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For the odd couples and the free spirits and the ones who never thought they’d make it

Perhaps after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare… perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways.”

-Lucy Maud Montgomery

My husband and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary this month, after some four and a half years, and one child, together. To the average person, this isn’t a big deal. To a commitment-phobe like me, it’s a lifetime — and it’s also a milestone I never thought we’d reach.

I don’t write about us very often, partly because I think it’s tempting fate — I’ve seen too many couples express their undying love on social media only to break up a short while later — and partly because I still remember what it was like to be single and lonely, (which wasn’t all my singledom, but a good chunk of it), and how smug PDAs can seem when you’re in that place. But the fact we’ve survived for as long as we have — and grown closer together rather than apart — amazes me as much as it must amaze those around us.

The truth is this: My husband, though a wonderful, kind and very attractive human being, is probably the last person in the world I expected to celebrate this milestone with. We are, in every sense of the word, an odd couple. There is a considerable age difference to begin with — he is significantly younger (I won’t say how much, but it’s in the double digits). We come from different cultures — I am British Indian and he is Egyptian. We are different religions — I am a lapsed Catholic — he is Muslim. His first language is Arabic; mine is English.

And we are also vastly different human beings. He is a personal trainer (which is actually how we met, but that’s another story), a generally upbeat man-of-the-body who can’t stay still for long, who loves his action movies, a man of few words in social settings, who likes silly comedies and sweet cartoons, rarely reads a book, loves house music, will eat pretty much anything, and can’t handle what he would call ‘depressing’ — and I would label ‘thought-provoking’ — movies. (We once watched a relatively anodyne Hollywood flick at home, which ended on a bit of a downer; he had to go to his favourite club immediately after to dance, just to get it out of his system).

I, in stark contrast, am a coffee-drinking, wine-loving writer and editor, a former journalist and smoker (he has never enjoyed either wine, caffeine or nicotine), who has always loved reading and poetry and film of all kinds (I studied film and literature at university). I love a diverse selection of music (but not house), follow current affairs keenly, relish history and deep conversations with friends, would secretly consider myself a bit of a foodie, and am probably happiest, at this point in my life, curled up on the couch with a good book, or watching a film I love — in essence, being still. I also have a penchant for melancholy and a tendency to cry at sad stories and films.

These differences have been the source of much agony and soul-searching over the years — predominantly on my part, since I have a tendency to over-think everything — as well as long searching conversations with close friends. At particularly troubled times, when I’ve convinced myself that two such different people couldn’t possibly have a future together, I‘ve also done what every other angst-ridden person in love probably does these days and consulted Google: Can relationships with younger men from profoundly opposing backgrounds, and with almost comically varied tastes, actually work?

The answer has nearly always been a big fat resounding ‘no.’

But I’m here now to tell you otherwise. I’ve learnt a lot about love over the last few years. One of the things I’ve learnt, for example, is that what you long for on paper may not actually be right for you. When we met, I’d reached a point in my life where I was happy to be single. If you’d asked me what I was looking for in a possible partner, I was fairly sure I knew. It would have been an older man, smart and funny, perhaps an intellectual, not necessarily conventionally attractive but someone well travelled with plenty of life experience, who was also fairly settled in life in terms of his career and life choices, as I am.

For the longest time after my husband and I got together — after he’d wooed me, incidentally, in the sweetest, gentlest way — I still held on to that ideal. I looked with envy at other couples that seemed on paper to be perfectly matched, who talked of coup de foudres and undying love and the certainty of a lifetime together. They had joint friends and joint bank accounts and joint interests, so the practicalities of making a life together seemed simple. Choosing a film to watch on the couch together of an evening, for example, didn’t result in tense negotiations or stand-offs, and an inevitable compromise–usually by me, since I do actually like action movies, while my husband simply couldn’t stomach the latest depressing French art house flick.

(On the plus side, I have a whole new appreciation for The Fast and the Furious movies, Vin Diesel, and the Rock : )

We, on the other hand, had few things that held us together. I couldn’t share a favourite poem with him, or my more maudlin music, or a great cup of coffee, or my political musings, or my peculiarly British sense of irony — though I did it anyway. I didn’t always feel connected, or like he was my soul mate, or my other half, or all the other things you’re supposed to feel. What I did find, however, was that he made me laugh — a lot. He was remarkably easy to live with. We communicated about the things that bothered us. He came home every evening with the biggest smile on his face. And he gave me the best and sweetest cuddles.

I told myself — and him — one thing: I would stay in the relationship for as long as it made me happy, since I’d fought too hard to give up my freedom for anything less. And from the very beginning, he did make me happy — in ways I didn’t expect and that slowly melted my cynical, lovelorn heart. When I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, he’d pick me up and carry me gently to bed. When I had a pancake evening for friends, he spent most of the evening in the kitchen making the pancakes. When my freezer was iced up, he spent most of another evening diligently de-icing it. When we had a squabble, I came home to find a fruit salad in my fridge topped with yogurt and a heart shaped out of nuts. At other times, he’d say nothing but just lie next to me and squeeze me extra hard, as if he’d never let me go.

My husband didn’t over promise and under deliver. The biggest advantage of dating a non-verbal man, I discovered, is that it isn’t about what he says, but about what he does. We didn’t spend hours — much time at all, in fact — either dissecting our relationship or discussing our future. We just went with the flow. It helped too that my closest friends and family loved him straight away — and they loved him for me especially. They saw past our differences to the essence of our relationship — that we were good for each other, and that his solidity and kindness would temper me and curb my existential malaise.

What I’ve learnt now is that you can overcome any number of practical differences if you have the basics sorted. If you still like and fancy each other, after all the time you’ve spent together. If you can make each other laugh — which comes in handy when you’re wiping up your child’s explosive poops in the wee hours of the morning. If you respect each other and don’t try to change, diminish or possess the other. If, and this is especially important, you can fight fair. If you’re kind and respectful with each other’s friends and family. If he holds you when you’re sad and gives you one of his extra-special tight hugs when he senses you need it. If he can cope with you at your worst. And if the two of you make time for each other, so you continue to grow together, rather than apart.

Those are the things that count, not your income levels or ages or interests, or even that you speak the same language.

We are not a perfect couple but I’ve learnt that perfection — especially in relationships — doesn’t exist. Your feelings will ebb and flow, and that’s ok. You will never see eye to eye on everything. You will drive each other crazy at times. You will wonder what the hell you’re doing with each other at others. Longstanding issues will continue to rear their ugly head. Unexpected life events — like an unplanned pregnancy, for example — will test you to your core, and force you to redefine and renegotiate the parameters of your relationship and your future together. There will be tears and arguments and petty quarrels.

But you will also discover that love isn’t in the flowers and the poetry and the love songs and sweet nothings you whisper late at night. Love is in the cracks and the corners, in the places where the light doesn’t reach, in the things that aren’t said, the tiny gestures, the banality and mess of daily life, the pull of forces beyond your control that keep you together, despite the voices that tell you ‘this cannot work’ — ‘give up.’ It’s when you wake up one day and realise that you can’t imagine your life without the person lying next to you, and that this crazy, coincidental relationship — where both of you were just going with the flow — has suddenly become more serious and stronger than you ever imagined.

This is our love story, and I am grateful for it. Happy anniversary, my love.

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