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Documenting Love: Kristen & Stephen's Story

Photographer/blogger/genius Alexandra Celia has devoted her career to documenting love in its purest and most original form — which you'll see in her photos. Now and then, she will share her work with couples: their love story, their commitment, their passion....and of course, their photos. Think of her as our Love Guru. She loves love and is here to share it with the rest of us.

Stephen: Kristen and I both grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and we met in high school at age 17. Kristen was a year ahead of me in school, and although I was secretly interested in her, I was too chicken to ask her out because I didn't think she'd date a younger guy. To my good fortune, one night she sent me a message on AOL Instant Messenger (remember that?), and she very bluntly told me that she liked me — I couldn't believe my luck! Later, I discovered that I'm actually older than her (by only six days), and she was just so smart that she had started grade school early as a kid, and was quite young for her grade. So then I felt silly that I hadn't asked her out.

Kristen: We met in high school when we were both 17. Although I was a senior and he was a junior, we're actually only six days apart (he's older!) Throughout high school, we had a lot of friends in common, but never actually knew each other. One day, a friend and I were talking about who we thought was cute and agreed that we would each pick someone to ask out (it was high school, after all). Although my friend didn't hold up her end of the agreement, I had my eye on Stephen and asked his ex-girlfriend, one of our mutual friends, if she would introduce us. We talked every night for a week before he asked me to be his girlfriend in the parking lot of our high school next to my car. After what had been an incredibly tough year, I felt like Stephen came along at exactly the right time. The previous spring, I lost my mom to cancer, and Stephen and I started dating the following October. I still hate that they never got the chance to meet, but I know my mom would have loved him.

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Stephen: I'm really proud of Kristen's relentless curiosity. She is always looking for the next challenge or adventure, in both her personal and professional life. She very rarely looks back, holds grudges or harbors regrets — she is always looking upward and forward. We've visited so many amazing places and had once-in-a-lifetime experiences together because of her curious spirit.

Kristen: One of the benefits of meeting each other so young is getting to grow up together and get a front-row seat as the other person pursues their dreams. In Stephen's case, that dream has always been to play music professionally. After high school, he went to Florida State to study percussion performance, while I attended Georgia Tech and majored in business. We got married after college and started our life together — a journey that took us first to Boston for Stephen to study at New England Conservatory, then Miami for a fellowship with the New World Symphony, followed by two years of long-distance while I attended business school at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Stephen moved to Salt Lake City for a one-year contract with the Utah Symphony. This past year, we moved to Portland, Oregon. I started my dream job as a Brand Manager at Nike, and I watched in awe as Stephen's dream became a reality — a full-time position with the Oregon Symphony. Achieving that dream was a long and winding journey consisting of 30+ auditions and countless disappointments. A lot of people would have given up. I am and continue to be impressed by Stephen's steadfastness and commitment. When he wants something, he goes after it, wholeheartedly.

Stephen: I think it was just a month or two into our fledgling relationship when I knew I had found the person I wanted to marry and spend my life with. As high schoolers do, we stayed up late night after night talking, but we found an immediate bond, and the conversations got straight to the heart of each other's character and worldview that I think is pretty uncommon in any relationship, especially one between two teenagers. We were both looking for qualities in a future spouse at a very young age, and somehow we knew that no matter where life led us, we wanted to be together for the ride.

Kristen: This is the part of the story where things get a bit nuts. My feelings for Stephen developed fast and early. I told Stephen that I loved him after only two weeks of dating. Around the same time, I remember telling my parents that I was going to marry him. Their response was exactly what you might expect, "hmmm, ok, sure." But Stephen and I were on the same page and knew this was it. We got engaged five years later and were married six years later.

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Stephen: Having been together almost 14 years (and married for almost 8 of those), it's been quite some time since I can even remember another relationship I had, so it's hard for me to say what sets us apart beyond the fact that we were just meant to be together. I can say that as I talk to my friends and peers going through their own relationship ups and downs, I've learned that sacrifice and patience are absolutely essential to the success and longevity of a relationship. We make sacrifices for each other in small ways throughout daily life, and in big ways, as we decide where to live and whose career to prioritize at a certain moment. We are patient and caring with each other in small ways as we encounter the daily struggles and little shortcomings in our personalities, and again in big ways, as we allow each other space to develop as individuals across many years.

