A year and a half into our marriage, we were walking on the fair grounds, commenting on the young couples in love: teen girls carrying bears won by their boyfriends at the clown toss, couples nestled in the seats of a Ferris wheel, others dancing to the live band, a few making out behind the vendors' stands.
"Remember when we were that in love?" David said to me.
Were? The comment bothered me. It was the same thing my parents had said, jokingly to each other and with smiles in their eyes, when they watched David and I fall in love. At that time, we were so in love that I couldn't imagine that there would ever come a time when I would not want to spend hours cuddling, lost in long conversation about everything under the sun. I had always believed we would keep the inloveness alive long after the wedding, despite what I heard older folks say.
To me, it was a problem that our feelings were changing. And I'm not the only one in our generation to feel that way. We know people who have broken up because they were concerned that their feelings would not stand the test of time. And the young adults that we spent two summers interviewing for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project expressed the same fears about losing "the spark" after the wedding day. As one cohabiting 20-something man said, "I wanna make sure I'm happy before I get married…. I love her, you know, but is it going to stay that way?" Given this fear, people sometimes spend years dating, or increasingly, in cohabiting relationships, trying to discern if their love has what it takes to last after marriage. Sometimes even married people go to great lengths to protect the thrills of the dating stage — one young woman told us about her parents who would meet up at the bar after work, pretend like they didn't know each other, and act like they were meeting for the first time all over again.
David and I wondered what people who had been married 50-plus years would say about all of this. So we gathered together a small group of senior citizens at the local retirement community and hosted a "Town Hall Meeting on Marriage." What we heard is that, for these folks, marriage is not primarily about feeling perpetually and passionately in love, but about "companionship" and "having a family, children, a home."
One attendee at the meeting, Linda, a gray-haired woman in a long jean skirt and black and silver button-up shirt who spends her days taking care of her wheelchair-bound husband, said in a sweet Southern twang, "There were times I would have liked to have left. But Momma always said that love is not a bed of roses." She added, "I think a lot of people get married, and they think things are gonna continue the way they were in courtship and the honeymoon. And I think it's good to keep that spark alive, but you know when you start working and trying to make financial means and then you start [having] children, I mean, a lot of that has to give some, and I think the expectations are just more than it even realistically can be."
To the ears of the young lover, some of what this older generation has to say can sound depressing. And it's true that not all long-term marriages are happy ones. Another senior we talked to wrote a poem about how it makes her sad that her husband doesn't communicate with her. (One line went like this: "When first we wed, you heard everything I said/Now when I talk, I think you are dead.")
However, while the older generation tends to see marriage as an unconditional commitment that transcends feelings, it is also true that many of them have a deep and lasting love.
At one point in our meeting, Linda began to cry, saying, "We're just thankful for each day that we have together." She hopes that she will be strong enough to take care of her husband, Chuck, so that he doesn't have to go into a nursing home. Petite woman that she is, Linda helps Chuck — a burly, red-faced, retired truck driver — out of bed into his wheelchair and from his wheelchair to the shower, and takes him anywhere he needs to go. And Linda and Chuck are not an isolated case. In our interviews with young adults, many of them said that of all the marriages they've seen, they admire their grandparents' the most.
While it's clear that older couples like Linda and Chuck genuinely love each other, it leaves open the question we faced at the fairgrounds, "What should love, at its best, feel like after marriage?"
Do our passions necessarily diminish leaving us to rely on our wills alone? When Linda helps Chuck out of bed and into his wheelchair, is she simply exercising raw willpower, devoid of any warmth of feeling? We've all heard it said that love goes through different seasons. So maybe the love of courtship and the first couple years of marriage are like spring, love after children is like summer, love during the children's teenage years like fall, and old age like winter?
That doesn't sound quite right, does it? Sure, for some people, like the dirge of our senior poet-friend – "When first we wed, you heard everything I said/Now when I talk, I think you are dead" – it does seem as if love, sadly, goes from spring to winter (or at least fall). But in that case the husband's failure to communicate seems to violate the spirit of marriage, which calls a couple to love – and not merely to tolerate or only be with – each other "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Surely many happily married older couples would disagree with the characterization of their love as in its winter.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis, who addressed this very issue in Mere Christianity, can help us better understand how love changes after marriage.
People get from books [in 2012, we can say "movies"] the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on 'being in love' forever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change — not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there. Does this mean it would be better not to learn to fly and not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. In both cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest. What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beauty spot will discover gardening. This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time…. It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy.Fruitful Love
Three anniversaries and one child later, we are getting somewhat of an idea of what Lewis and our senior friends at the "Town Hall Meeting on Marriage" are getting at, especially after the birth of our baby, Daniel, this past October. As Lewis says, we must be willing to let the thrill of the "spark" die so that we may experience new depths of love. In marriage, that typically happens most dramatically when children are born.
Since the birth of our little Daniel, while we still share a deep friendship and enjoy any quiet moments we have alone together, we no longer feel the urge to spend hours upon hours gazing at each other. Instead, we find ourselves looking together at Daniel — who is, after all, the fruit of our love. All those crazy feelings and passionate love has now taken on flesh. Our love lives and breathes (and cries and needs his diaper changed).
Is this a love "to settle for"? Perhaps we have betrayed our earnest resolve to fight for love? After all, we are not aware of any Hollywood chick flicks that end with a couple in bed – gazing at and delighting in their newborn infant.
But the love we have for each other, and the love we now share for our son, are intimately connected. It seems fitting that a woman in labor experiences some of the same hormones that she does during sex. Some people, like midwife Ina Mae Gaskin, have even described childbirth as a kind of ecstasy — a reminder of the act that created the child in the first place. For us, Daniel's birth was not a departure from the romantic love we've shared but its thrilling fulfillment. In fact, when I (Amber) first met Daniel — his head resting on my breast, rising and falling with my breath, blue eyes wide and alert and fixated on mine, soft coos and a crescent moon smile — I told David that I felt like I was falling in love all over again.
All that to say, when we were dating and newly married, we didn't need to worry that love's changing seasons would bring with it bitter winter frost. Love does change after marriage. But one need not be disappointed when the frenetic love initially experienced grows into something new.
We wish we had heeded Lewis's reminder when we were dating and first married. In retrospect, it could have relieved much of the angst and pressure that characterized our relationship at times. Instead of needing to figure out if we would always like spending time with each other or if we would always be sexually attracted to each other, we could have taken solace in the knowledge that marriage is an expert teacher in love, for if one truly binds himself to his spouse and is willing to let the initial "spark" of loneliness die, the couple's love will be truly fruitful and grow.