I’m an advice columnist, so sometimes people ask me about how they can “keep the romance alive” in their marriages. This stumps me a little because, by “romance,” I know they mean the traditional version, the one that depends on living inside a giant, suspenseful question mark. This version of romance is all about that thrilling moment when you think that someone may have just materialized who will make every single thing in the world feel delicious and amazing and right forever and ever. It springs forth from big questions, like “Can I really have what I’ve been looking for? Will I really feel loved and desired and truly adored at last? Can I finally be seen as the answer to someone else’s dream, the heroine with the glimmering eyes and sultry smile?” And this version of romance peaks at the exact moment when you think, Holy Christ, I really am going to melt right into this other person (who is a relative stranger)! It really IS physically intoxicating and perfect! And it seems like we feel the exact same way about each other! Traditional romance is heady and exciting precisely because — and not in spite of the fact that — there are still lingering questions at the edges of the frame: “Will I be enough for this person? Will she stop wanting me someday? Is he as amazing as he seems/feels/tastes?”
But once you’ve been married for a long time (my tenth anniversary is in a few months!), a whole new kind of romance takes over. It’s not the romance of rom-coms, which are predicated on the question of “Will he/she really love me (which seems impossible), or does he/she actually hate me (which seems far more likely and even a little more sporting)?” Long-married romance is not the romance of watching someone’s every move like a stalker, and wanting to lick his face but trying to restrain yourself. It’s not even the romance of “Whoa, you bought me flowers, you must REALLY love me!” or “Wow, look at us here, as the sun sets, your lips on mine, we REALLY ARE DOING THIS LOVE THING, RIGHT HERE.” That’s dating romance, newlywed romance. You’re still pinching yourself. You’re still fixated on whether it’s really happening. You’re still kind of sort of looking for proof. The little bits of proof bring the romance. The question of whether you’ll get the proof you require brings the romance. (The looking for proof also brings lots of fights, but that’s a subject for another day.)
After a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof. What you have instead — and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all — is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won’t eventually be abandoned, it’s maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal. The smells. The sounds. The repetitive fixations on the same dumb shit, over and over. Even as you develop a kind of a resigned glaze of oh, this again in, say, marital years one through five, you also feel faintly unnerved by your own terrible mortal humanness.
Or you should feel that way.
For example: I talk to my dogs. A lot. My husband does not comment on how much I do this. I am a true dog lady, but one who also has a husband and kids there. While the dog lady has a long conversation with her dogs, the husband and kids are the ones who stand by, cocking their heads quizzically, trying to understand. When I walk in the door after being gone all day, I greet the dogs first. I say things like, “Oh, did you miss your mommy? Oh, you missed your mommy a lot! You needed Mommy and she wasn’t here! Poor puppies!” Then I say things to my kids like, “Hey. What’ve you guys been doing.” There’s a tonal shift. I am less enthusiastic, possibly because I’m unwell. My kids don’t seem to mind. It takes me longer to warm up and cuddle with them, possibly because they’re sometimes whining or yelling about something, or asking 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 and lie prone for a few minutes and pour beer into my face.
That’s when I notice my husband. He missed Mommy, too.
But my husband doesn’t yell WHAT THE HELL? at me like he should. He doesn’t smirk. He doesn’t roll his eyes. I am clearly unstable, but he makes no sounds to this effect. Instead, he hugs me and smiles and says, “How was your day, baby?” He acts like he doesn’t even notice that I should be locked away forever and ever in some bad, drafty place that serves only American cheese.
And now I’m going to tell you my most romantic story of all. I was very sick out of the blue with some form of dysentery. It hit overnight. I got up to go to the bathroom, and I fainted on the way and cracked my ribs on the side of the bathtub. My husband discovered me there, passed out, in a scene that … well, imagine what would happen if you let Todd Solondz direct an episode of Game of Thrones. Think about what that might look like. I’m going to take your delicate sensibilities into account and resist the urge to paint a clearer picture for you.
My husband was not happy about this scene. But he handled it without complaint. That is the very definition of romantic: not only not being made to feel crappy about things that are clearly out of your control, but being quietly cared for by someone who can shut up and do what needs to be done under duress. That is the definition of sexy, too. People think they want a cowboy, because cowboys are rugged and macho and they don’t whine. But almost anyone can ride a stallion across a beautiful prairie and then come home and eat a giant home-cooked steak without whining about it. Entering into a Todd Solondz–directed Game of Thrones dysentery scene, though, will try the most stalwart and unflinching souls among us.
