People ask me how they can “keep the romance alive” in their marriages because I write advice columns. This confuses me a little because I know that when they 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 forever and ever. It comes from big questions like, “Can I really get what I’ve been looking for? Will I finally feel loved, wanted, and really loved? Can I finally be someone’s dream come true, the heroine with the sparkling eyes and seductive smile?” And this kind of romance reaches its peak right when you think, “Holy Christ, I’m really going to melt right into this other person (who is mostly a stranger)!” It really does make you feel good and is perfect. And it seems like we feel exactly the same way about each other! Traditional romance is heady and exciting because there are still questions like, “Will I be enough for this person? Will she one day stop wanting me? Is he as great as he looks, sounds, or tastes?
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 10 years of marriage, you don’t need any more proof. Instead, you have this palpable, reassuring feeling that it’s okay to be a person, 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’re sure of it for sure, it’s not clear that any other human mortal can handle another human mortal. The odors. What you hear. The obsession with the same stupid stuff over and over again. Even though you start to feel like “oh, this again” after a few years of marriage, you’re still a little scared by the fact that you’re a mortal human being.
Or you should have those feelings.
I might say, “I talk to my dogs.” A lot. My husband never says anything about how often I do this. I’m a real dog lady, but I also live with my husband and 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’s going on. When I get home after being gone all day, I first say hello to the dogs. I say things like, “Oh, did you miss your mother? Oh, you really missed your mom! Mommy wasn’t there when you needed her. Poor puppies!” Then I tell my kids things like, “Hey. What have you been up to?” There’s a change in tone. I’m less excited, which might be because I’m sick. My kids don’t seem to mind. It takes me longer to warm up to them and cuddle with them. This could be because they sometimes whine 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.
At that point, I see my husband. He also missed his mother.
But my husband doesn’t say WHAT THE HELL? as he should have. He doesn’t smirk. He doesn’t make eye rolls. I’m obviously not stable, but he doesn’t say anything to show that. He instead 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 that only serves American cheese.
And now I’ll tell you the most romantic story I’ve ever had. I got dysentery out of the blue and got very sick. It happened at night. I got up to go to the bathroom, but I passed out on the way and hit my ribs on the tub. My husband found me there, passed out, in a scene that was like if you let Todd Solondz direct an episode of Game of Thrones. Imagine what that could look like. I’m going to think about how sensitive you are and resist the urge to give you a clearer picture.
My husband did not like what he saw. But he didn’t complain about it. That is the very definition of romance: not being made to feel bad about things that are clearly out of your control and being quietly cared for by someone who can shut up and do what needs to be done under pressure. That is also what “sexy” means. People think they want 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 complaining. But going into a Game of Thrones dysentery scene directed by Todd Solondz will test even the most strong and brave of us.
Now, let’s talk about something even 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 the dying person’s hand and taking care of all sorts of horrible things that people who don’t have a lot of money sometimes have to deal with on their own. That seems like love to me. Romance is making it through and then not making it through, and not being ashamed of either one.
Because it’s ugly to live. To stay alive, you have to sometimes smell and sound wrong. 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. That’s a lot to think about. Really? Me? Forever? YOU FEEL LIKE SINGING. And you think about going to nice restaurants and making out while you eat, and then going to nice restaurants and making out while you eat, and so on. It’s like that Bongwater song about Pretty Woman, where “sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping” are the only things that matter in a relationship. From this point of view, romance is like Groundhog Day, except that Bill Murray keeps reliving the same sexy, exciting moment over and over again.
True romance, on the other hand, is more like the movie True Romance: Two stupid, lazy people face a confusing sea of filth, blood, and gore together, but they find a way to get through it without going completely crazy. It’s one thing to enjoy the complicated flavors of pricey meals together. But it’s a whole different thing for another person to try to figure out how your dogs’ day went, since they can’t speak English or any other language. (“Was it hard not having Mommy around? I think it was, yes! I think you needed your mom, but she wasn’t here!”) And it’s a whole different thing when you start to grow an alien in your belly, one that makes you sharp-tongued and scary, and then one day it comes out covered in white slime! That’s the next level of romance! Then, all you 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 pass out in a smelly, unattractive heap. That’s how you live! Even if you live in a first-world country, having kids is like living in a third-world country. You’re feeding one kid with your body while your husband squats on the floor of a dressing room at the mall and cleans the other kid’s butt. You and your partner are both struggling to make it through life.
It’s also 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 put your experiences into words. You feel more like two animals in a herd, stumbling along with blank looks and thoughtful chewing.
But it’s romantic that neither of you has any thoughts at all.
As time goes on, it doesn’t seem as bad. Because you don’t wake up 15 times a night, you get sick less often. There’s less poop to clean up, and there’s less grizzly bear mother rage ready to go. But now that you’re getting older, you say a lot of things like “My a$$ hurts.” “My behind hurts” is also very romantic. It makes both of you laugh. You’re both mortal, you’re both still alive, and you’re both in this together until the end. You’re both in trouble. Nothing will change until one of you dies, and that’s the best thing that could happen.
So don’t let anyone tell you that marriage is comfortable and soothing but not romantic. Don’t let anyone tell you that living and dying together is a sad dance of codependence 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 sex 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 puzzles yet. We think romance is like a mystery where you piece together clues to find out if you’ll be loved. Romance must be carefully staged and art-directed so that everyone looks better than they usually do and seems sexier and better than they really are. This keeps the suspense going.
But neither you nor your partner is better than they are. That is love. Romance is laughing at how beaten down you sometimes are in your never-ending fight to stay alive. It’s hot to feel like you’re not totally hot but that one person thinks you’re hot no matter what. Maybe the suspension of disbelief wins out over the suspense. Maybe instead of looking for proof, we should look for new ways to help each other get through the messes. 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 feel like making 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, at some point, death is what keeps us on edge. How long can this wonderful thing keep going? Your eyes seem to ask each other questions sometimes. For your part, you really hope this goes on for a lot longer. You enjoy the simple, repetitive rhythms of survival, and you want to keep doing them. You want to get through life’s messes with each other for as long as you can. That’s the very top. Savor it. That is what romance is all about.