Thursday, June 20, 2013

Marriage Morphine

I feel like posts about "people said this would happen, it didn't for a while so I didn't believe them, then it did happen, and now I'm struggling" are a theme on this blog. Lucky for me (or the blog popularity, I should say), you guys love it when I'm a basket case and write about it. This time, the totally obvious - but newly learned to me - truth is that kids change your marriage. Jonas and I met and married quite young, but we chose that, knowing that we had a lot of growing up left to do, and knowing we'd rather do it together. We felt that Life would pass us by if we waited to have it all figured out (which is true) but sometimes, I feel like we signed up for "the hard way." I've edited this post down from an extremely long version (you're welcome), and I hope I don't come across as sounding like if you just smile and have a good attitude, all your problems go away. Being unhappy with your marriage is a brutal, stomach turning feeling, and it takes a while to get back on the right path, but it's one of those things that is always better to start now, rather than later. [This is one of the first photos of us together, on a college field trip to the Getty. We were definitely testing the waters by flirting wildly on this trip, but weren't a couple yet. We were 17 and 18.]

I will spare you all the details of our opposite work schedules in our not-dream-jobs, lots of difficult and sad things in our extended family, and an ever needier child, and simply say that our relationship recently got to a point that we were miserable about and we agreed that we need to be intentional about our love. As unromantic as this sounds, I had to remind myself that I had vowed before God to try harder. So, this is an account of beginning to try harder.

It was probably in one of the marriage books that I only ever make it one chapter in to (problem #1?) that I read that if you're not "feelin' it", act like you are until you are. Meaning, put a smile on, cuddle, tell your husband/wife what you love about them (even if you're thinking of the 10 things you don't love about them), and your feelings will get in line with your actions as you focus on what you love about the radiant, alluring, mysterious person you fell for years ago.

In light of this Dove campaign, I got to thinking whether I could describe Jonas's face to an artist. Feature by feature? In one way, I love that the one I married has stopped being a composite of parts to me, but rather a being that I know deeper than that and that is a part of me now, and I of him. I see "Jonas", not what makes up Jonas. Similarly, I don't have an answer when I get asked what my favorite thing about Jonas is. He is made up of a lot of wonderful little things that wouldn't be "good enough" answers on their own. However, I still like the reminder to step back and really see him. Relearn him. In an effort to practice what I preach, some things I love about my husband are that...
  • He doesn't get lazy with his appearance. He likes to dress up, and he doesn't care that no one else in Santa Maria does. 
  • He buys clothes for himself that he thinks I'll like.
  • He still gets sucked into books in that all-consuming way that a kid might read Harry Potter.
  • He brags about me to his friends and coworkers, which lets me know he's proud of me and supports me in what I find important. 
  • He likes his beef just as rare as I do. 
  • He is eager to do things that will make me happy. 
I used to write him SO MANY love letters, and he wrote me a not-shabby amount too, all the more impressive in the age of the internet. Being in a relationship with an artist/writer has it's perks; everything is more dramatic (duh), but you get original artwork (from him) and poems dedicated to you (from me) [image]. It's easy to take each other for granted, now that we finally get to live together, like we had been dreaming of for the first 4 years of our relationship. We rarely hand write each other letters now, because we're not really pining away any more and we can just say whatever we want to say out loud. I think about how to keep our romance afloat fairly frequently, but it's one of those things that takes doing to matter (ahem, that means you can't just pin lists of ideas to your "husband board" and leave it at that). And the doing part is hard and inconvenient when you have a baby. Do it anyway. I'll give you three of my favorite action items.

