It was at the end of a long work day when my partner, Andrew, and I finally set up our indoor picnic. We sprawled a thick picnic blanket across the floor and placed a charcuterie board, a bowl of my homemade spinach orzo salad, and his corn-based dish, Carolina caviar, over it. It was simple but sweet.
As we dug into our food, Andrew said he’d ordered me a copy of “The Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao, knowing I’d been wanting to read more books by Asian American authors. Then I gave him his gift — a sleek picture frame with a photo of us smiling in our college arboretum. In the photo, Andrew’s brown hair was long and he was wearing an argyle sweater, and I wore a red leather moto jacket. I grinned at the thought of our respective tastes in fashion at that time.
“Wow, this is from a while ago,” Andrew said, beaming. “I love it.”
It was Jan. 26, and we were celebrating our ninth anniversary of dating.
We met at the University of North Carolina in January 2012. Andrew was a first-year English and history major, and I was a sophomore studying journalism and psychology. I was assigned to take his headshot for a campus magazine that we were both working for at the time. Although we didn’t know it then, in just a few months we would find ourselves on what turned out to be a five-hour coffee date and, soon after that, in his dorm watching “The English Patient.”
A year later, we started dating long distance while Andrew was studying abroad in London. We stayed in touch by writing 5,000-word letters to each other over Facebook Messenger. When he returned a few months later, we reunited and told our friends and family. Everyone was happy for us, and our families got along well. I liked him because he was a literature nerd and used romantic phrases like “as you wish.” He read “Othello” to me and I wrote him poetry.
Even though it’s been years, I still clearly remember those early days of our relationship. I love the people we were then, and I love both the people we’ve become since then and the couple we are today.
When people hear how long we’ve been together, most of them usually respond in a similar way: “Whoa! Nine whole years. Are you planning to get married anytime soon?” It doesn’t matter who it is — family, friends and strangers have all nudged us. They wonder what the holdup is and if there’s something that’s making us put off our future together as a married couple. A family friend once told us she thought we would make “beautiful blue-eyed Chinese babies,” even though at that point we’d barely been dating for a year. It was awkward then, and hearing those kinds of comments is still uncomfortable.
Yes, Andrew and I have been together for nearly a decade and we’re still not married — and that’s perfectly OK.
In the United States and elsewhere around the world, society’s expectation is that you should be married by age 30 and kids should ideally be on the way shortly thereafter. Unmarried women in their late 20s are sometimes considered “leftovers” in China. There’s also a double standard that exists along heteronormative and binary gender lines: Single women are considered “too picky,” whereas unmarried men still playing the field are often viewed as trying to make the most out of their lives. It’s not just age that plays a part in this, either. No matter how old you are, if two people have been dating for more than a few years and they haven’t started making plans to get married, other people start to wonder, why not? Is there something wrong? Is there fear of commitment? Are you really compatible? If you really love each other, why wouldn’t you get married?
Pop culture plays a significant role in our society’s unhealthy obsession with marriage. Reality dating shows such as “Love Is Blind,” “Married at First Sight” and “90 Day Fiancé” pressure people into making one of the most important and difficult decisions of their lives — whether or not they should get hitched to someone they practically just met — within months, or even weeks. Couples are expected to integrate each other into their lives, introduce their partners to family members and choose to either “say I do or walk away forever.” Those kinds of stepping stones to marriage often take years. There’s also this assumption that once you find your person, love will and should be easy and everything else will fall into place — you’ll ride off together into the sunset.
But the truth is that these nine years since Andrew and I first got together haven’t been easy. In fact, they’ve challenged us as a couple in more ways than I can count.
In 2015, Andrew left the country to teach English in Pekan, Malaysia, as part of the Fulbright program. I didn’t see him for almost a whole year, and we thought we wouldn’t have much trouble being apart since our relationship had started out long distance. But we were wrong.
A lot can happen in a year. During that time, I moved from North Carolina to New York City for graduate school. Andrew was absent during my big transition from the South to the tristate area. He missed my graduation and an important family wedding, among other milestones. In rural Malaysia, even though he’d made a few friends who were in the same program, Andrew lived alone. One time, he became so violently ill that he visibly lost weight. He looked so weak through my computer screen when we video chatted that I got scared for him. I couldn’t visit him because of my obligations at school, and the difference in time zones made it nearly impossible for us to even talk for any significant amount of time.
