My mother and I were driving home on a cold, clear day after Christmas shopping at Nordstrom for more plaid shirts and blue shirts—the only shirts my father ever wore. My mother kept lowering the volume dial on the radio and I kept turning it up . At some point I stopped using the radio as retaliation and surrendered.
"Are you in love with dad?" I asked out of the blue. I was 14, listening to Leonard Cohen on heavy rotation, and becoming aware of how many shades of gray hovered between like and love, between respect and the kind of all-encompassing passion teenage girls equate with everlasting love.
"No," my mother didn't hesitate, her eyes firmly planted on the road. ""I love your father. But I'm not in love with him."
Her intimate words, shared without guilt, apology, or a follow-up statement, have since colored every relationship I've ever had—and they affect my marriage most of all.
Even after eight years of mostly wedded bliss and while raising two amazing young kids together, there isn't a month that goes by when I am not evaluating our relationship and gingerly excavating signs of weakness. My husband cautions me against approaching every day like it's our last. But where he sees my nagging as potentially destructive, I view it as a way of being vigilant, refusing to become complacent, and protecting our status of being "in love," the most delicate and flimsy of feelings. As a result, my husband is all too familiar with a running script that reads a little something like this:
We don't go out together enough. You always take K (our 5-year-old daughter) out for lunch—when was the last time you planned lunch with me? You kissed the kids good-bye this morning but skipped right over me—what's up with that? If you dedicated even a quarter of the time you spend thinking about how to make the kids happy on how to improve our relationship, we'd have a stronger marriage. We need more date nights. More, more, more, give me and us more, more, more!
The filthy truth is that I am sometimes horrifically jealous of how much my husband loves our children. The irony is that, as I watch him toast their sandwiches ("because they taste better that way"), teach our daughter C and A chords on her little pink guitar, and give our toddler son's Thomas the Train toys hilariously bad British accents, part of me falls even more in love with him. That part of me wants to consume him whole—until I realize I can't because I now share him with two children who need him much more than I do. There are no words to sum up what an honor it is to raise children with this intelligent and loving man. But I'd be lying if I said I don't also feel a stab of envy when he plans 12 holiday events with our children and shoos off our monthly date nights like they aren't important. Our children obviously have needs, but that doesn't mean we should knock our own needs as a couple off the pedestal where they so rightfully belong.
"Don't worry," he tells me. "We'll get our lives back in 10 or 12 years." He finds comfort in the future—I find it terrifying. That's so far away, and our time together is the foundation upon which our family is built. If we don't make that a priority, now and not later, I fear we'll fall "out" of love just like my parents. A relationship can't afford to wait a decade.
It doesn't help that I never got closure with my mother or fully understood the reasons she wasn't "in love" with my dad. I didn't ask her how and why it all went wrong. Instead, I passed the next 10 years gathering clues, making assumptions, and drawing conclusions about how envy-inducing, heart-stopping, fully melting "in love" devolves into plain old, simple, "love," a feeling dressed in the messiest of clothes, a comparatively ordinary emotion we feel for pizza and pet lizards. A feeling that's not meant for your spouse.
Does "in love" to turn to just "love" when you start buying your partner plaid shirts because he needs new shirts as Christmas gifts without considering his blossoming interest in astronomy and springing for a telescope instead? Does "in love" wither away every time you forego Friday night dates to stay in and watch another hockey game in your sweats? Does it burn off when a romantic surprise is just that the dishes were put away? It's not clear.
One thing, though, is almost certain: Kids can suck the "in love" right out of a marriage—just turn on any random TV sitcom and it's a running joke. Mom and dad are about to make out when, bam, their kid destroys the moment by storming in to complain about his life. And it's not a secret that raising kids takes a lot of energy. Although at times, it almost feels like parents are waging a constant silent war against their kids for the conservation of their relationship.
Of course, my feelings aren't truth. Our children are the greatest proof of our true, bona fide love and the temporary sacrifices we make for them help us grow as individuals and partners. I may always be the one planning our date nights and pushing to hold hands at the movie theater, but I'm learning that this isn't because my husband doesn't value our relationship. I equate those actions with passion and he simply doesn't share my fear that the sky will fall if we aren't acting like obnoxious, PDA-loving teenagers.
As for our children: When I feel jealousy over his affection for them, I remind myself that it isn't really about our kids at all—whom I love—but about my fears. A man capable of that kind of love is also capable of spreading the wealth, and is someone worth my love, too. That love might just have to wait until after we put our little ones to bed.
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