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Love Story

HOST INTRO: Next up, we have a commentary from Kristin Schwab about how her parents’ relationship informed her own love life.

You might not be able to tell that I’m from the Midwest because I’ve lost the accent. I grew up in rural Minnesota, where fields are peppered with corn and cows. On any given night, if you drove down the dusty dirt road past my house, you’d see the same scene. My parents’ house has two identical picture windows, perfectly aligned on the ground and second floors. They’d be lit up from glow of the TVs. My parents would be sitting across from them….

Mom upstairs…. Dad downstairs.

They’d watch their shows separately—sometimes watching the same thing, shouting at the Chicago Bears game or Wheel of Fortune, from their own couches.

For some reason, I never thought this was odd. I grew up in a totally pleasant household. I rarely saw my parents fight. There was little drama. But also, little passion. I saw love as a practical relationship. And it’s not because the household was a super traditional one. It was a biracial marriage, my mom is from Korea and my dad is German. The breadwinner always flip flopped. When I was little, I had a stay at home dad. We ate spaghetti in front of the TV. He let me win at Monopoly. He took me to Dairy Queen for Dilly Bars at least once a week. I love all these parts of my parents’ marriage. They were a great team. It was a relationship of high fives and handshakes.

A little over a year ago, my dad, who was 75, had a severe stroke. I came home to a version of him I didn’t think I would have to see for a long time. We had to physically help him do a lot—walk down the stairs, put on his shoes, among other more intimate things. But that wasn’t the hard part. It was his memory. He couldn’t remember where he lived. Sometimes, he couldn’t remember my name. But for every difficult moment, I knew that at the end of the month, I would pack up and return to New York. And that my mom would have to continue helping him, alone.

When I went back to visit last summer, things had improved. Dad will never be back to his old self, but he was physically strong and mentally in great spirits. The biggest change? Mom and Dad had stopped shouting at the TV from separate rooms. They were solving Wheel of Fortune puzzles together, on the same couch, as Vanna White flipped the tiles.

It was beautiful. But it also freaked me out. And…it made me look at my own relationship.  I realized I was living with a man I couldn’t see myself taking care of in 40 years. Or 14 years. Or even 4 years. I had been searching for love with a checklist, ticking off boxes. Treats me well. Has a good job. Likes art and reads the news. I wanted a sure bet, but I was unsure of what I was betting on.

This was not great timing. I came back to New York to start grad school at Columbia University and, as the year began, I broke up with this marriage-material boyfriend. I navigated the first three months of a stressful school year in total limbo. We slept in separate rooms in our Brooklyn apartment. We divvied up our friends and divvied up our stuff. I got the Bose speaker. He got our Schnauzer, Zoe. Then, on October 31, the movers came. I could tell they’d done these moves before—emptying half the contents of a one-bedroom apartment. Before taking the last load to the truck, one of the men stopped and said, I’ll give you a moment, and shut the door behind him.

My mom always told me there are rules for relationships. Date someone who loves you more than you love him. You can be more successful than your man, but always come home and cook him a nice dinner. Never date someone way older than you. I’ve followed this puzzling mix of relationship advice for 28 years. As I watch my friends get married and divorced, I’m finally realizing that there probably is no “right” formula, even though psychologists and mathematicians have tried to find one—trust me, I’ve Googled. Maybe what I see in my parents’ marriage and what they see are totally different. Maybe relationships aren’t a choice between practical or passionate. Maybe there are no rules. And maybe a good marriage means there will be days when it’s OK to watch TV from two separate couches.

One of Kristin Schwab’s many career goals as a kid was to be the next Vanna White.


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