The summer of 1977 marked a transitional year for Stuart. No longer a boy, he could now claim the credentials of being a 13-year-old teenager.
Although he was shy, the new terry cloth shirt and brown corduroy pants his mom got him was supposed to bolster his confidence.
But he still forged ahead with his plan anyway.
Tonight was going to be the night he made his big move:
He would ask Shelley—the girl he had a secret crush on since fourth grade—to take a stroll around the skating rink during the couples skate.
But he needed to wait for the perfect song to come on, which it did:
“Just The Way You Are” by Billy Joel.
As soon as it started, Stu skated over to the other side of the rink, where Shelley hung out on the rails with her girlfriends.
“Would you like to go on the couples skate with me?” Stu asked, as his voice quivered indecisively between high and low octaves.
Shelley and her three girlfriends giggled at how cute and nervous Stu was, making his face turn red, and his confidence implode.
As he started skating back to his buddies on the other side, Shelley cupped her hands to her face and shouted out,
Stu and Shelley had an unforgettable few laps around the skating rink holding hands.
But as glorious as that moment was, it would still take many more years for them to be together.
A second lap
Although they went to the same high school, Stu and Shelley never got a chance to date. Before Stu could close the deal, Rodney—the football team’s star quarterback—asked Shelley to go steady with him.
Stu was heartbroken, but Shelley always had her eye on him.
After high school, Stu went up north to MIT to study engineering. And Shelley went down south to the University of Florida to study biology.
They didn’t see each other for a couple of years until one summer night when the high school alumni association hosted a nostalgic skate night at the roller rink.
And just like when they were teens, Stu skated over to the other side to ask Shelley if she’d like to do a couples skate. However, this time, there were no giggles — just gawking stares from Shelley’s girlfriends.
Stu was much taller, more handsome, and a lot more sure of himself than he was as a pubescent teen.
And Shelley had developed into a beautiful, witty, and academically-gifted lady.
Everyone thought they looked great together skating around the rink that night, and the speculations went wild.
Fulfilling a dream
What started as a few simple laps around the rink turned into a long week of hanging out together. And then a long-distance relationship from two different universities.
Not a night went by that Stu and Shelley weren’t on the phone talking about life, love, philosophy, and dreams. And even though they were seven states apart, they felt like the only two people in the universe who got each other.
Whenever they had a break from school, they’d find a way to be together. But living so far away from each other was driving them crazy.
So over the cascading showers of New Year’s Eve fireworks, they made a promise that one of them had to move closer to the other.
After much discussion, Stu agreed to leave MIT and enroll at the University of Florida in the fall. And from then on, they spent most of their days and nights studying together and dreaming about their future life together.
A year after graduation, Stu and Shelley got married. And at the wedding party, Stu surprised Shelley by presenting a large gift box with two pairs of roller skates for them. And, of course, the DJ played — “Just The Way You Are”— as they took a few laps around the hotel ballroom with family and friends cheering.
Every couple has a love song, and this was theirs. Whenever they heard that tune, it reminded them of how perfect they were for each other.
For the first fifteen years of their relationship, Stu and Shelley did everything together. They liked camping, kayaking, running, cooking, working on the home, and participating in the kids’ sports leagues.
But around the 15-year mark, they found themselves spending more time alone and splitting off into different directions and identities.
Stu got into hunting, fly fishing, playing electric guitar in a makeshift band, and riding Harley’s with the boys. He changed his dress, grew his hair out long again, and got a tattoo.
Was Stu having a mid-life crisis? Absolutely!
But he wasn’t alone.
Shelley hung out with a group of girls that got her into yoga, meditation, pottery, poetry classes, and a never-ending supply of new age/philosophy books.
She cut her hair super short and changed the color to red. A few times a year, she’d head off to the desert to partake in yoga/meditation retreats with her friends.
For the first time, Stu and Shelley started seeing their life and dreams differently. They worried they were drifting apart, so they made an effort to try to get into each other hobbies.
Shelley agreed to hop on the back of a Harley with Stu and make the body-aching pilgrimage to the legendary Sturgess biker rally.
And Stu drove out west to the desert with Shelley to endure a week-long sweat lodge therapy session with what he called the “Bhagwan.”
But neither gesture brought them closer.
Stu didn’t like the way Shelley’s friends talked about the afterlife, God, and politics. And Shelley couldn’t stand Stu’s tattooed, vest-wearing, gang of mid-life crisis males fading in strength.
Late at night — as they both pretended to be asleep — they wondered:
“What happened to my best friend/lover?”
“Aren’t we supposed to be sharing our lives together?”
“Or were we just blinded by teenage love?”
One evening after work, as they sat in the car in the high school parking lot listening to the radio and waiting for their two teenage boys to finish soccer practice, their abiding song — “Just The Way You Are”— came on the radio.
Although neither of them said anything about it, the song brought back a flood of memories of how in love they were when they first met at the skating rink as teens. And how much they longed for each other in college.
But with decades behind them now, Billy Joel’s words took on new meaning. And a few of the song’s lines hit them differently:
Finally, Shelley broke the ice and said,
“We’re changing, aren’t we, Stu?
“Yeah, we are,” Stu said, staring out the window. “But we’re not changing for each other. We’re changing for ourselves. For what we need, or might have missed as youngsters. I’ve always had a rebel inside me, and you’ve always been a spiritual seeker.”
“Is there anything wrong with that?” Shelley asked.
