Your Romance Isn’t Dead; It’s Just Grown Up

Eleven years ago on Valentine’s Day, I stood before family and friends and said, “I do.”

I was 29 years old. It was my second time at the altar. There was not yet a gray hair visible on my head, and marital joys like mortgage payments and childbearing and childrearing still hung ahead on the horizon, their challenges yet to be imagined.

I thought I knew about true love then, and I think I know about true love now – although what I know has changed significantly.

For example: I know that when I’m exhausted from a long day of juggling kids and work and self, a super tight, 20-second hug can be just as satisfying as sizzling sex—if not more so.

pizzaI know that coming home on Feb. 14 to the anniversary tradition of a homemade, heart-shaped pizza is a gesture on par with the opening a box of the most sparkling diamonds.

I know that true love overlooks the not-so-pretty: Morning breath. Cellulite. Hormones. Peeing with the door open. Flatulence. (His, of course.) Instead it finds turn-on in the deeper virtues of soul acceptance and unwavering thick-and-thin commitment.

If you worry that your relationship is stalling out because it doesn’t seem to have the same “spark” it used to, don’t:

Your romance isn’t dead; it’s just become a grownup. Like you.

Here are four new ways to look at things:

1. Modern Relationships Are More Complex Than Ever

In her outstanding TED talk about fueling long-term desire, psychotherapist Esther Perel unpacks the conundrum of marriage.

Historically, she says, marriage was a lifelong economic institution that satisfied our anchoring needs of security, reliability and permanence. Erotic pleasure and the accompanying adventure, mystery and risk often was sought—and found—outside that framework. Today, it seems, we want it all in the same package.

“We come to one person and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: ‘Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity—but give me transcendence and mystery and awe, all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge; give me novelty, give me familiarity; give me predictability, give me surprise.’ And we think it’s a given, and that toys and lingerie are going to save us,” Perel says.

 

2. We Must Expand The Definition of Intimacy

It’s one thing to know the location of our lovers’ erotic hot buttons, but another entirely to have a grasp on what lies even closer to the soul.

Do you know their deepest hopes and fears? Do you understand their childhood and the environment in which they were raised? How clued in are you to their everyday lives—friends, hobbies, jobs, worries, health concerns and the like? Do you get what really makes them tick?

At the same time, how intimately do you know yourself?

John M. Gottman, Ph.D., author of the bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says there’s deep strength in such knowledge. “Many married couples fall into a habit of inattention to the details of their spouse’s life. One or both partners may have only the sketchiest sense of the other’s joys, likes, dislikes, fears, stresses,” he writes.

“In contrast, emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. I call this having a richly detailed love map—my term for that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life. Without such a love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you love them?”

 

3. Facing Fact: Children Sometimes Make Us Unhappy

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor and the author of The Myths of Happiness, recently took a close look at whether children and happiness go hand-in-hand.

Research results supported the truism that “kids are the source of our greatest joy and our greatest sorrow.” Specifically, it revealed that parenting is toughest “when kids are very young or teenagers, and when we lack the resources (monetary, social, developmental) to manage them,” Lyubomirsky writes in TIME magazine.

“Children give our lives purpose, infuse fun and pride into our lives, and enrich our identities. At the same time, they are also vectors for worry, anger, and disappointment; they deprive us of energy and sleep; and they strain our finances and our marriages,” Lyubormirsky says.

So we’re exhausted, testy and pinching pennies—all major stressors. But there’s good news for parents, if we can ride it out: Research suggests married couples get happier after children grow up and leave the nest.

“There are fewer interruptions and less stress when kids are out of the house,” Dr. Sara Melissa Gorchoff, a specialist in adult relationships at the University of California, Berkeley, says in The New York Times. “It wasn’t that they spent more time with each other after the children moved out. It’s the quality of time they spent with each other that improved.”

 

4. Keep Your GPS Focused on Target—Even If It Moves

There’s no doubt that person I am now is much different than the person I was when I got married. My husband has changed, too. In those 11 years, we’ve gained—and lost—jobs, income, friends, confidence and connection. Competing demands bombard from every direction, every day.

In some moments I feel like the kitten chasing the laser pointer’s frenetic red dot: It’s on the floor! It’s on the wall! It’s behind me!

That’s when I remind myself about the importance of separating the distractions from the priorities. I return again and again to the big questions—not just about marriage, but about life in general:

  • What do I want my relationship to look and feel like? What do I NOT want?
  • Who/what kind of person do I want to be?
  • How have my expectations changed over time, and why?
  • What do I stand for in life? By what metrics will I measure success?
  • How can I support my intentions with my actions and words?

Checking in on these questions periodically—individually and with your partner—is a fundamental part of understanding where you (both) want to go. And the clarity of the answers is what keeps us moving deliberately toward our most deeply held goals, distracted less and less by the red dot on the floor.

 

On this Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate love like grownups. Let us:

Bust the myth that maturity equals stagnancy, and instead remember that we don’t stay wild and lustful teenagers forever. Thankfully, we evolve.

Toast to new definitions of intimacy, and the power of really knowing ourselves and each other.

Stand up in defense of deep abiding friendship as the foundation upon which everything else is built. (Because nothing says “sexy” like being rock-solid.)

Appreciate the way time can tame a blazing blast of passion—the kind that, at its worst, can explode, suck all the oxygen out of a room and make it impossible to breathe.

And, ultimately, let’s cozy up to the warm fire that burns low and constant. For that’s where the real “spark” is.


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