Our anniversary is coming up. As a matter of fact, we’re partying it up in Vegas right now! (Don’t worry; I wrote and posted this in advance. We are actually having fun). Eight years married, eleven years as a couple. For two previously divorced people, we sure do seem to like this whole marriage business. What I would share about our experience is that love does not come from fate. It’s not genetic and it’s not chemical. Romance is a behavior.
Every now and then one or another of my single girlfriends would ask me how I did it. Maybe it was my imagination, but I always sensed a tinge of disbelief in there. How could an odd duck such as yourself marry a fellow who, in certain lights, looks a bit like Cary Grant? How could a person who was such a trainwreck throughout her twenties somehow wind up comfortably ensconced in the suburbs? Fair enough. I grant that these are legitimate questions.
The first thing is that I have a high capacity for platonic friendships with men. I have two brothers and six male cousins. I have several enduring decades-long friendships with men, and I’m still on good terms with almost every man I’ve ever dated, even briefly. When I met the man who became my second husband, I had no romantic aspirations toward him. He was just a guy at my work. A friendly, funny man with a tendency to befriend the office assistants, janitors, baristas, delivery drivers, and various other people who crossed his path, myself included. To him, I was one of many cheerful people in his day who were usually good for a chat or a wisecrack. Looking back, it’s possible either of us could have wound up with one of a dozen other people in our orbit, the various loose social connections we had that could have turned into something more. Moral: be generically friendly.
The second thing is that I had this competitive attitude toward being a girlfriend, and, even more so, a wife. I guess in my mind ‘girlfriend’ is like being an undergrad and ‘wife’ is like the master’s degree. I wanted whoever I dated to pause now and then, thinking that he couldn’t believe his luck. This always had to do with things I did rather than who I was. Granted, I’m funny and smart, but I was no swimsuit model. I also couldn’t cook. I wanted to make sure I got A’s in everything else. When he opens the car door for you, lean over and unlock the door on his side. Be ready to go when he shows up. Compliment him and tell him what you like about him. Stuff like that.
This probably sounds very retrograde. Instructions from another time? Really, I figure I should do everything for the person I’m dating that I would do for a family member or close friend, plus a little extra. The small considerate things, probably still nowhere near the affection I lavish on my fluffy little parrot. The goal is to give what you wish to receive. Teach your expectations. Show through your words and actions how you prefer to be treated. Motivate your partner to go to great lengths to please you, trying to outdo all the fabulous things you do for him. (Or her, or… ).
A lot of unhappy people, many of them painfully single and alone, seem to have a lot of weird ideas about how the other party is supposed to behave in a relationship. First off, the chosen love is supposed to materialize out of thin air, conveniently showing up without disrupting your routine. (Single people have a way of only going to places where they already know everyone). Then, the new suitor is supposed to exceed you in every way: better looking, nicer, funnier, richer, better educated, and also more patient and tolerant. Better than this, this suitor is supposed to knee-walk after you, longing for your attention, trying to read your mind with the sole goal of showering you with gifts and affection of every variety. Yet it must never rub you the wrong way, seem mawkish, or make your friends nervous. This is how you feel so certain that you never meet the right guys, because it never feels magical and you never get an owl from Hogwarts telling you that this is The One. Surely there would be fireworks?
I think what people are missing is that you have to pick someone you like. Just… someone you like! Someone who makes you laugh, someone you think is interesting to talk to, someone who obviously likes to talk to you too. This is what you’re going to be doing if you decide to grow old together. Pick someone you’ll still want when he goes bald, grows hair out of his ears, and gets liver spots. Someone who will still want you when you can be described the same way. There are untold numbers of strong marriages out there that will never be made, because a couple of people who are friendly together never looked at each other in “that way.”
When my now-husband told me he was having romantic feelings toward me, I was mad. We fought about it for weeks. (That should have told us something). Why would he want to mess up a perfectly good friendship? I started to realize that I needed to give him a chance when it struck me just how distraught I was at the thought of no longer having him for a friend. I understood that I would always wonder what he was doing. He was already the first person I wanted to tell whenever anything noteworthy happened, like if I opened a new tub of margarine and it looked like there was a face on top. Who would I talk to if he wasn’t there anymore?
He told me, “I’ve already seen your nice side.”
I looked at him incredulously. “No, you haven’t!” As my platonic friend, he had no idea. I save all the extras for the man in my life.
I spend the entire year looking out for gifts that will delight him on his birthday or our anniversary or Valentine’s Day. I cook his favorite meals. I do nice things for his dog. I learn the likes and dislikes of his relatives. I make friends with his friends. I remember details that matter to him, like the names of his teammates at work or technical terminology. I scratch his back. I have a sort of mental receptor that tracks key data, like his pet peeves and favorite bands. Anything I can think of that would make his life easier or more interesting, if it’s within my abilities, I will do. It’s a challenge in the same way that my workouts are a challenge, or my financial goals are a challenge. I want him to feel well taken care of.
The result of all this is that my husband carries me around on a little satin cushion. He has gone to incredible, astonishing lengths to impress me. One night he went out on my running route and cleaned up some roadkill that had been bothering me, and it wasn’t even our street. He changed my auntie’s wiper blades, helped my mom with her resume, and built my niece a dollhouse. He trims my parrot’s nails. He makes me breakfast. When I come home, he usually meets me at the door with a green smoothie. I mean, this guy is incredible. Secret pro tip, though? He didn’t start out that way.
Romance is a behavior. It’s a commitment to make the other person happier every year that you are together. You can’t “make” someone happy if they aren’t already happy inside, but you can totally do myriad acts of inspired kindness that get their attention. This works on anyone: friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers on the street. It works best of all if you can do it incrementally, adding little niceties and treats day after day after day. Once you start, you realize that you are also romancing yourself.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.