On our bathroom counter there is an old sparkling grape juice bottle decorated with ribbons. It was the bottle my husband (then boyfriend) brought when he took me on a romantic date to the rooftop of our college dining hall. Later, he decorated the bottle for me to keep as a memento.
Looking at it today, five years later, I thought to myself, he went through a lot of trouble decorating that for me. He probably wouldn’t take the time to do something like that now.
And then I went on through the progression of other things he wouldn’t do now: frequent, long, handwritten love letters… staying up until two in the morning just to talk to me on the phone. I think most married people have this realization at some point — the realization that many of the intricate, time-consuming, thoughtful acts of early romance are not as frequent later on. Many people then conclude that it must mean that the “romance has died.”
But I know the love that I share with my husband. I know that the romance hasn’t “died.” Sure, my husband doesn’t decorate sparkling grape juice bottles for me and I haven’t seen a long handwritten love letter in awhile, but he does know how to make me a fantastic margarita after a long day and every single morning he gets up early with our wild toddler so I can sleep in.
My husband doesn’t usually stay up with me talking until 2AM, but when you’re both exhausted, sometimes a warm body next to you in bed says all the words that need to be said.
My husband doesn’t do as many of those little intricate things that he did for me when we were dating. And I don’t do as many of them for him either. And that is perfectly okay.
I’m not at all saying that thoughtful romantic gestures should cease with marriage. They shouldn’t. We do still write occasional letters and we definitely go out on dates and surprise each other with gifts. But there isn’t a perpetual focus on back and forth, adrenaline-rush romance. We send sweet flirty text messages to each other, but we also send texts about diapers and dinner and bills.
There is so much talk these days about “keeping the romance alive” that you can start to feel obsessive about it– as if there’s something wrong with those text messages about diapers. But romance doesn’t die because of the diapers. Romance dies when we refuse to accept the diapers.
Romance dies when we refuse to accept that it evolves. Married love is more difficult than dating love. But it’s also more deeply rewarding and nourishing. I don’t discount the sweetness of the gesture, but how difficult, really, was it for my boyfriend to decorate a bottle? He was a college student but he had free time between jobs and classes. And this girl he liked liked him too and that felt good and why not decorate a bottle for her? But now? Now the stakes are higher, the schedules are busier, the responsibilities greater, and the love has to be stronger. Now it’s not decorating a bottle, it’s holding your wife’s hand during labor. It’s rubbing her back when she’s in pain. It’s buying her a beautiful dress when she doesn’t feel well and doesn’t feel beautiful. And it’s not easy. But it sure is romantic.
My husband and I have been married now for three years. I think the number one piece of advice I would give to newlyweds is not to focus so much on the checklists (how many date nights you have or how frequently you have sex or how many times he brings you flowers.) Focus on your attitude toward each other. Is it an attitude of tenderness or bitterness? Too often, bitterness creeps in when you wish your spouse or your relationship was like it was “before.” Bitterness is a refusal to let love evolve, a refusal to welcome the new opportunities for romance. And it absolutely destroys romance. There are few things so disheartening to see as a marriage filled with bitterness.
But tenderness— tenderness can sustain a marriage through anything. If you can look at your spouse with tenderness for the rest of your life then you will have a good marriage. You will have romance because you will be open to romance. You will be open to romance in the unlikely places — driving to the hospital, at the dinner table, in the middle of the night when a sleepless child has invaded your bed— and you will make time for it in the likely places. If romance is like the myths teach us, like arrows piercing the heart, then the heart must be tender if it is to be pierced by romance. Most of us are willing to be tender to the first few arrows. But it’s when they start getting unpredictable, hurting more, demanding more— that’s when we get bitter. We have to trust that love is worth it— that our spouses are worth learning to love, falling in love with over and over again. The arrows are always flying. It’s our decision whether or not we allow ourselves to be struck.