When Zach and I were getting married I wanted to engrave “Love conquers all” on our wedding bands. Like most unmarried 20-year-olds, I had no idea what it took to stay married but I had a whole lot of love for words and Zach and I assumed those would be enough to get us through our decades together.
This year we’ll have been married for 14 years which, truth be told, made me a little nauseous just writing that. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in our years together is that love actually has very little to do with a mostly healthy marriage. Sure, it’s what initially propels him to get down on his knee and ask for your hand in marriage and it’s probably also mostly why you say yes (although mine was also because Zach’s damn eyelashes are something I still can’t quite figure out how to say no to.) But at some point in your relationship you’ll have to invest your time in more than just love.
Because when you’re in the delivery room and there are sights and sounds that are a miracle, yes, but also really quite gross love will not sustain you. A desire to welcome this new life into the world together because of a shared commitment will be the key. When the last grunt happens and the baby gushes out into the world along with other various fluids, you’re going to need more than love of each other to feel hopeful about the birth of a new family.
When there’s a screaming 3-year-old in your kitchen who has lived with you for all of 2 weeks and nothing you do will calm him down, love doesn’t even enter the room. Because adoption was mostly your idea and your husband is looking at you like maybe this wasn’t entirely thought out? You’re a little bit angry that he’s looking at you that way and he’s a little bit frustrated that the child won’t stop screaming and the three of you are all just a little bit scared that this will be the rest of your life. Forever. Love isn’t what causes you to wrap your arms and legs around the screaming child until he calms himself, giving you just enough time to reach a hand out to your husband as a peace offering. In that moment you hardly even like either of them and yet you look at both of them and are reminded why you entered into the relationships to begin with. A promise, sure, but also the knowledge that you’re willing to work the hardest you’ve ever worked on building a foundation so strong even a 3-year-old screaming in an uncommon language can’t shake it.
In sickness and in health sounds all well and good until one of you is literally puking and pooping simultaneously in a worn down hotel room in Ethiopia. When your betrothed enters the bathroom to that horror there is no way love enters with him and so it’s something else entirely that makes him turn on the shower, lift you up and help you clean yourself off. After he wraps you in a towel and lays you on the bed, puts on your clothes for you and gets to the messy business of cleaning up the bathroom you better hope you’ve built your marriage on way more than love. Because love leaves when you’re elbow deep in excrement and vomit, it’s the years spent doing tedious things to make life easier for one another that propels him to take care of you in this rather extravagant way.
Love and sex? Great. But after a decade or so of being together you’ll start to notice the reasons you have sex often have very little to do with love. Sure, you still love each other fully and completely but more often than not you’ll have sex because he’s felt a little distant lately and you know he becomes an open book afterwards. Or she steps out of the room dressed for your date and you can’t believe how beautiful she looks despite being devastated over losing two of her pets. You’ll do anything to make her feel good so you take her into the bedroom before the movie the kids are watching finishes. Maybe you’ve had a little too much wine or maybe it’s just because you’re bored. I remember when love and lust were bigger parts of the sex equation but the longer you live with someone the more in tuned you become with the rhythms of their entire bodies and so the less it becomes about love and the more it becomes about the physical expression of the known rhythms. It doesn’t sound as sexy but the sex can still be hot as hell. Do not fear.
And when something big does shake the foundation: a colossal mistake or painful words uttered in anger or fear-love will be gone. That’s the thing about marriage that no one tells you, love leaves from time to time. Of course you will continue to love each other every day but the emotional manifestation of love is fleeting at times. Sometimes the only thing left is the determination to not have wasted so much time, energy, communication and kleenex on the same person. Stubbornness can be a detriment if used against another person but if you can harness that energy for another person then stubbornness can often be the thing that gets you through the bumps in the road.
Sure, “love conquers all” sounds a lot sexier than “stubbornness, commitment, communication, devotion and forgiveness conquer most” but the latter is infinitely truer. It’s true I love Zach more than anyone else on the planet but it’s also true that sometimes I don’t like him very much. I know he loves me more than anyone else and yet I can once in awhile slip into being the most unloveable human there is. Yet there he is, making room for himself next to me on the couch and snuggling up until I’m forced to forgive myself too.
I often wonder if the causes of so many divorces aren’t what we think: money, affairs, loss but of the assumption that love would conquer all. I think as a society we’ve placed too much focus on love and not enough on the stuff that actually carries a marriage. We’ve put all the emphasis on a feeling and have forgotten that feelings are shit when it comes to the dark days of a marriage. Action is the metaphorical bridge over the river of doubt in a marriage. If the foundation crumbles a bit and you’re both just waiting around for love to swoop in to clean up the pieces you’ll be waiting forever. At some point you’ve got to forget about love and pick up your stones of forgiveness, responsibility, devotedness and get to rebuilding. Love might have you sending flowers on Valentine’s Day but it’s not going to come to you in the middle of the night after harsh words and heavy silence with an apology and a promise to do better next time. For that you’ll need constant acts of sacrifice, time spent in the trenches and relentless proof of commitment to small things that actually add up to big things.
Love certainly brought us together and continues to be a thread weaving through our life and our marriage but I’m incredibly grateful that I never engraved “love conquers all” on our wedding bands because sometimes it doesn’t. And when love left, Zach stayed. Which we all know is far more powerful.
Love can be as slippery and fickle as sand, dear ones. Let’s build our lives and relationships on something a little more sustainable. I hope you’ve found those willing to enter the trenches with you even when love has left the building. A love like ours may never top the box office but it sure will be a fun story to tell our great grandkids. I’m totally ok with that.