I am officially tired of people talking about “love” as the glue that seals a marriage. You know, the “all you need is love” mentality. Like if you “love” each other enough, things will stay cool. If your “love” is strong enough you will end up together in 59 years, rocking in old oak chairs on the porch of the home where your family was raised.
This all sounds nice in theory, and it sure looks good in Meg Ryan movies, but there is one [rather enormous] problem with this approach: When your marriage is really, really in trouble – when it’s actually at risk of disintegrating – the last thing you fucking feel is “love.”
Profound irritation? Yes.
Desperation? For sure.
Loathing? (Did I say that?)
Boredom, disillusion and a profound sense of regret? Good chance.
But love? Nah. That’s something you wish you could remember from those early days when it still seemed a possibility. It’s that elusive thing you think will fix your marriage, if you could only get a hold of the slippery little bastard.
You see it around every corner: Your annoying little sister and her new wife. The love songs. The movies. The Hallmark cards. Damn. The adoration is palpable. It’s so believable, so seductive. That feeling you had with your first love in high school – what if I could have that again? I deserve that! Why don’t I have that anymore?
You remember those first few months or year or two you spent with the person you married – that feeling of falling home in their arms – when “soul mate” made sense to you and “you complete me” actually resonated.
What the hell happened? What exactly is this pile of shit I’m living in now?
Damn. If you could just “fall in love again.” If you could just “rekindle the old spark.”
Find that lost love.
But while you ache for the love that’s gone, there’s this man (or woman), in the house, annoying the shit out of you. He’s like all human. Excessively flawed. It’s not hot. It’s not interesting. And it’s certainly not love-inducing. You’ve become the worst of yourself and you know it. You can’t communicate with this person. He’s a stranger you know everything about, so you’re not just irritated, you’re BORED. You walk around raw, in a state of isolation surrounded by your family. Falling into a pit of “I can’t believe this has become my life,” you sink deeper in the surety that you made a huge, terrible mistake.
I guess you never loved him. Or maybe he never loved you.
It feels that way to the depths of your bones. It becomes like air to you. You grieve, but eventually you’re done fighting and you grow numb. There’s a chance you don’t care anymore. You just want peace. You just want things to change.
In that moment you make a choice: Stay or go. Drop the bastard like a bad habit or settle for a shit life with a subpar human.
And in my experience, “love” is not the determining factor of that decision.
Why? Because in that moment I can’t feel “love,” so how the hell can it help me?
How can something I can’t feel have any effect on my life? How can something that doesn’t exist guide my choices like some sort of shining beacon of hope?
That’s right. IT CAN’T.
My husband and I have had some dark times. We separated for two years once. I was sure we were done. He reached a point where he agreed. And yet, on December 19 we celebrated 12 years of marriage. (Of course I’m using that term “celebrated” rather loosely. We were actually fighting all day and didn’t “make up” until it was too late to “celebrate,” but whatevs.)
You know what’s kept my marriage together? You know what’s kept us from pulling the plug permanently?
Just work. Sweat and blood and grime. Nasty, dirty WORK. The super ugly kind. The kind that covers you with black dust of unknown origin and clogs your nostrils and nearly stops your breath from exhaustion.
If that’s “romance,” well then shit, romance saved our marriage.
But it’s not. It’s not romance, not a rediscovery of sparks or whatever the fuck. Not a renewed commitment to love. Just work, fueled by a relentless, slightly irrational refusal to give up.
As in, I gritted my teeth, screamed “FUCK IT” into the universe and held on for dear life.
Because I could not stomach the alternative.
Another woman around my kids, co-parenting, the kids darting back and forth between houses the way I did when I was young, shared holidays, the fact that I would have to go through this same damn process with another man. SO yeah. That’s why I stayed. Isn’t that sweet?
No. It’s not sweet. It’s desperate. I couldn’t win. If I left, I faced a life I didn’t want. If I stayed, I faced a life I didn’t want.
And friends, I had some solid evidence for the “this whole thing was a mistake” theory. Most of you know this, but I’ll repeat anyway: My husband and I met in a drunken stupor at the ages of 19 (him) and 21 (me). I knew him for three months when I found out I was pregnant. We were both drunk for the majority of our three-month “courtship.” Though I was “sure: I “loved him” and there was something in him I had never seen before in a man, the truth is we were kids who married and had a kid. We “got to know each other” while engaging in the work of pregnancy and child-rearing. We had no business doing either. (Incidentally, I’m still shocked that baby has grown into a totally decent kid, which furthers my theory that parents have very little effect on the outcome, but I digress.)
After I had the baby, we moved into his parents’ house so I could stay home with her. We got married when she was one-month old, at the courthouse, on a cold December day. As if it were a sign, I wore all black. Ha! (No really I did.)
