Those of us who have been married for a very long time (this writer has 45 years and counting) finally come to realize that being in love with someone long-term introduces an unexpected dynamic that’s difficult to explain because it sounds kind of bizarre to the uninitiated.
I fell in love with my wife 50 years ago when we were both still teenagers. I can’t speak for her on this part, but I can say with confidence that I was so completely enamored that a kind of veil fell over my eyes when I looked at her: I saw this idealized young beauty, with graceful movements and soft-spoken charm and quiet intelligence, and I would have been hard-pressed to admit any flaws in her. Of course, in theory, I knew that nobody’s perfect. But in those halcyon days where the air seemed a little clearer and the sun a little brighter and the future a little rosier, I couldn’t even imagine wanting her to be any different.
Now fast-forward a few years. Of course the newness and freshness has worn off, and we have begun to raise a family (though we’re not really talking about rearing children here, just the relationships between the adults). My wife is still gorgeous, and she’s begun to demonstrate some aspects of her personality that previously had not had an opportunity to come out. Like a mom nurturing her babies. Like a person in charge of running a household with all those myriad details to attend. Yes, she still had her girlhood friends, but we also now had young couple friends, where the dynamics of interchange were decidedly different. And we’d now had the experience of presenting ourselves to others as a married couple, as a kind of unified partnership, with all the give-and-take that that implies, particularly when the individuals don’t always agree. Yes, that can be as trivial as where to set the thermostat (wait, maybe that’s not so trivial!) to so momentous as where we live. And somehow in the midst of all this busyness I’m seeing a different person in front of me than before, and yet I’m also, simultaneously, seeing the person she used to be and always was. And yes, there are times that I feel like I’m relating to these different aspects of her, sometimes invoking old patterns of playfulness, and occasionally there is a certain smile or change of expression or even physical movement that invokes some of those earlier eras, as well.
So, what I’m trying to say here is that I’m in love with the girl I first met, and also, simultaneously, the young woman she became, and also the life-partner, and the mom, and now the grandmom, the regal, genteel woman of a certain measurable maturity, all wrapped in one. And I’ve now become a part of her family and she’s become a part of mine, and other people see us as inextricably intertwined, but we’re not, really. We’re still two very different people who now have a bunch of shared experience. Admittedly, that in itself helps us with our comfortable familiarity with one another. Ah, but how does one then inject excitement back into the relational mix? The thrill of the fresh intimacy? Is that even possible, or even desirable, in a long-term relationship?
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have been married long enough now that they’ve been asking themselves those questions, and struggling to find answers. Their marriage counselor (Ted Danson) suggests a weekend retreat, and they readily agree, but there they come face-to-face with their own tendencies to desire an idealized version of their mate rather than the “real” one. Who wouldn’t want to take the charming and winsome parts of a person and leave behind the less desirable aspects? But even if you could do that, are you somehow falling in love with the ideal, rather than the real? And if so, how long can that last?
Any more about the plot would give it away. But those of us in comfortable long-term relationships will find much food for thought here.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.