Human beings crave consistency. We want our relationships, especially our romantic ones, to remain the same. However, all things change. Love goes through phases. At different times, love waxes and wanes.
When we first fall in love, things are novel, exciting. With the mere mention of our beloved’s name, our heart dashes, our stomach fills with butterflies. In the beginning, the object of our adoration can do no wrong in our eyes. Everything he says is endlessly captivating; we find his jokes hilarious, though they meander and he often doesn’t land the punchline. We’re so in love that we can spend hours just staring into each other’s eyes.
But as days elapse into months and months elapse into years, our relationship inevitably becomes burdened by work and other responsibilities. No longer are we two carefree, giddily-in-love twenty-somethings— we now have marriage, a mortgage, a baby. We’re more likely to snap at our husband for forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store than stare at each other longingly. Our conversations no longer contain hints of light-hearted flirtation and sexy bantering— they’re defined by practical, distinctly uninteresting topics like what to buy our nephew for his birthday and whose turn it is to fold the laundry. Our relationship more closely resembles the relationship between business partners or roommates.
In her timeless treasure trove, Gift from the Sea, which also explained why we should seek out solitude and shed the shell of our ordinary lives and go to the beach, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us all romantic relationships pass through such phases as certainly as night follows day.
The honeymoon phase— what Lindbergh calls the “double sunrise” phase— is pure bliss. Because we’re not yet deadened and desensitized by habit, there’s still carnal connection, there’s still mystery, there’s still romance.
But when the flames of first love inevitably cool, we panic. What— we wonder— happened to passion’s fiery flames? What happened to the “spark” we had in the beginning of the relationship?
But the fact is nothing is wrong with us if our relationship changes. All things change: waves crash and recede, plants grow. In much the same way that we only want to experience the flower-filled rapture of spring and avoid bleak, biting winters of the soul, we idealize the honeymoon and dread the moment we have to pack up our bags and come home. But love is not the giddiness of a summer fling— it’s building a life with someone in the real world. As Lindbergh writes,
“It is true, of course, the original relationship is very beautiful. Its self-enclosed perfection wears the freshness of a spring morning. Forgetting about the summer to come, one often feels one would like to prolong the spring of early love, when two people stand as individuals, without past or future, facing each other. One resents any change, even though one knows that transformation is natural and part of the process of life and its evolution. Like its parallel, physical passion, the early ecstatic stage of a relationship cannot continue always at the same pitch of intensity. It moves to another phase of growth one should not dread, but welcome as one welcomes summer after spring.”
Sometimes, however, there really is a problem. Perhaps after decades together, we no longer make an effort to express our affection or spend quality time together. Instead of visit the Van Gogh exhibit or make reservations at the French bistro, we spend our Saturday nights sitting next to each other on the coach, together but not truly together, as we mindlessly scroll through our phones. In the rose-colored haze of nostalgia, we reminisce about the good old days when our lover surprised us with bouquets of tulips and couldn’t wait to chat over red wine and spaghetti bolognese when he came home.
Bored of our passionless union, lonely and longing for connection, we might be tempted to seek excitement in an affair outside of our marriage. After all, if the problem is our partner, the solution must be someone else. Someone else will bother to plan a date every once in awhile. Someone else will pamper us with flowers and thoughtful handwritten notes. Someone else will occasionally listen instead of be endlessly engrossed by his phone.
However, “someone else” is almost never the answer to our martial woes. It’s futile to try to recapture the ecstasy of early love. Even if we do find someone else who’s intelligent and interesting, our infatuation will eventually wear off. At first, an affair can be sexy, stimulating: sneaking around to see each other, stealing clandestine kisses on our lunch break. But after a few weeks or months, our furtive fling will be just as predictable as the marriage we so unsuccessfully tried to escape.
So what’s the solution?
Rather than have an affair, we should commit to rediscovering our sense of self. Most often, a dissatisfaction with our marriage is a dissatisfaction with ourselves. Despite the romantic notion that finding our Platonic soul mate will finally complete our incomplete souls, another person cannot save us. Before we can be content in matrimony, we must be content with ourselves. According to Lindbergh, women can find contentment by committing to their creativity and carving out time of their own away from the pressures of motherhood and domesticity:
“But neither woman nor man are likely to be fed by another relationship which seems easier because it is in an earlier stage. Such a love affair cannot really bring back a sense of identity. Certainly, one has the illusion that one will find oneself in being loved for what one really is, not for a collection of functions. But can one actually find oneself in someone else? In someone else’s love? Or even in the mirror someone else holds up for one? I believe that true identity is found, as Eckhart once said, by ‘going into one’s own ground and knowing oneself.’ It is found in creative activity springing from within. It is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself. One must lose one’s life to find it. Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kind of creative activity of her own. Here she will be able to refind her strength, the strength she needs to look and work at the second half of the problem— the neglected pure relationship. Only a refound person can refind a personal relationship.”
Though we can’t entirely resurrect the fire of first love, we can rekindle some of the flames. One easy way to restore some of the romance of the “double sunrise” stage is to go on vacation and step away from our ordinary lives and usual routines. At home, there are a million and one distractions that interfere with intimacy: carpool, crying children, client calls, endless emails and meetings. But in a cabin in the countryside or a cottage by the sea, we can finally focus on our partner. Nothing revives love like a hotel room in a foreign city (As British philosopher Alain de Botton so insightfully observed, new settings can inspire us to see things in new ways).
However, a romantic getaway doesn’t always have to involve traveling thousands of miles away. We can rescue our relationship in our own kitchens— not just in bungalows in Bora Bora or villas in Tuscany. Sometimes a quiet breakfast over orange juice and banana bread muffins is all we need to feel reconnected. As Lindbergh writes gracefully,
“Husband and wife can and should go off on vacations alone and also on vacations alone together. For if it is possible that woman can find herself by having a vacation alone, it is equally possible that the original relationship can sometimes be refound by having a vacation alone together. Most married couples have felt the unexpected joy of one of these vacations. How wonderful it was to leave the children, the house, the job, and all the obligations of daily life; to go out together, whether for a month or a weekend or even just a night in an inn by themselves. How surprising it was to find the miracle of the sunrise repeated. There was the sudden pleasure of having breakfast alone with the man one fell in love with. Here at the small table, are only two people facing each other. How the table at home has grown! And how distracting it is, with four or five children, a telephone ringing in the hall, two or three school buses to catch, not to speak of the commuter’s train. How all this separates one from one’s husband and clogs up the pure relationship. But sitting at a table alone opposite each other, what is there to separate one? Nothing but a coffee pot, corn muffins and marmalade. A simple enough pleasure, surely, to have breakfast alone with one’s husband, but how seldom married people in the midst of life achieve it.”