Like reliable public Wi-Fi, a relationship that takes no work is hard to come by. That's because, despite what people in "effortless" couplings say, all relationships require maintenance and care. They're like bonsai trees, or particularly persnickety orchids.
But it can be difficult, knowing how to give the lovely thing you've grown the care it deserves. That's why, in anticipation of the new series LeAnn & Eddie on VH1, I've asked a few couples at various stages of their relationships how they keep their good thing going.
Some names have been changed. Interviews edited for length.
Elizabeth and Tom, the Sorta-Newbies: Just over a year.
Siobhan and Kenny, the Affianced: Three years, seven months. We got engaged on our third anniversary.
Mike and Emily, the Long-Haul: Ten years — six dating, four married.
Shelana and Ryan, the Ones With the Baby: Sweet mother of pearl, on and off for 13 years! Married for four.
The Sorta-Newbies: At a mutual friend's birthday party. We started talking at the party and ended up going out for drinks that same night after everyone else had gone home. We went on our first date about a week after.
The Affianced: Match.com
The Long-Haul: Met in high school, but we didn't start dating until our senior year of college.
S, The Ones With the Baby: Ryan crashed dinner plans I had with two friends (A and D), a couple with whom I had no problem being the third wheel on a regular basis. When I arrived, Ryan was wearing his "good shirt," which was a polyester number with leopard print fluffy material hand-sewn onto the two chest pocket flaps. He was beautiful, and I do not remember speaking with A and D at all that night, just his face and that stupid shirt of his.
R, The Ones With the Baby: Friends introduced us, almost accidentally. They were NOT trying to set us up. About an hour after we met, I asked her if she would like to go to Turkey with me. A few months later we were in Istanbul. I have never stopped loving her from that night and always knew we would end up together, even with years and oceans between us.
Q. Conflict is natural in any relationship. How do you handle it, and what are your rules for keeping lines of communication open?
The Sorta-Newbies: When it comes to conflict, we tend to have rare but large blow ups. And to be honest, we haven't been that great at dealing with conflict in the moment because we both get really heated, so it usually plays out that we fight hard and work it out after we've cooled down. Don't fight when you're drunk. No matter how mad you are, try to remain respectful of the other person. You're on each other's side. Really try to listen to what the other person is saying and then respond to it rather than just jumping to your next point. Make sincere apologies.
The Affianced: We talk. A lot. We also don't hold grudges. Of course we get into fights, sometimes pretty big ones, but we always make up as soon as possible.
The Long-Haul: Certainly we get heated sometimes, but we always try to keep it fair. We try to be real about what our arguing flaws are and keep them under control. Self-awareness is key. Both sides always need to be willing to apologize for something, not just out of obligation, but out of mutual understanding. Saying your piece honestly and truly is often all the resolution needed.
S, The Ones With the Baby: In the beginning we handled conflict thusly:
Ryan: I want to talk.
Me: Shhhh...you're so cute when you're silent. Make me a sandwich.
Ryan: Seriously, can we talk?
Me: I'm going in the other room. Don't follow me!
Over the years, I'd like to think I've learned from Ryan how to do it right. If I am too whomped up to talk, I have lobbied for the right to give the discussion a cooling-off period, during which Ryan cannot keep grinding whatever axe he has — whoops, I mean resolving whatever issue we have. But we try to come back to it relatively quickly. And I've talked to enough older people to know: you never go to bed angry.
The Sorta-Newbies: We try to do both — we think it's important to spend time just one-on-one with friends and neither of us gets weird if the other wants to hang with friends or just wants some alone time. You've gotta have your own stuff or else it gets really boring staring at the same person all the time.
The Affianced: We never drastically changed our lives because we are a couple. We still do all the things we did before we were a couple, but we also make time to do things together, both with and without our friends. We also make sure we have time for ourselves. We're no good for each other if we don't have "me" time.
The Long-Haul: We have a kid so this is a bit different — all of a sudden you're not just a couple, you're coworkers (with the job of keeping the kid alive and happy) so that comes first. But every single day we make time to have private moments, plus we host a lot of small dinner parties that give us time with friends while also feeling like it's good quality time together.
S, The Ones With the Baby: I need lots of alone time. And I want to hang out with Ryan and the baby as much as possible. Plus we are lucky and have lots of good friends in the Bay Area. So, it's a juggling act.
R, The Ones With the Baby: We believe in having independent lives but, in practice, we'd be just as happy rarely leaving the house. We're both naturally introverted and are delighted to be able to throw our son under the bus when we want to beg off an invitation.
The Sorta-Newbies: It's not about expensive gifts or dinner — for example, for Valentine's Day, he recreated our first date, and it was really thoughtful. And I try to keep a list of stuff that he mentions in passing so I can try to find something meaningful when it's a birthday or whatever.
The Affianced: We are very open about what we want and make lists for each other when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Another thing that really works for us is that we will randomly write notes or texts or give gifts just to express how much we love each other.
The Long-Haul: Sometimes we give gifts, other times we agree in advance not to if we've got a lot going on or feel we just don't need a gift. Or, most frequently, we'll treat the date as the gift to ourselves — we'll splurge on something we wouldn't normally do. We always celebrate the anniversary though, and we tend to always go out to dinner (typically casual date) for our dating anniversary, too. It takes a lot of stress out of an anniversary to just plan out a mutual splurge as a gift rather than an exchange.
S, The Ones With the Baby: We decided to follow the traditional anniversary gift list, which has been kind of fun because you have to be creative. What's a worthy anniversary gift that's made of cotton? This year was fruits/flowers. I got him a really nice bottle of small-batch hard cider and some olives and figs. We had a picnic at home.
The Sorta-Newbies: Mainly just be open, both to experience and with what you're thinking, feeling and what you need from each other. Recognize that relationships do take work. You can't just phone it in and hope everything will be fine. There's a whole other human with thoughts, feelings, baggage, needs, etc. that might conflict with your own, and it's not always easy to be considerate of that. So you have to put in the work. But when you're with the right person, you don't really mind.
S, The Affianced: Embrace online dating. Also, when you know, you know. I heard it said before I met Kenny and I didn't believe it, but it's true. And it's also true for the other side of the coin. If it doesn't feel right and you're having doubts, listen to them. At one point in my life, I considered settling for "Well, I guess this is the best it can get." Thank god, I didn't allow myself to settle.
The Long-Haul: Always laugh together. Even in the middle of fights we'll laugh. During some of our toughest, most exhausted moments with our son, we laughed to the point of tears. For us, it's more than just keeping things light and fun: when we're both really laughing at a good joke, it reminds us what we love in the other person; our shared values and personalities are key to why we are both laughing.
The Ones With the Baby: As Chaka Khan said, get out of your own way.
For more of the happy roller coaster that is modern love, be sure to check out the season premiere of LeAnn & Eddie on VH1, Thursday July 17 at 10:30 PM EST/PST.
Megan Reynolds writes about relationships, job things, Beyoncé, and her sisters for The Billfold, The Hairpin, The Toast, and others. You can follow her here.