When Andrew finally returned toward the end of 2016, everyone thought we would run into each other’s arms, reunite as a couple and live — as they say — happily ever after. Instead, the opposite happened: We felt like strangers to each other. Holding him didn’t feel right anymore. We’d grown apart over the course of the year, and through our solitary experiences of living in separate geographic locations on opposite sides of the world, we’d become different people from who we were before.
For a long time, we thought we weren’t going to make it — although neither of us wanted to say it out loud. Worse, I felt like I had to keep our relationship troubles a secret because everyone we knew saw us as the “perfect couple.” We weren’t given the space to process an entire year apart. We were stuck.
About six months later, I came home one night and discovered that Andrew had gotten sick all over my apartment and was now lying weakly on the bed. As I cleaned up, all I could think about was how worried I felt and whether he needed to be taken to the hospital. Those fears made me realize how much I loved him, and in that moment I knew we were going to make it.
It took us another year of working through our struggles before our relationship became fully unfrozen and truly started moving forward. We survived, though I hesitate to say we “went back” to the way we were. Our relationship had gone through a kind of metamorphosis — we were happy, but we weren’t the same. Instead, we emerged better and stronger.
In 2018, Andrew started law school at New York University and I began a new job as an editor at HuffPost. For two years, he studied while I hustled. NYU was just a 10-minute walk away from my workplace, so Andrew would often come and eat lunch with me. We moved into an apartment together the following spring and learned new lessons in patience, compromise and joy. We knew we wanted to get married, but we both felt like it would be easier to plan a wedding and a future once Andrew graduated from law school and we both had stable jobs. Then, the pandemic hit.
The past two years have been some of the most challenging in our entire lives. I have a respiratory disability that makes me at high risk for the coronavirus, so the thought of getting COVID-19 is terrifying. Andrew and I spent months quarantining with my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law under the same roof. I helped take care of my infant nephew while also working full time. Andrew studied for his final exams, graduated virtually and took the bar — the final step that stood between him and his chosen career path. Because of family obligations and logistics, we weren’t always able to live together. Because of our past, we were used to the whole long distance thing, but it still sucked.
The idea of getting married was unthinkable during this time. I grew up in a Chinese American household, and in my culture, we’re often taught to put our needs on the back burner while tending to others. I was focused solely on the health and well-being of my family. Nothing else mattered to me, not even when my own anxiety and depression reached an all-time high. I just wanted us to survive. How could we think about getting engaged at a time like this?
The pandemic still isn’t over, but we are learning to live day by day with the uncertainty of the future. Andrew and I are finally living together in our apartment again, and we’re feeling happier and more stable. We take walks in the park on the weekends. We plan fun meals and watch Netflix, and we read our books silently together, side by side. We talk about the state of the world and how we can do our part to make it a little better.
In these nine years, we’ve been through a lot. We’ve both said goodbye to grandparents. We’ve lost mutual friends to suicide. We’ve had bad bosses. We’ve survived one of the bleakest periods of our relationship. We’ve had health scares, close calls, epiphanies, mistakes, failures and identity crises. And we’ve been together through it all.
Nobody gets me like Andrew does. He is my best friend. He is my biggest supporter. He loves me even on my worst days when I’m doubled over with anxiety and can’t eat or get out of bed. He’ll stay up until midnight to watch my favorite show even though his ideal bedtime is 10 p.m. He knows my worst flaws, my deepest insecurities, my biggest mistakes — and he still chooses me every day.
I love Andrew, and I love our relationship. Just because we aren’t married yet doesn’t make what we have any less real, special or valid than those who are. It isn’t a statement about trust or commitment, nor is it a hint that something must be fundamentally wrong with our bond.
In reality, there’s not one singular or ideal way of having a relationship or family. Some people never get married, and yet they are truly in love and remain fulfilled. Some couples have open marriages, while other people get married several times before they ultimately find their lifelong partners. Still others might decide to enter into platonic marriages, and of course, many people also choose to stay single. There is no universal right or wrong when it comes to relationships as long there’s trust and communication, and you do what’s best for you.
When Andrew and I do get engaged, it’ll be because we’re ready — not because we listened to society’s opinions about the when, where and how. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be “perfect,” but it does mean we want to do things our way. We know we want to do private joint proposals rather than some grand public gesture. I’m leaning toward a colorful wedding gown and a modest ring, not a white dress and a huge diamond.
For us, getting married doesn’t mean proving our commitment to each other — we’ve already done that over the last nine years. Getting married, for us, means celebrating all that we’ve gone through and everything that’s to come.
In the end, it could still be another week, a month or a year before we get married. The important thing is that it’s up to us. And we’ll know when the time is right.
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