I’ll never forget the first time I realized without a doubt I had made the biggest mistake of my life. My baby was a day or two old. She had woken in the night and I got up with her. There was a rocking chair in our bedroom, facing a big window. I sat in that rocking chair and nursed my baby with aching nipples and fear. I looked back at the barely man sleeping behind me. I looked at my baby in the moonlight. I looked back at the man in the bed and I said to myself “You’ve ruined your life.” The words roared into my brain and planted themselves right at the center. They were true.
And I knew it.
But I also knew I was inextricably connected to both of these humans, for the duration, and I was terrified. I wanted out but there was no out. I had a life I was going to live, before. It’s gone now.
What had I done?
And that, my friends, serves as the foundation of my love story.
I realize not everybody has this experience. I realize some of you took your time and dated and shit and got married when you knew this was a human who could work with you as a domestic life partner (as opposed to having a kid and hoping for the best). Maybe you’re all swooning in love all the time and it’s always been smooth and good and loving. And you know what? Good for you. I mean it. I think that’s rad sauce. BUT I’M NOT TALKING TO YOU.
I’m talking to those of you who can’t see in and can’t see out. I’m talking to those of you who can’t find the love. And I’m talking to the people who have straight evidence (as I did) that they were stupid fucks and made a giant mistake.
So many people divorce because “they love him but they’re not ‘in love’ with him.”
Every time I hear that I want to respond: OF COURSE YOU’RE NOT. That’s what marriage is, dude: Loving somebody despite the fact that the “sparks” have gone. Committing to somebody beyond the initial “OMG let’s have sex in all the places.”
The “in love” period is a phase, the beginning phase of three-phase deal. That’s my theory, anyway.
Am I telling you to stay with your partner? God no.
Am I telling you not to divorce? Fuck no.
Photo by Tracy Teague
What the hell do I care what you do? I don’t know shit about marriage. I only know what happened to me, and it’s this: It was only after I settled, gave up, surrendered to a crap marriage with a man I knew I didn’t love that I fell into a love deeper than I ever knew possible.
It’s so backwards I can’t explain it. It makes no sense.
It was only after I threw up my arms and gave up fighting, figured “Well this is hell, but it’s your hell, Janelle, so get used to it” that I was, a year or two or three later, able to recognize that while I was busy hating my marriage and trying to “fix” the man I married, love had found its way between us and I stood across from a human who made my stomach flutter, a little, when he called. But not because of romance or newness or fresh flirtation, but because a life had been built beneath us – 13 years of struggle and work and joy and I was only 21 when we met. I’m 34 now. And there is so much meaning there. That’s the hottest shit there is.
I look at him and I see history. I see shit that matters. I see life and growth. And I’m grateful there’s been no cheating, or beating, or other absolute deal-breakers. And I’m grateful he’s been willing to work too, because it cannot be a one-sided mission. And I can’t believe he stayed with me, waited for me, a once worthless alcoholic, a woman who abandoned him and our kids and life. And I can’t believe he knew the moment to say “Kick rocks, bitch” and the strength of his soul and arms and heart complete me. Ha. Like a motherfucking soul mate.
No. Not like that.
Rather, like I see I’ve got a damn good deal with a fucking great man who I love with a depth beyond the surface, because of WHO HE IS and WHAT HE’S DONE in the time that I’ve been lucky enough to know him.
Love is not something that held us together.
Love is something that developed over the years that we were held together through bulldog like tenacity.
It sure as hell blindsided me, friends.
I guess because I had given up, I was able to see him for the man he is, not the projection of what I wanted him to be (cause that ain’t love, folks). Not the screen onto which I cast my expectations and needs, but rather a man who has stood by my side and built with me an insane gorgeous disastrous perfect life.
And I fucking love him for it.
And I want to get older with him, to see where it all goes.
And when our kids leave I’ll stand somewhere more wrinkly and kinda old and a little spent and I’ll look at him and remember 21 and 34 and 40 and 50 and he will be the constant, like a long lost beacon of hope – Ha! As if.
Nah, he’ll be what he is now: the one who’s committed to me as I’ve committed to him. The one who agreed to let go of the bullshit in light of that one single interest, in light of a life we’re building together, in light of this partnership. And what’s happened is that partnership has found its spot in the motherfucking cosmos – a little life of its own – and we flirt and laugh and hold hands again because it’s bigger than us, because it holds us up with a love we never knew was possible, a friendship that spans a decade and a connection that’s reborn in newborn breath and the squeals of our tween’s attitude and Santa Cruz and camping trips and each night when we crash into the same bed, over years, in pain and boredom and delight – and that alone is breathtaking.
It doesn’t always work. I know that. All I want to tell you is that there’s a chance it might.
Because that was something I never believed, until I saw it with my own eyes, and felt it with my own gut – the slippery little bastard that sits now like an old friend on a worn-out bedside table.
Stealing a kiss and taking a photo at the fair like a couple of goddamn newlyweds.