Since I write advice columns, people ask me how they can “keep the romance alive” in their marriages. This makes me a little bit confused because I know that when people say “romance,” they mean the traditional kind, which is based on living inside a big, exciting question mark.
This version of romance is all about that exciting moment when you think you might have just met the person who will make everything in the world feel delicious, amazing, and right for the rest of your life. It comes from big questions like, “Will I really find what I’ve been looking for?
Will I finally feel wanted, loved, and loved for real? Can I finally be someone’s dream come true, the heroine with sparkling eyes and a seductive smile?” This kind of romance is at its best when you think, “Holy Christ, I’m really going to melt into this other person (who is mostly a stranger)!” It really is great and makes you feel good. And it seems like we feel the same way about each other!
Traditional romance is heady and exciting because there are still questions like, “Am I enough for this person?
Will she stop wanting me one day? Does he really look, sound, and taste as good as he seems?
But once you’ve been married for a long time (my tenth anniversary is coming up in a few months! ), romance changes. It’s not the romance of rom-coms, which are based on the question, “Does he or she really love me (which seems impossible) or does he or she really hate me (which seems much more likely and even a little more sporty)?” Long-term marriage is not the kind of romance where you follow someone around like a stalker and want to lick his face but try not to. It’s not even the romance of “Wow, you bought me flowers, you must really love me!” “Wow, look at us here, kissing as the sun goes down. We’re REALLY DOING THIS LOVE THING, RIGHT HERE.” That’s dating romance or romance between a new couple. You still have to pinch yourself. You still can’t stop thinking about whether or not it’s real. You’re still kind of looking for evidence. The romance comes from the little bits of proof. The romance comes from the fact that you don’t know if you’ll get the proof you need. (People also fight a lot when they try to find proof, but that’s a topic for another day.)
If things are going well after ten years of marriage, you don’t need any more proof. Instead, you have this strong, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be yourself, which I would say is the most romantic thing of all. Because you can’t be sure you won’t be left behind until you know for sure, it’s not clear that another human mortal can handle another human mortal. The stinks. What you see. The obsession with doing the same stupid things over and over again. After a few years of marriage, you start to feel like “Oh, this again,” but you’re still a little scared by the fact that you’re a mortal human being.
Or you should have these feelings.
I might say, “I talk to my dogs.” A lot. My husband never says a thing about how often I do this. I’m a real dog lady, but I also live with my husband and two kids. While the dog lady talks to her dogs for a long time, her husband and kids stand around with their heads tilted, trying to figure out what is going on. When I get home after being out all day, I first say hello to the dogs. “Oh, did you miss your mother? Oh my, you really missed your mom! Mommy was not there when you needed her. Poor puppies!” Then I tell my children things like, “Hey. “What’ve you been up to?” There is a change in tone. I’m less excited, which may be because I’m sick. My kids don’t seem to mind. It takes me longer to get used to them and cuddle with them. This could be because they sometimes complain or yell about something or ask hard questions about playdates with kids I don’t like, and I can’t answer their questions until I take my shoes off like Mr. Rogers, lie down for a few minutes, and pour beer into my face.
I see my husband at that point. He missed his mother as well.
But my husband doesn’t say WTF? he should have done. He doesn’t smirk. He doesn’t make eye rolls. He doesn’t say anything to show that I’m not stable, even though it’s clear that I’m not. Instead, he gives me a big hug, smiles, and asks, “How was your day, baby?”
He acts like he doesn’t even notice that I should be locked up forever and ever in a bad, drafty place where they only serve American cheese.
Now I’m going to tell you the most romantic thing that ever happened to me. I suddenly got dysentery and got very sick. It went down at night. I got up to go to the bathroom, but I fell asleep on the way and hit my ribs on the tub. My husband found me there passed out, in a scene that looked like a Game of Thrones episode directed by Todd Solondz. Think about how that might look. I’ll keep in mind how sensitive you are and fight the urge to give you more information.
What my husband saw did not please him. He didn’t say anything about it, though. Romance means not being made to feel bad about things that are clearly out of your control and being cared for quietly by someone who knows when to shut up and do what needs to be done. That is also what it means to be “s#xy.” People think they want to be a cowboy because they think cowboys are tough and don’t complain. But almost anyone can ride a stallion across a beautiful prairie and then go home and eat a huge home-cooked steak without grumbling. But going into a Game of Thrones dysentery scene directed by Todd Solondz will test even the strongest and bravest of us.
