I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage recently – like, way too much about marriage – and there’s one thing I’ve realized that’s really tripped me up: Marriage is a catch-22. On the one hand, you need to keep the romance alive so you don’t get restless and start looking elsewhere for that spark. But on the other hand, romance requires surprise and risk, and when you’re married with kids, you need to think of your spouse as the opposite of all that: predictable. Predictable is dependable, and when you rely on someone for such a dizzying array of things – love, companionship, economic stability, diapering – predictable is good.
But let’s face it: Predictable isn’t sexy. So what’s a spouse supposed to do? Sacrifice romance for the kids?
We all know the stock answer to this question. Hire a sitter and go out on “date nights.” But that answer is a lot less satisfying in practice than it sounds in theory.
Remember those dates you worried about, even obsessed over? The dates that made your stomach clench with anxiety, because you didn’t know how they would end? Would you kiss? Would you have sex? Would he sing that Neil Young song you heard him hum on the subway, the one that made your head swivel and your pulse rise?
Date nights are not at all like that.
Instead, they are real dates’ pale, anemic cousins – a little slack and wan. The problem is we all know the plot: Where the date will start, where it’s going, where it will end. It’s like opening a wrapped and ribboned box when you already know what’s inside.
Before I understood just what made them so great, I noticed that many of the best date nights with my husband included something gone wrong: Either the car broke down; or the restaurant lost our reservation. One night we walked for miles through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Another, we drove up to Twin Peaks with boxes of Chinese take-out and had a very romantic time watching the moon rise over San Francisco. These date nights should have been frustrating, but instead they were the opposite. Chance threw us off the expected course, scrambled and defeated our best intentions. And it felt great.
I finally realized why I loved those dates so much when I picked up a book by psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell called Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time. In it, Mitchell doesn’t argue the expected point that romance dies in marriage because we neglect it (by, you know, not going on enough date nights). Instead he argues, much more provocatively, that romance dies because we kill it, on purpose, as it becomes increasingly dangerous. Because in marriages like the ones so many of us have, where each spouse is a domestic one-man band – cradling an infant with one hand, straightening a tie with the other – we can’t bear to think of our partners as anything less than entirely predictable. We are too reliant on them.
In his book, Mitchell lays out the commonly held theories on why romance in marriage degrades (with parenthetical summaries by me):
- “Because time and success are its enemies.” (We grow complacent and lazy.)
- “Because it’s driven by sexuality, and sexuality is very primitive in its nature.” (Attraction inevitably cools.)
- “Because it’s inspired by idealization, and idealization is, by definition, illusory.” (We know each other well.)
- “Because it easily turns into hatred.” (We tire of each other.)
- “Because nothing stays the same, especially people.” (We change.)
I underlined each of these theories only to learn, soon enough, that Mitchell believes none of them – at least not entirely. Why? None of the theories accounts for our complicity: Our desire to mute romance’s dynamism, our need to paint our spouses as knowable, our impulse to eliminate the mystery and chance.
Exhibit A: A woman arrives at Mitchell’s therapy office. She’s bored with her husband (even though she loves him) and is cheating on him with a man she hardly knows. Mitchell eschews the whole “sexual excitement with strange men” line of questioning. Instead, he asks: “Why do you think your husband is boring? How have you managed to convince yourself that he’s utterly dependable and safe?”
The ideas behind these questions really resonated with me. My life was just about as enmeshed with my husband’s as a wife’s could be. Dan and I not only shared a house and children, we shared a profession; he’s a writer, too. We read and edited each other’s work.
Was my husband really as predictable as I assumed he was? I took him to be a serial obsessive, energetic, doting, manly, sensitive, on occasion vain, with conventional tastes. But maybe I didn’t really know.
So in an effort to bring the romance back into my marriage, I decided to focus not on date nights but on allowing mystery to thrive. In the evenings, once our children had gone to bed, I’d think that I didn’t really know my husband as well as I thought I did, that he was not predictable in the least. That he had desires for experiences, maybe even people, that he kept secret from me. Did he still think about the raven-haired beauty he’d met on a reporting trip to Galica in Spain? Did he ever get in his truck and consider driving back to his single surfer’s life on the California coast?
And you know what? It worked. I started feeling for my husband of 10 years the same excited, palm sweat-inducing feelings I’d had in my twenties. I wanted to captivate, beguile, be worthy of him – all of those things I’d been longing to feel on date night.
I don’t think those thoughts all the time, of course. When Dan says he’ll pick up the kids from school or he’s going out to dinner with one of his guy friends, I need and want to believe him – and I do. But I don’t think I know him entirely. I don’t know, for example, where his dream will take him, and that single thought prevents me from taking him for granted. It makes me want to keep winning him over, so that his dreams keep including me.