Now let’s tackle something even darker and more unpleasant, the seeming antithesis of our modern notion of romance: Someone is dying in their own bed, and someone’s spouse is sitting at the bedside, holding the dying person’s hand, and also handling all kinds of unspeakable things that people who aren’t drowning in gigantic piles of cash sometimes have to handle all by themselves. To me, that’s romance. Romance is surviving and then not surviving anymore, without being ashamed of any of it.
Because survival is ugly. Survival means sometimes smelling and sounding the wrong way. It’s one thing for a person to buy you flowers, to purchase a nice dinner, to PROVE that they truly, deeply want to have some good sweet-talky time and some touching time alone with you, and maybe they’d like to do that whole routine forever and ever and ever. That’s a heady thing. Really? Me? Forever? YOUR HEART SINGS. And you imagine eating out at nice restaurants, and screwing, and eating out and screwing and eating out and screwing. It’s like that Bongwater song about Pretty Woman, where romance boils down to “sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping and sucking and shopping!” Romance, in this view, is like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, except he’s repeating the same sexily suspenseful moment over and over again.
True romance, though, is more like the movie True Romance: Two deluded, lazy people face a bewildering sea of filth and blood and gore together, but they make it through somehow, some way, without losing their minds completely.
It’s one thing to savor the complex flavor profiles of expensive meals together. But it’s another thing entirely for another human being to listen to you try to figure out how the day went for your dogs, who cannot speak English or any other language. (“Was it hard, being without Mommy? Yes, I think it was! I think you needed your mommy, but she wasn’t here!”) And it’s another thing entirely when you start to grow an alien in your belly, one that makes you sharp-tongued and menacing, and then one day it finally comes out, all covered in white slime! That is next-level romance right there! And then, suddenly, all you do is talk to the hairless alien and feed it with your own body (a miracle!), bragging about how you make food from thin air like a GOD, and then, once the alien goes to bed, you say JESUS I’M EXHAUSTED and OUCH MY BOOBS HURT and then you pass out in a smelly, unattractive heap. That’s survival! Once you have kids, even in a first-world country, you enter a kind of simulation of third-world living. You’re feeding one kid with your body while your husband crouches on the floor of a dressing room at the mall, wiping excrement off the other kid’s butt. You and your spouse are slogging through the slop of survival together.
And it’s romantic. Mark my words.
You’re alone together less often, and when you are, you sometimes forget how to talk like adults, how to form words about your experiences. You feel more like two herd animals bumping along, all blank stares and pensive chewing. But it’s romantic how you both have no thoughts in your heads whatsoever.
The years go by, and it gets less desperate. You get sick less often because you don’t wake up 15 times a night. There’s less fecal matter to wipe up, and less grizzly-bear-mother rage at the ready. But now you’re getting older, so you say things like MY ASS HURTS a lot. “My ass hurts” is also super-romantic, though. It makes you both chuckle. You are both mortal and you’re both surviving, together, and you’re in this to the very end. You are both screwed, everything will be exactly this unexciting until one of you dies, and it’s the absolute greatest anyway.
So don’t let anyone tell you that marriage is comfortable and comforting but not romantic. Don’t let anyone tell you that living and dying together is some sad dance of codependent resignation. Our dumb culture tricks us into believing that romance is the suspense of not knowing whether someone loves you or not yet, the suspense of wanting to have sex but not being able to yet, the suspense of wanting all problems and puzzles to be solved by one person, without knowing if they have any time or affinity for your particular puzzles yet. We think romance is a mystery in which you add up clues that you will be loved. Romance must be carefully staged and art-directed, so everyone looks better than they usually do and seems sexier and better than they actually are, so the suspense can remain intact.
You are not better than you are, though, and neither is your partner. That’s romance. Laughing at how beaten-down you sometimes are, in your tireless quest to survive, is romance. It’s sexy to feel less than totally sexy and still feel like you’re sexy to one person, no matter what. Maybe suspense yields to the suspension of disbelief. Maybe looking for proof yields to finding new ways to muddle through the messes together.
But when it’s 10 p.m. and you crawl into bed like two old people and tell each other about the weird things that 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 feel like playing a quick game of Candy Crush, all the while saying things like, “This game is stupid, it sucks” and “Your feet are freezing” and “My ass hurts,” that’s romantic. Because at some point, let’s be honest, death supplies the suspense. How long can this glorious thing last? your eyes sometimes seem to ask each other. You, for one, really hope this lasts a whole hell of a lot longer. You savor the repetitive, deliciously mundane rhythms of survival, and you want to keep surviving. You want to muddle through the messiness of life together as long as you possibly can. That is the summit. Savor it. That is the very definition of romance.