Being in love is a state of temporary insanity during which everything you find cute will eventually turn into the things that drive you crazy.

I should know: I’ve been married four times. My first three marriages don’t add up collectively to five years (a fact I’m not particularly proud of—but I am from California). I left each one knowing that I had to learn from the experience to avoid making the same mistakes again.

My fourth lasted more than 25 years, so obviously, I finally got it right.

Young people go into love with stars in their eyes. Mature people bring a more cynical eye to it all, along with lots of baggage—broken hearts, families, long-established habits, etc. I have friends who won’t live together because they don’t want to ruin anything. But compromises and adjustments are always necessary, particularly in mature relationships. Here are some things I’ve learned.

There are some things you’ll never agree about. We all grow up learning about relationships from the people we’ve watched in relationships, usually our parents. My mom and dad fought constantly, about almost everything. His need for control met head-on with her need to maintain her individuality. I grew up thinking you couldn’t really be in love unless you fought.

My third husband believed that somebody had to be the captain of the ship, and he would argue late into the night trying to change my mind about whatever issue was on the table. I finally told him, “It’s not that I’m not willing to spend the rest of our lives fighting about that, but it’s exhausting. We’re never going to agree, and I don’t think that means you’re supposed to decide for both of us.”

Not everything has to be resolved, and it’s OK to agree to disagree.

Your partner’s behavior is not your problem. People married to drinkers or other dysfunctional types are often guilty of ego involvement—believing someone else’s behavior is a reflection of them. Parents fall into this trap with their children’s successes and failures. However, behaviors belong to the person exhibiting them, and those behaviors don’t imply anything about you. You usually didn’t cause them, and you can’t fix them.

My first husband was an alcoholic who spent almost every evening drinking and getting increasingly agitated. A therapist at the time kept saying to me, “It’s not your problem.”

I didn’t get it. “What do you mean? Of course it’s my problem. I have to engage with him, or things will just get worse.”

One night, I found myself sitting on the stairs, watching my husband stalk around the living room. For some reason, it finally clicked: This is HIS problem, not mine, and for the first time, I refused to play. Amazingly, he left that night. We divorced shortly thereafter.

Not everything is about you.

When someone sees something that needs to be done, that someone gets to do it. Everyone enters a relationship with a mental picture of how it’s supposed to work, including role definition—who’s supposed to do what.

My fourth husband hated dishes in the sink; I don’t mind as long as they’re rinsed. I hate unmade beds; they didn’t bother him at all. So he did the dishes, and I made the bed. Sometimes, I took out the trash; sometimes, he did. There were no prescribed “roles”—we both did whatever needed doing.

“Husband” and “wife” (or whatever each person in a relationship calls himself or herself) aren’t job descriptions. You’re in the relationship together, and whatever it takes to make it work is the job of both of you.

You’re not applying for a job. My third husband was upset one day with both his female assistant and female accountant, and it spilled over onto me as we were having a drink before dinner. His grousing about his bad day came down to, “I should just fire all of you!”

“Excuse me,” I said, “I didn’t apply for a job. I’m your wife!”

Every mature relationship is between you—a whole person—and the whole person on the other side of the equation. You come with baggage and expectations, but measuring reality against what’s in your head means you’ll never be satisfied; your partner will never fully measure up; and you’ll miss the reality you can create together, moment by moment.

Expectations kill relationships.

Nobody can read your mind. My last husband was in show business, and whenever I went with him to an industry event, I always felt like an appendage. Nobody would talk to me; few even looked at me when they realized I couldn’t affect their careers. I was involved in politics, and my husband hated those gatherings at which I had to work the room, and he had to make small talk with people he didn’t know.

We set a ground rule: If either of us needed the other to attend an event, we went properly dressed and suitably social. If an event was one at which we would like the other to come, but it wasn’t necessary, then it was truly optional with no penalty.

One of the keys to a good relationship is not penalizing the other when they don’t act the way we expect them to, rather than telling them honestly exactly what we want and need. Nobody can read your mind.

Gift-giving is not about sandbagging your partner. Some people are really good at figuring out what a partner would like or need as a gift. Some people haven’t a clue. I broke off a relationship once because our first Christmas he gave me a Lazy Susan.

Here’s what works: All year long, whenever you see an ad in print, or a catalog comes, tear out pictures of things you really like, in varying price ranges. Indicate colors/sizes, and leave them around where your partner can’t help but see them. (Pasting to the bathroom mirror works well.) Warn partners well in advance of gift occasions: “My birthday is next Tuesday, and you know that’s important to me.”

When the occasion comes around, you’re assured you’ll get something you want, and you’ll be surprised, because you won’t know which thing you’re getting. Make it easy for your partner to make you happy.

Relationships aren’t easy. When you’re emotionally invested and make yourself vulnerable, you can get hurt. It helps to set some ground rules—and then experience the unfolding reality together.

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Anita Rufus

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...