What’s the best way to recalibrate a marriage as the years pass? I wish I had the answer, because clearly millions of us would like to know.
As the editor of the Modern Love column for nearly a decade, I have sifted through roughly 50,000 stories that have crossed my desk. I have noticed people wrestling with two questions above all others. From the young: “How do I find love?” And from those wallowing through marital malaise: “How do I get it back?”
Though it’s not really love they want back as much as attention, excitement and passion. No one doubts the enduring benefits of long-term relationships. But marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations.
In my own 21-year marriage, my wife has a habit of asking me to do something and then saying: “You’re not going to forget, are you? Just tell me now if you’re going to forget so I’ll know to do it myself.”
I’ll say (for the hundredth time): “I can’t know in advance if I’m going to forget. That’s not how forgetting works.”
“Just tell me,” she’ll say.
Among my 50,000 strangers, I’ve also heard from just a handful of couples who claimed to have maintained sexually charged marriages throughout the decades. The one story I published from this happier-than-thou crowd, by the writer Ayelet Waldman about her still-sexy marriage (with four children) to the Pulitzer-winning writer Michael Chabon, was met with jeers and hostility when she went on “Oprah” to talk about it, mostly because she dared to confess that she puts her marriage ahead of motherhood.
That alignment of priorities, she said, is part of what has allowed her to keep her marriage passionate. And she argued that doing so is also a healthier model for children, most of whom would be better off with a little less time in their parents’ spotlight. As she spoke, the studio audience seemed to regard her as if she were from another planet.
She might as well have been, given how rare that kind of marriage is these days.
So what to do about it? Sneak around, trying to get our needs met elsewhere? Resign ourselves to the limitations of marriage? Confront the issue head on and work together to try to reanimate our relationship? And ultimately, what does each approach entail?
THOSE WHO SNEAK. Sneakers neither sulk nor celebrate; they redirect their attention to distractions that entertain and titillate. As a matter of convenience, much of their sneaking will be conducted online.
For these gadget-obsessed types, the hardest work of marriage is listening. To their spouses they’ll mutter “What?” constantly, but they won’t listen when the statement is repeated and they are too embarrassed to ask a second or third time.
THOSE WHO QUASH. There are many who choose to quash their unfulfilled desires, to accept their marriage for what it is and figure out how to feel OK about it.
Oh, well, they tell themselves, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I love my spouse and my family. I love my house and my garden. So we aren’t having wild sex every day or every week or even once a month (or ever). You can’t have everything, they argue. Be grateful for what you do have.
There’s a temptation to dismiss quashers as being in total denial, but they aren’t. They just don’t see the point of wallowing in self-pity when they have accomplished what they hoped to in terms of marriage, family and career. As with most personality types, there’s a spectrum, running the gamut from the bitterly resigned to the appreciatively so.
THE RESTORER. When a restorer couple’s marriage starts to feel subpar, they sit down and have a sensible discussion about where their marriage is and where they would like it to be. Then they set goals and seek the means to achieve those goals. Typically affluent, educated and highly motivated, restorer couples almost single-handedly support the vast and profitable marriage-improvement industry.
From their research they will learn how their boredom may ebb and flow before finally leveling off into the pleasant hum of old age. They’ll become experts in the ways men and women have driven each other crazy for all of eternity. They will have hugged and kissed and danced and date-nighted until they can hug and kiss and dance and date-night no more. And although they will have had some good times that made them remember why they fell in love in the first place, chances are they won’t exactly have turned back the clock in terms of reclaiming that ever-elusive passion.
Inevitably, as the intellectually curious people they are, restorers will return to their original and most perplexing question: How much do we have a right to expect from marriage? Is this simply as good as it gets? We do care about each other. We love our children. Health is generally good. Can’t we just be happy with what we have? And isn’t there a risk that in pressing for more we’ll turn something pretty good into something really bad?
There is, of course. And it’s a risk some will want to take. Others, though, will decide to pull back on the marriage improvement program and instead join the ranks of the appreciatively resigned. They will realize that passion does not equal love, and that the loss of one doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of the other.
That’s a realization worth celebrating.
Daniel Jones is the editor of Modern Love. This is adapted from his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers).”
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