I’ll admit it. I was smug when I got married. Maybe that’s because I was old for a blushing first-time bride—48, to be precise—and I believed that with those years came certainty. When I walked down that aisle on my wedding day, my steps may have been hesitant in my too-high blue suede pumps, but I was absolutely sure that I was headed in the right direction. I’d looked long and hard for a man to be my mate. I even lived with someone. But that relationship, like the others, fizzled. By the time I met my husband, I’d stopped counting on marriage. I was happy with my solo life, finally happy with myself, and I vowed that any man I let into my heart had to make my day-to-day better than it already was.
My husband did make things better. He had an adventurous spirit that complemented my cautious nature, coaxing me to stretch my boundaries on weekend motorcycle trips where I’d cling to his lean torso and relish the wind in my hair. Weeknights at home, he’d teach me to swing dance—me, a lifelong klutz!—twirling me until I was breathless. So what if he played his music too loud or drove his convertible at dangerous speeds on dark roads until I begged him to stop? Differences are what make couples interesting.
One thing we did have in common: strong personalities. We are both accustomed to getting our way. Yet in the early days of our courtship, I was so smitten with my new beau’s decisiveness that I went along with any plan, subsuming my needs to his. After all, we had chemistry to spare and could talk and laugh for hours. It was clear this man was meant to be my family.
And so I was smug, especially as I looked around at couples who went months without sex, bickered in company, or fought about child-rearing. That won’t happen to us, I thought.
Nearly six years in, the tiny things that irked me slightly in the beginning now irk me mightily (think: loud music and fast driving). Often, when my mate starts blasting a song, instead of joining him for a dance, I retreat to our bedroom, pop in a pair of earplugs, and curl up with my e-reader and the cat. By the time he comes in, I’m already asleep, on the far side of our king-sized bed. When we first met, I couldn’t imagine going more than a night or two without sex. We were one of those annoying couples who couldn’t keep our hands off one another. Now we can go a few weeks—yes, weeks!—without sex.
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Of course, I’m almost 10 years older than when we met. Biology being what it is, I feel less urgent about sex than I do about solitude—and sleep. I guess my guy does, too; he’s now past 60, after all. But if anyone had told me that nearly a decade into our relationship, sex wouldn’t be on the top of my priority list, I’d have scoffed. I guess I was smug and naïve.
We also occasionally do that awful thing of bickering in front of other people. I still love my husband dearly—don’t get me wrong—but we are now more likely to snipe than laugh when life foils our plans. Like other couples, we occasionally argue over child-rearing (my husband has grown children, so you wouldn’t think that would be an issue, but there you have it). Sometimes, misunderstandings arise because of our different ways of dealing with crises. Early on, I lost my job, got depressed, and craved constant reassurance. More recently, when things got rough at my husband’s workplace, he withdrew into his “cave,” as he likes to put it, keeping his feelings to himself and leaving me to wonder what he was really thinking.
Maybe the crux of the matter is that we know each other well enough now to show our true selves. Sometimes, I worry that I duped my guy; that I’m not the kind and loving wife I promised to be, especially when I get in one of my contrarian moods. No, I don’t feel like dancing, or watching a movie, or having a drink. I also get tired of conversations about how to organize the cutlery drawer or whether it’s reasonable to park a bunch of tools on the floor for two months (“I’m leaving them there to remind myself to put them away,” my husband tells me).
My sister, who married in her 20s and is one of the few people I know who has a harmonious relationship 99 percent of the time, explains her marital equilibrium this way: “We’ve been together for so many years that we’ve reached compromises on all the little issues. When things come up now, we tend to fall back on those compromises.”
I wish I was better at compromising. But when something happens that gets my back up, I find myself looking at my husband’s familiar face, his craggy nose, and kind hazel eyes and thinking, ARRRRRRRGH. That scares me.
I believed that when I married, I would never feel scared. I believed that saying “I do” would make me feel secure, an emotion I never felt with the men I was merely dating. But when my husband starts doing his famous hillbilly accent or tells an anecdote I’ve heard before, I occasionally find myself rolling my eyes, a gesture relationship expert John Gottman says is a sign of contempt, the number one predictor of divorce. With each eye roll, I worry that we won’t make it, that he’ll fall out of love, or I will.
I worry, too, that I can’t wear my wedding ring anymore. Whenever I slip on my band, I develop an itchy rash around my fourth finger that persists for months. Recently, a friend laughed and said, “What do you think THAT means?” I’m not sure, but maybe because I’ve stopped wearing my ring, my husband has stopped wearing his, too.
Yet, I try to remind myself that it isn’t necessarily the symbols that keep a couple together. It’s the way two people treat each other, and the effort each makes to listen. I’ve always prided myself on being a great communicator, but in our relationship, it’s often my husband who brings up the difficult issues. When I showed him this essay, he was a bit taken aback, and when we got into bed, I could see from his face that something was wrong. Instead of picking up my e-reader, I moved closer.
Staring up at the ceiling, he asked, “Are you unhappy in our marriage?” And my heart ached with the thought that I’d hurt him. I also admired his courage in broaching this difficult question, one I would have been too cowardly to ask him. I thought about all the ways I’d be worse off without my husband, and I told him that I loved him, not on autopilot but from the core of my being. “I would marry you all over again,” I promised. “But… maybe we need to work harder to stay connected,” I ventured. And so, we talked in the dark about some recent difficulties and how we might resolve them, my head on my husband’s chest, his heart beating steadily against my ear. As we drifted off, still entwined, I realized I didn’t feel scared anymore. I felt lucky.