Kristen: There really is no comparing my relationship with Stephen and other relationships I've had in the past. Before Stephen, my longest relationship was five weeks (yes, weeks). I'm not proud of it, but I had a bit of a reputation in high school for churning through relationships quickly. I had an on-again, off-again boyfriend who was really more of a best friend and a series of infatuations with older guys, but nothing really stuck — until I met Stephen. It was instantly different with him. No amount of time that we spent together felt like enough. Where I had difficulty committing in the past, I was all in with him.

Stephen: What initially attracted me to Kristen and what continues to attract me today are not so different, as far as I can tell. Kristen has a warm heart and is quick to laugh and smile, but she can be a little guarded and mysterious at times, particularly around people she doesn't know very well. She's an introvert that many people mistake for an extrovert if that makes sense. I always wanted to break through that first layer and find out what's going on inside, what makes her tick. Although I like to think I know her better than anyone by now, she still occasionally surprises me, and when she does, she likes to chide me and say, "you don't know me!" and we both get a kick out of that.

Kristen: There is no one thing that attracts me to Stephen. Instead, it's a series of small (and really big) things that make him the best possible partner I could have chosen in life, just a few of which include: his sense of humor and ability to make me laugh even in the most unexpected situations, the way he supports my dreams and goals while giving me the space to be independent (read: stubborn), down to the fact that he has single-handedly taken on all cooking and bartending responsibilities in our household after my attempts at domesticity in the early part of our marriage ended in a series of failed Pinterest recipes.

Stephen: Both of us are very practical people. We approach difficult situations and big decisions with heavily detailed pro-and-con lists. We think and plan carefully, whether the topic is how to divide our family time at holidays or exactly where to position the couch in the living room. However, we keep each other in tune with our feelings on a heart-level as well. If a certain situation isn't sitting well with either of us even when it looks fine "on paper," we usually account for that with more weight than any pro or con.

Kristen: In the 14 years that we've been together, we've lived in different states and even briefly in different countries while I studied abroad for six months in college. Those times in our dating engaged and married life when we were long distance really taught us how to communicate and work through challenges. And now, after the birth of our son, we are tackling a whole new set of challenges as we learn to be parents together for the first time the same way that we've always approached challenges — with a little bit of humor on Stephen's part and meticulous research and planning on my part.

Stephen: On a somewhat mundane level, Kristen takes the lead on our household finances, like checking the bank accounts, paying the rent, monitoring the credit card bills and all of that. Of course, I am also aware of what's going on, and we discuss that stuff in detail, but it's a big weight off my shoulders to know she has our finances under control, and the bills always get paid on time. On a more personal level, Kristen prioritizes our time together throughout the day. She reminds me to set my phone down, find a new show to watch together, go for a walk or a hike or go out for a dinner date. As a rule, she doesn't allow work or other responsibilities to encroach on our relationship, and that's something I really value and appreciate about her.

Kristen: I'm not sure that I do anything on a daily basis to make Stephen's life easier, but he has always done an amazing job of caring for me. From taking out the trash to making my meals, I've always joked with him that he has cemented his role in my life by taking care of so many aspects of daily life. He is more than a good husband and father; he is an all-in life partner who tackles more than his share of life's mundane and less-than-glamorous tasks.

Stephen: Typically, my career as a classical musician makes it difficult for us to have a regular home routine, as my schedules are rarely the same week-to-week and I'm often traveling for work or auditions. But with the pandemic lockdown beginning halfway through Kristen's pregnancy, we suddenly had a chance to spend a lot of time at home together, which has been really nice. I'm guessing Kristen will say her favorite ritual is Saturday morning pancakes, which I've been making for her every weekend. I love being in the kitchen, and we both love good food, so I'd say that's my favorite new ritual as well. Blueberry oat or lemon poppy seed pancakes, with a side of bacon and fresh fruit, is the right way to start a Saturday in our home!

Kristen: Because we moved around and have lived in so many different places, routine and rituals weren't really a part of how I would have described our life together. However, during the time I was in business school, something changed for me. I suddenly found a desire to slow down and find joy in the simpler parts of life. Although I suspect I will never retire my love for international travel and trip planning, moving to a city with plans to stay indefinitely, buying a nice couch (I joke, but not really a big purchase like this has a way of making you feel settled), and having a baby has given me a new appreciation for the small rituals and routines that form the undercurrent of a lifetime spent together. We are still working on finding our rituals, but one of my favorites is that Stephen made pancakes for me every Saturday while I was pregnant. Even though our son, Theo, was born in June, I am hoping this ritual sticks around for the long run.

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