ways.
Humility is neither being afraid your relationship will end nor being sad when it does. It’s being grateful for learning from and growing with an awesome person by your side.
In my last relationship, I thought I was doing everything right. In my current one, I often see that I’m wrong, that I know quite little, and that not every small rift needs a 10-step action plan or grand gesture to be overcome. Some needn’t be overcome at all, as two people can happily coexist despite being different — at least to a big extent.
Commitment is an important, necessary part of a relationship that lasts a lifetime, but it’s not the glue that keeps two people together against all odds.
That glue must be applied by each and every one of us, every single day. Only you can keep yourself humble. Only you can imagine the opposite and use it to show empathy where judgment would love to rule.
If a problem in your relationship can’t be overcome despite your best efforts to be gentle, respectful, and unassuming, it’s probably not a problem at all. It might simply be a chasm between two people, a chasm they are not meant to cross and that was put there to show them this isn’t where their individual journeys end.
Even for that, your most humble self will do. For everything else, all it takes is a simple reminder: The world is big, you are small, humans are equal, and all of that is okay.
It’s funny how much we can pack into a few words, but I guess that’s how a six-word question can lead to 50 years of marriage. A simple question, like “What truly better thing could follow?”