The Unusual Way My Husband and I Keep the Spark Alive
This trick helps us recapture that honeymoon phase.
I am unrolling my yoga mat in the front row when I see him walk in. He takes the space next to me, as he does every Saturday morning, though I don’t even know his name. The class begins with deep breaths, and I can tell he is making his chest rise and fall in sync with mine. I inhale the faint, sweet smell of chlorine on his shaved head when we’re inches away from each other in Downward Dog. I pretend to avert my eyes through the hour of poses. Then, finally, I summon the courage to talk to him for the first time. As he packs up, I say, “Nice Cobra.”
“Thanks,” he says. “I like your Blooming Lotus.”
We wait in line to return our blankets and blocks, and I can’t help noticing the elegant curve of his backbone. He turns around and extends his palm. “May I?”
I hand him my props, and he puts them away. He’s touching my blanket. The gesture feels so intimate. Which may be why I’m able to say what I’ve been wanting to say for weeks, since this class began: “Do you want to grab some lunch?”
We agree to meet in the lobby, then I duck into the locker room to shower and change. Sneakers? Boots? Sporty or chic? I switch my shoes five times, and the women blow-drying their hair in their underwear smile in the mirror at my jitters. I dot my pulse points with Clinique Happy perfume, gloss my lips, and pop a breath mint. When I emerge, there he is, standing in front of the gas fireplace, waiting.
“What’s your name?” I ask as we walk into the sun together.
“James. And yours?”
I try to keep a straight face, but finally I have to laugh. Of course he likes my name. I’m his wife.
We’ve renovated two houses, lived in three cities, parented colicky babies and moody teens, and survived the recession and the election—together. But today we’re pretending none of that has happened yet. We’re imagining this is our first date.
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We walk to Revolutionary Soup, a couple blocks from the gym in Charlottesville, where we live. I pretend I don’t know he’ll ask for arugula salad with a duck egg and shaved parmesan. He acts surprised at my choice of peanut tofu soup, though he’s seen me order it almost every time.
“My treat,” I say, handing the cashier my credit card, as if it weren’t the same as his, as if we didn’t share bank accounts, too.
“Next time it’s on me.” His voice is coy and teasing, coaxing me to play along.
I resist the urge to slip my hand into his back jeans pocket. The gesture would feel too forward. But the more I keep my hands to myself, the more I don’t want to.
Which is, of course, the point of this game—to remember the excitement we felt at the beginning of our relationship. The surprise. The suspense. And to feel it again.
“Would you like a bite?” James asks after we sit down.
I cut a slice of egg, yolk pooling onto my fork and into my mouth. He watches me chew, as if he hadn’t shared thousands of meals with me before. We refill each other’s water and graze ankles under the table. We talk about the books we’ve read and what we would do if we won the lottery. We don’t talk about whether we should buy our daughter another phone, after she lost the first two. We don’t debate options for fixing the leak in our bathtub and the water stain on our kitchen ceiling. We don’t mention the call we’re waiting for, from our son’s doctor. For the space of a meal, we have no pressing worries or decisions we need to discuss together.
On our way out, we run into a mutual friend, which happens often in our small town. The game ends for now. But we can go on another “first date” any time we want.
I don’t wish my husband was a blank slate. The more I learn about him, the more I love.
I love that he reads not just more novels than most of his fellow economists, but more than most writers. That he’s just as happy watching baseball as he is listening to avant-garde jazz. That he’s the fastest swimmer in the pool at the gym. That he’s the person strangers ask for directions. That one of his proudest accomplishments is being a favorite uncle.
I don’t want to be unaware of these things. I just want to feel, for an hour at a time, the thrill of thinking there’s so much left to discover.
We have both been married and divorced before. We know firsthand how easily a couple can start taking each other for granted. Marriages can fail for many reasons. It’s not always easy to know why people fall out of love with each other. Sometimes there’s a rift, a fight, a dramatic break. But other times, there’s a gradual drifting apart. The relationship no longer feels fresh. The couple is bored. They don’t feel the same “spark” anymore. They start seeking excitement elsewhere.
We found out about one friend’s break-up on Facebook, when we saw the pictures she posted of herself and a ponytailed man wrapping his arms around her. Another friend’s news arrived in a text. A third came from our daughter. She was on a play date when she overheard the parents arguing about who would get to keep what furniture.
“You’re not going to get divorced, are you?” she asked us after she returned home.
“Of course not,” we said. But we could understand her fear. Implicit in her first question was this one: What were we going to do to make sure that what happened to them didn’t happen to us?
We all knew her friends’ parents weren’t bad people. They were devoted to their children and extended families. Yet one of them had an affair that ended the marriage. Why?
I’ll never know the whole answer, but one explanation may lie in biology. Research shows that humans aren’t made for monogamy. We’ve evolved to be promiscuous. Nature is just trying to keep the gene pool mixed enough to produce healthy offspring. When a spouse becomes so familiar they feel like family, our incest taboo kicks in and tells us to seek out strangers.
If keeping a marriage alive meant keeping it new, then what could we do?
My answer came from a book. I’d ordered it years before, when I was a single mom wondering how I’d ever succeed at love after screwing up once. The book was an anthology of couples’ fantasies. I’d kept it hidden in my underwear drawer, tried to memorize its contents, then donated it to Goodwill, hoping no one would ever find out I’d been clueless enough to need its help.
The story I remember best is about a long-married couple who first met at the camp where they worked as counselors. At 17, they’d flirted but had little time to talk during the day. Then one night, they sneaked out of their cabins and met each other in the lake. They waded in their shorts and T-shirts, not stopping until the water reached their waists, the moon their only light, frogs their only audience. Years later, all they had to say to each other to bring back the excitement of that night was, “Meet me in the lake.” They’d say it on the phone or in a text, scribble it on a note and pass it knee to knee in the middle of a neighborhood association meeting. And then they’d find themselves back in that time and place, with their entire love story ahead of them.
“What’s your name?” is the line James and I use when we want to go back in time. Sometimes we pretend to meet in yoga class. Other times we imagine we bump into each other (literally) in the pool, for the first time, then apologize, minutes later, hanging over the edge of the hot tub. Occasionally I meet him in his office and pose as a groupie obsessed with his work on economic inequality. Or he might pick me up from the writing class I teach and pretend I’m his literary crush.
We’re not the kind of people who actually would ever pick someone up on a whim. It’s no accident that we met through a dating service. In real life we’re cautious. We’re planners.
It might sound oxymoronic, but you can even plan for serendipity. At least you can plan to pretend you’re meeting for the first time. You can also plan to replay or at least reimagine your actual first date, like the couple in the lake. We do that sometimes, too.
Usually, when James and I go out, at first we’re still in long-married parent mode. Then I remember and say, “Let’s not talk about our kids.”
James lets out a puff of air. “Kids? What kids?”
I play along. “Think you’d like to be a parent some day?”
“I don’t know.” He laughs. “What about you?”
Maybe we’ll keep pretending we’re meeting for the first time, even after our children move away and become parents themselves. We’ll get in the car for our Tuesday night date and reflexively start talking about potty training and picky eaters.
Then I’ll catch myself and say, “Let’s not talk about our grandkids.”
James will take his cue. “Grandkids? What grandkids?”
I’ll want to touch his still-wide but now gray-haired swimmer’s chest. I’ll let him graze his hand on my knee, but not venture further than that. Not yet. Not till the second date, at least.
Sharon Harrigan is the author of Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir, out October 1 ($17; amazon.com).