Now, let’s talk about something worse and darker, something that seems to be the opposite of what we think of as romance today: Someone is dying in their own bed, and their spouse is sitting by the bedside, holding their hand and taking care of all the horrible things that poor people sometimes have to deal with on their own. That makes me think of love. Romance is making it through and then not making it through, and not being ashamed of either.
Because life is ugly. Sometimes, to stay alive, you have to smell and sound bad. It’s one thing for someone to buy you flowers or a nice dinner to PROVE that they really, deeply want to spend some good sweet-talking and touching time alone with you, and maybe they’d like to keep doing that routine forever and ever and ever and ever. So much to think about! Really? Me? Forever?
YOU’RE IN THE MOOD TO SING.
You think about going to nice restaurants and kissing while you eat. Then you think about going to nice restaurants and kissing while you eat. It’s like that Bongwater song about Pretty Woman, where the only things that matter in a relationship are “sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping.” From this point of view, romance is like Groundhog Day, except that Bill Murray keeps reliving the same hot and exciting moment.
On the other hand, true romance is more like the film True Romance: Two stupid, lazy people find a way to get through a confusing sea of filth, blood, and gore without going completely crazy. It’s one thing to enjoy the complex tastes of expensive meals with a group. But it’s a whole different thing for someone else to try to figure out how your dogs’ day went, since they can’t speak English or any other language. (“Was it hard to be without Mommy? Yes, I think so! I think you needed your mother, but she wasn’t here!”) And it’s a whole different story when you start to grow an alien in your belly, one that gives you a sharp tongue and makes you scary, and then one day it comes out covered in white slime. That’s the next step in a relationship. Then, all you have to do is talk to the hairless alien and feed it with your own body (a miracle! ), bragging about how you make food out of thin air like a GOD. When the alien goes to bed, you say “Jesus, I’m tired” and “Ouch, my boobies hurt,” and then you fall asleep in a smelly, unattractive heap. You live like that! Having kids is like living in a third-world country, even if you live in a first-world country. You’re feeding one kid with your body while your husband cleans the other kid’s behind on the floor of a dressing room at the mall. You and your partner are both having trouble getting by in life.
Also, it’s sweet. I’m telling you.
You don’t spend as much time alone together, and when you do, you sometimes forget how to talk like adults and how to describe your experiences. You feel more like two animals in a group, stumbling along with blank looks and thoughtful chewing.
But it’s sweet that neither of you is thinking of anything.
As time goes on, it doesn’t seem as bad. You get sick less often if you don’t wake up 15 times a night. There is less poop to clean up and less grizzly bear mother rage ready to go. But as you get older, you often say things like, “My a$$ hurts.” “My back hurts” is also a very romantic thing to say. You both find it funny. You’re both human, you’re both still alive, and you’re both in this together until the end. Both of you are in trouble. Nothing will change until one of you dies, which is the best thing that could happen.
So don’t let anyone tell you that marriage is comfortable and relaxing but not romantic. Don’t let anyone tell you that living and dying together is a sad dance of dependence and resignation. Our stupid culture makes us think that romance is the suspense of not knowing if someone loves you or not yet, the suspense of wanting to have s#x but not being able to yet, and the suspense of wanting all your problems and puzzles to be solved by one person but not knowing if they have time or interest in your particular problems yet. We think romance is like a mystery where you have to put together clues to find out if you’ll be loved. Romance needs to be carefully staged and art-directed so that everyone looks better than they usually do and seems s#xier and better than they really are. This keeps us on the edge of our seats.
But you and your partner are not better than them. Isn’t that love? Romance is laughing at how beaten down you sometimes feel in your never-ending fight to stay alive. It’s hot to know that someone thinks you’re hot no matter what, even if you don’t think so yourself. Maybe the ability to believe something is more important than the suspense. Maybe, instead of looking for proof, we should look for new ways to help each other get through the mess. But when it’s 10 p.m. and you crawl into bed like two old people and talk about the weird things your kids said that day and laugh and tell stupid jokes and giggle and then maybe you want to make out or maybe you just want to play a quick game of Candy Crush while saying things like “This game is stupid, it stinks” and “Your feet are freezing” and “My ass hurts,” that’s romantic. Because, let’s be honest, death is what keeps us on edge at some point. How much longer can this great thing go on? Sometimes, it looks like your eyes are asking each other questions. You, on the other hand, really hope this goes on for a long time. You like the simple, repetitive things you have to do to stay alive, and you want to keep doing them. You want to help each other through life’s problems for as long as you can. That’s the highest point. Savor it. This is what it means to be in love.