What Happened To The Romance?

Dear Jo,

I miss the early days of my relationship with my partner. 10 years in and a couple of kids later, I'm longing for that flirty and playful side that doesn't often present itself any longer. Can we get back there?

— Longing for the good ole' days


Dear Longing,

Trying to keep a relationship fresh in the crazy-making days of having young children has got to be one of the ultimate tests of human fortitude. Historically, we didn’t lump so many roles and expectations into one person, and collectively we are only just starting to process the fallout. The nuclear fallout. But it’s what we’re stuck with at this point in history, so let's look at what’s wrong with our usual approach to the ‘I want my romance back’ problem in contemporary families.

In fact, let’s look at what’s wrong with the question itself…what you want is the excitement of a new and unencumbered liaison, but you went and had kids with this person you adored, so you killed that. Of course you can’t get it back! One might argue that you did this because humans are nuts, but I prefer to take a more optimistic position. You encumbered yourself with this person because you wanted those encumbrances and if they meant you had to be stuck with someone, well this was the person you chose to be stuck with. Pretty simple so far. But then the enemy comes in, an enemy that is far more effective at undermining a good relationship than changing diapers and managing schedules, and that is our society’s fetishizing of romance. We are myopic when it comes to love. Eros – the specific kind of love that we call romantic/erotic - is the exalted God of our lives, and all other possibilities of human relationship fade into the background as we desperately clamour to be blessed with hot, thrilling passion. And this is a cultural bias that we have come to accept as a natural and universal thing. It is not.

So if I don’t think that you will get back the romance, I do happen to believe that if you are willing to smash this false idol, you might find something even better: “a new love still more tender and stronger than the old”, to quote Tolstoy. C.S. Lewis has a beautiful way of describing the distinction between eros and the quieter and ultimately more substantial love that the ancient Greeks called philia. In eros, the lovers face each other, obsessed with the gaze of the other, staring at the other staring back, greedy for the exclusive attention of this enticing near-stranger. In philia, we take a more sober look at one another and then choose to take our places side by side, facing a common horizon that we work towards together.

If your priority is romance, I can’t imagine that your children could be anything but an obstacle. In fact, much of what you have created together, kids or no kids - a home, a set of routines, a circle of friends, careers and projects for the future – are what simultaneously tie you together and get in the way of spontaneity and those squishy romantic feelings. But there comes a time in the life of a relationship when we are wise to prioritize something other than feeling adored. And once we do this, then the children are no longer an obstacle to our love but a labour of love, a choice that we made that presents a challenge, and challenges are things we rise to and grow out of if we are flexible enough to adapt and re-think.

It seems to me that a promising way forward, second only to giving up your home and sending the kids to the orphanage, is to let go of the fantasy, embrace your new stage, and think of yourself as an explorer in the new alien territory of parental partnership. Is this a consolation prize? I don’t think so. C.S. Lewis, and Plato, and Martha Nussbaum, and many who have come before and thought deeply about these questions, would suggest that romance is kind of a lightweight in the love department. That letting your love age and mature and grow into something more substantial is like taking a bunch of sweet grapes that someone just unceremoniously squished underfoot, and rather than crying over them, deciding to enter them into an alchemical process that will leave you with a fine wine – less of the immediately satisfying juicy sweetness, but a more complex and subtle and much longer-lasting fruit experience.

Where is this fine wine to be found? One obvious place to start is … Jesus Christ, you created humans with this person! Take a minute to think about the sheer wonder of having someone there beside you, loving and tending the same little people that you are loving and tending. This is utterly mind-blowing, if you ask me, so take some time to wonder at this magical thing that English doesn’t even have a name for. Being an explorer means going into new territory and opening your eyes to what doesn’t fit into your, or your society’s, pre-established categories. It might mean both learning to notice and appreciate the parts of your love that you’ve ignored because they are not romantic, and finding new and creative ways to express love and create bonds. But also, maybe nobody has articulated before exactly what it can mean for you and your partner. That would be your challenge.

The C.S. Lewis image has always stayed with me because it seems inevitable that a rich long-term relationship will involve shared projects. Can you find ways to be more conscious and deliberate about your partnership on ‘the child project’ or any others you may have together, and creative ways to find joy in that? Can you engage in some new project together, some dream you share or two dreams that can intertwine such that you can come to feel that you are riding in the same coach rather than being mowed down by the same train? This is where some creativity, big-picture thinking and problem-solving skills will come in handy.              

Now for Part Two, and here’s the seemingly paradoxical thing: once you let go of the dream, you actually have the best chance of getting it back, albeit in a new form. You mentioned flirting and play, so let’s think about how we lose these things in the first place. In my own view, what absolutely kills play and flirtation dead is fear. Fear of offending, fear of saying the wrong thing, and the deep fears and insecurities that make us all, to varying extents, defensive and over-sensitive. We stop playing because we are playing it safe. We want our partner to be playful but we get hurt so easily (blame that on eros too). We want to be more fun but we are holding too many grudges. And then one day, surprise surprise, we wake up and feel kind of dead inside where our love is concerned.

The late psychologist Stephen A. Mitchell, in his book Can Love Last?, wrote brilliantly about the life of a long-term relationship, in which we come to depend so much on the security of our bond that we cut out of it anything that feels remotely risky, anything that raises the spectre of our partner as someone other, mysterious and ultimately never a sure thing. Obviously an exciting sex life and a playful relationship are the first things to go. Relationships are so exciting at the beginning precisely because we can’t take them for granted, but this isn’t something we want to acknowledge when there is so much at stake in keeping the relationship stable, so we choose to see only the predictable side of our partner. The stability is what is choking us, but it’s also what we need, so we shut down the very thing we want, the uncertainty. Like I said, humans are nuts (did I say that?).

But the point is that we need to develop resilience in relationships, and resilience is not about playing it safe but about facing our insecurities and the reality of our partner as someone we will never fully know or own - and learning to be strong enough to handle this. And so we come full-circle. A good, resilient relationship is developed over years of facing challenges and coming back stronger. Over years of living side by side and building something, sometimes losing the thread, but always remaining committed to finding it again. If you focus on longing for what it once was, you are looking backwards and you can’t grow. But if you cast your gaze on that common horizon, you may develop the strength to become a good team and a couple of fun and flirty kids from time to time.

The in-between place you’re at right now is hard. I know it can feel like everything that brought you together is gone. But if you navigate this thoughtfully, the next stage might well bring its own sweet nectar. I would urge you to read Tolstoy’s short story Family Happiness (if you can manage to look beyond the outdated stereotypes) as a detailed study of this difficult transition. And you can start easing the growing pains by taking stock of all that you have gathered on this journey, and by taking a good sober look at the person who may not be gazing lovingly into your eyes, but 10 years and two kids later is right there at your side, creating worlds with you.