“No, there’s not,” Stu said. “But I’m not sure we thought through all these issues when we were young because we were so in love.”
“Are you still in love with me, Stu?” Shelley asked.
Stu turned to her and said, “Incredibly!…You’re the love of my life Shelley, and I would die without you…”
“But…” he continued, “I feel like we have four competing identities we’re juggling now:
- workers, and
”We’ve done a great job of fulfilling the first three. But we haven’t had time in our life to work on the fourth identity of our ‘self’ much.”
“I agree,” Shelley replied. “I know this time in our life and marriage is a bit confusing, but I love you with all my heart, Stu…and I couldn’t imagine…”
And that’s when the tornado of two teenage sons jumped into the backseat of the car to unleash soccers balls, dirty gym bag smells, cell phone sounds, and brothers fighting and screaming.
“To be continued…” Shelley said.
. . .
When Stu and Shelley invited me over for dinner, the three of us sat out on the patio, nursing our cocktails, and talking about our teenage years at the skating rink.
When Stu asked me what kind of music I wanted to listen to for the night, I suggested they play that “old Billy Joel album, just for kicks,” and they both rolled their eyes.
“What was that about?” I asked.
And after some delay, Shelley just came right out with it:
“Stu and I have been talking about how intertwined our lives were when we were young. But now we feel like we’re growing apart as we get older.”
“There’s no doubt our love for each other is there,” Stu interjected. “But the direction of our lives is no longer in-synch.”
“You know us better than anyone,” Shelley said. “What are your thoughts?”
Love as growth
“When people talk about love, ” I said, “they often say things like: ‘He’s my other half,’ ‘my missing link’, and ‘you complete me.”
“These metaphoric statements tend to describe two halves lost in the world that then come together to form one whole. It’s powerful stuff!”
“But sometimes this rich imagery misses the point of our need, if not imperative, to grow as individuals.”
“I’m not convinced that any of us are ‘grown-up’ by the age of 25 when you two got married or in the middle stages of our lives. We still have a lot of growth left in us to explore.”
“I prefer to think about love as two living organisms that coexist together, like two beautiful trees planted next to each other. Trees never stop growing, evolving, and trying to reach their full potential.”
“Despite this notion of ‘maturity,’ we’re continually in the process of evolving—growing upwards, downwards, and outwards as adults.”
“I don’t think it’s something to be worried about,” I said, “as much as it’s something we need to re-frame in our mind.”
“We tend to look at marriage as a promise to stay bonded and never change. But what if we looked at our relationship as a commitment to creating a safe garden for the other to grow, reach for the sky, dig deep into stable roots, and, ultimately individuate.”
“Yeah, there are many complicated definitions and theories for what that word means. But for our purposes, it’s a term that encourages you to be verbs in your life. To not be rigid or fixed, but be in the process of continual growth.”
“Getting married is like planting two trees next to each other. While the two trees might look complimentary together, we wouldn’t want them to be exact copies of each other. That would be boring and deny their unique features.”
The tree theory
“If you plant two trees next to each, they will grow as their DNA, and hidden blueprint instructs them to evolve.”
“But a tree isn’t conscious of how it’s supposed to evolve. Instead, it just grows.”
“One of the greatest privileges of marriage is that we get to see our spouse rise, shine, and blossom. To go through the seasons of life and weather the storms, droughts, and winters.”
“Our task as lovers is to be a gardner and caretaker of our spouse’s garden. Our duty to our spouse is to do what we can to help them evolve, even if we don’t always get it or like the direction they’re growing.”
“We’re all pretty complicated individuals, and we don’t always know what we’re searching for in life. Sometimes we need to reach higher to the heavens, and sometimes we need to branch out, or dig down deeper to find something buried in our roots.”
“It can be challenging at times to see, much less understand what your partner is reaching for in life. Most of the time, they don’t even know it themselves. But if we give them the room and the proper soil to grow, we get to witness something beautiful emerge.”
“Each of us has a secret code that we’re supposed to pursue to feel fulfilled in life. And to grow, we need to follow those cryptic instructions to see where they take us.”
“Recognizing and supporting that need in your spouse is the most generous act of love you can do.”
And that’s when their favorite Billy Joel song— ‘Just The Way You Are’— came on.
“Listen to these first four lines again.” I said, “I think they will a mean a lot more to you now:”
“Let your partner know that you see them, and respect their need to change for themselves, not for you. And let them know how much you love seeing them grow and evolve.”
“Of course, there are limits and boundaries to all this. Suppose your spouse is manufacturing drugs in your basement like Walter White on Breaking Bad. Or committing illegal or immoral activities. In that situation, you might have to draw your line or end your part in the relationship.”
“But this unacceptable behavior may be something your spouse needs to pursue —on their own and without your involvement.”
Fortunately, Stu and Shelley’s pursuits are all harmless, acts of self-discovery. But they no longer feel the pressure or need to do all the same activities together.
Instead, they enjoy sharing stories and swapping insights about their exploits in trying to feed particular parts of their soul. Oddly enough, this intimate sharing of ideas is what they did when they used to talk on the phone in college.
During that period, they accepted each other as they were in the process of evolution. And there’s something extraordinary about having someone get and support you as you grow, which is how it should always be in a relationship.
Stu and Shelley’s marriage is now rooted in soil that is ripe for individuation. And that freedom to have separate pursuits has allowed them both to grow much stronger together.
It’s just the way they are now.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Pexels