“I never expected us to stay in love. Being ‘in love’ is just an emotion. It comes and goes. But loving someone is a commitment, and if it’s real, it lasts. That’s what I expected, and I love you.”
Just shy of a year of marriage, hearing these words, however sincere and well-intended, come out of DH’s mouth, I was utterly stupefied, and my aching heart sank to a new low. What? He’d never expected we’d stay in love? Why? When? Wait, what?? There I stood, tear-streaked face and all, having just confessed my profound loneliness and disillusionment, lamenting euphoric dating and honeymoon days-gone-by and questioning whether we were still in love, and that was DH’s response. Seriously. What happened to us? Somehow, somewhere, at some indeterminate point in time, the simple pleasures, affections and dreams that had bound us so tightly before had faded; life together now seemed so sober – all work and responsibilities, peaceful co-habitation but without that warm and fuzzy sense of togetherness.
I’m not gonna lie. DH’s stoic response will probably remain ingrained in my memory until I die. But it carries remarkably less sting now. Even more astonishing, I’ve grown to appreciate, even agree with, what he stated so matter-of-factly that day, because over the years I’ve had the chance – no, many chances – to witness his truth. You see, back then, in my mind, DH’s response couldn’t have seemed more callous or unfeeling, but when I consider the calm, frank, logical manner in which he handles – well , just about everything – in his mind, he was simply reaffirming a sacred covenant of honesty, perseverance and loyalty to me. And for all I’ve known and seen, he’s kept that promise.
Clearly, between the two of us, DH is the introverted pragmatist and I, the extroverted romantic. We’re more of an “opposites attract” couple than a “we have so much in common” one. Regardless, as with many fast and furious romances, our whirlwind infatuation eventually hit its peak too and we slowly came back down to earth. Reality beckoned. Thus, shortly before our wedding, to be prudent, save money and live simply, we moved a good distance from our jobs (a 45-minute commute for me and 1.5 hour commute for him, each one-way) and from our friends and church (i.e., our community and support networks). That move certainly helped our savings, but not so much our relationship. DH, as patient as he is, can’t stand traffic. So after spending 8 -10 hours managing patients, their families, nurses and residents, and driving in heavy traffic three hours a day, he often came home tired (cranky) and seeking solitude. I, on the other hand, having spent 8-10 hours in my office negotiating real estate deals and drafting and redrafting contracts, came home hungry for lively conversation and company. Far from friends now, I had no one but DH to fill that need, a heavy and unfair burden for anyone to bear alone. What’s more, we’d set off on our “new life together” in his old childhood home — the house where his late father (not yet middle-aged but ill and wise enough to plan for the worst) taught a young DH countless tinkering and household repair skills, and where DH, upon his dad’s passing, had had to transform prematurely from boy to man overnight. I wondered whether DH’s solemnness during our years was stirred by sad memories of his father’s illness and passing and the family’s worries and burdens surrounding that. He never thought so, but I can’t see how it couldn’t have.
Combine work stress, long commutes, isolation from friends and support networks, heavy childhood memories, job changes, a pregnancy, a move, more babies, the demands of taxing professions and raising young kids, never enough time for it all, and there you have it – unadulterated and in many ways even privileged, first-world, GROWN-UP LIFE. So reality checked me alright. So much so that I found myself repeatedly lapsing into bouts of intense loneliness and melancholy. I could still go about my daily business, but my optimism and cheerfulness of former years had burned out.
I’m assuming you’ve heard of “the seven-year-itch” (nowadays, the “five- to seven-year itch”):
“a psychological term that suggests that happiness in a relationship declines after around year seven of a marriage”. It can even be “analyzed quantitatively. Divorce rates show a trend in couples that, on average, divorce around seven years. Statistics show that there is a low risk of separation during the first months of marriage. After the ‘honeymoon’ months, divorce rates start to increase. Most married couples experience a gradual decline in the quality of their marriage; in recent years around the fourth year of marriage. Around the seventh year, tensions rise to a point that couples either divorce or adapt to their partner [italics added].”
Yup. Sounds about right. By the time DH and I hit year five, I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it. Everything seemed fine, perhaps even great, on the outside. We’d bought ourselves a beautiful townhouse, we were a great tag-team as parents, we had well-paying jobs, we dutifully went to church every Sunday, and we rarely argued. But we also rarely spoke anymore, rarely shared or discussed non-kid-related matters that meant something to one of us. And when we did share, we (especially I) weren’t even good listeners. Either distracted by our own thoughts or busyness, or emotionally detached from the subject, we were neither engaged nor engaging. We weren’t “getting” each other – what touches, enthralls, saddens, interests, or motivates the other. And we didn’t speak each other’s “love languages”.
I was desperately lonely and discontent (*themes I’ll write more about, outside the limited context of marriage, in the future) and had lost hope that DH and I would ever have a fulfilling marriage. So one day, I packed some things and told DH I was leaving, taking the kids to my folks’ “until I could figure things out.” He finally grasped the gravity of my unhappiness. He said that if I’m talking separation, shouldn’t we “at least give it our 200% first and try marital counseling” (the very thing I’d suggested and he’d discounted as hokey-pokey time and again over the years).
A few days later, he called to tell me that he’d looked into some counseling options and wanted my opinion. I came back. We started seeing an experienced, pragmatic and sympathetic but not gushy therapist whom we both found agreeable. We had weekly counseling for about eight months. It helped tremendously. But therapy alone didn’t save us.
To this day, I’m deeply grateful that we had our faith, our values, our kids (two at the time), loving parents, and some key supportive, prayerful friends, to help get us through that damn “itch” and to the point of choosing to “adapt” rather than “divorce”. Circumstances helped too. The real estate market crash of 2008 affected everyone tied to the industry. I was laid off at the end of the year. With an abrupt, forced stop to “firm life” for me, my stress levels dropped significantly, which surprisingly lessened DH’s stress (even though it meant less financial security for us) and allowed me to finally enjoy family life and manage domestic life with energy and competence. You know the saying, right? “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.” (Preach!)
Ultimately, God saved us. Rather, He saved me. I’ve since learned, or accepted, that I was born with a hole in my heart – a God-sized and God-shaped hole. And I can spend however much of my time, energy, money and focus trying to fill that hole with other things – marriage, family, fame, fortune, friends, travel, diversions, nice things, beautiful clothes, and so on and so on – and sometimes I manage to shove, squeeze, push and pull just so, to kinda sorta plug that hole with some of those things. But, it never lasts. Eventually, those things just pop right back out. Because nothing – not one thing or combination of things – is shaped or sized to fit that hole perfectly and permanently except my God. He loved me first, He’ll love me last, He loves me best. No one else has been, nor will be, with me and for me, the entirety of my life.
I love DH and he loves me. He’s not “my world” and I’m not his. We please one another, we displease one another. We impress one another, we disappoint one another. We help one another, we neglect one another. We understand one another, we disagree with one another. Either way, we’re committed. We’re here. We love one another. Love remains beautifully, painfully and imperfectly real. And if I had all to do over again, I still choose DH.