Number one is the love journal. I missed our love letters, so I pledged to write at least one per month this year, and I add them to the next available page in the journal I dedicated to this purpose. I've ended up making some drawings and poems instead of proper love letters sometimes, but those are their own kind of love letters. We just started number two, the marriage bucket list. I got the idea from here, but I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before because I love my personal bucket list, and I really do work on accomplishing things from it. Lists motivate me. I like the freedom of a bucket list to be anything you want it to be: we've added things like "learn the same 3rd language (Arabic)", and "eat a restaurant run by a world renowned chef", but we can also add things like, "don't criticize or mock each other in front of other people" (though I guess that's more of a goal). Bucket lists are also malleable as you learn and grow - things will get crossed off, new things will become important, and it's like a window into the past of your relationship sometimes (and hopefully the future too!). Number three, the couple shrine, has been less interactive thus far, but it's still something I love to have. I originally saw one from a home on the Selby website, but that was ages ago, and I've had no luck searching for it recently. Right now, ours is just a shelf on a bookcase in our bedroom, but I hope to give it a prettier home sometime. It's basically just a collection of memorabilia from our relationship. We have some significant empty bottles from our honeymoon, the skulls from our wedding bouquet and boutonniere, the one and only framed picture of us that we own (from 2008?), our collection of Chinese shuang xi (double happiness) love knots, a sign from J's bachelor party that he stole borrowed from the state of California that says "stay on the trail" (fitting), our traditional Christmas gifts to one another (music boxes for me, netsukes for him), a ring made of a daisy that Jonas once proposed to me with (long before the real engagement), embroidered Indian ribbon that was on our wedding cake, and lots of other stuff.

Often times though, a wobbling romance needs more than some creative project ideas. My regular (less stable, ironically) hormones are back now since having Ishmael 8 months ago, along with a body that I'm struggling to find sexy, and sometimes that combination feels like poison. I'm kicking against the idea that I have to fight so hard against my own emotions and life in general to stay on track in our marriage. Can't having fallen in love once be enough to get us through everything? (No.) There's a lyric from an important song in my life that says, "don't it make you sad to know that life is more than who we are." The older I get, the more "who I am" doesn't thrill me (I'm talking about sin nature, not self esteem), but I still get the sentiment of wishing that I could cocoon the core of our romance and protect it from the tempest that is toddlers and frustrating jobs and people in our life hurting us and international disasters.

Sometimes I play a scene from the movie in my head (that is a prettier version of my real life) where I just yell, heartwrenchingly, "you're hurting me!" at someone or something and they get this wounded look on their face and stop what they're doing, saying with their eyes, "I'm so sorry, if only I'd known sooner!" But somehow it never seems to play out like that in real life. Sometimes life doesn't care that you're limping along, groping for some answers. Sometimes you try and try to find the magic medicine to make your marriage feel better or you pray repeatedly that your eyes would be opened to where you're in the wrong (hoping that somehow you can fix yourself and therefore fix everything), and sometimes it just isn't that easy. I don't know why. You'd think that God or the cosmos would love to slam you with a list of what you're doing wrong, but sometimes I guess we just have to put our heads down and be in it for the long haul.

Part of me worries that we'll be judged for reaching out and saying we need help, because in the past, I guess I've always judged people whose marriages hit rough patches, wondering how they could have let that happen. But there is no shame in saying you need encouragement or advice, and how infinitely better to be able to be open with your spouse now - when things are kinda sad, but not irredeemable - and get help now, if we need it, than wait until we're too bitter and wounded to rejuvenate a relationship that deserves another chance, and another chance, and another chance, "forever more", as our vows say.

I'm happy to report that in the midst of writing this post (several weeks), Jonas and I have been able to sit down and get on the same page. I hope that is encouraging to anyone who is struggling in their own marriage and I also want it to be clear that I'm not spouting off all our private problems at an inappropriate time.

Jonas and I are both emotional, heated, passionate, moody. We hide nothing from one another, for better or worse. Better in that we can just come out and say, "Our marriage is feeling a little lame right now, how can we fix this". Worse in that sometimes, absolute transparency takes away from romance. I crave intrigue, especially now that we're daily tested by parenting. Suddenly, we need intimacy more than ever (and I'm not talking about sex, strictly), but have less opportunity to devote time and effort to it. Rather, it's not that we don't have some opportunities, but that the temptation to give up on it because of all the other things you're dealing with becomes greater.

As we began to question how to begin fixing some aspects of our marriage, Jonas wisely deducted that the first thing any wise counselors we would consider asking for help would ask us was how our spiritual lives were doing. The answer to that has been "pretty lame", so that's where we've decided to start - daily taking time to read our Bibles and pray for one another (out loud, together). It has already worked wonders, and we won't be immediately sent packing to work on the most basic of things if we need to go talk to older, wiser, married people in the future.

As for things besides a Christ-centered relationship, here are things I try and keep in mind about nurturing a bond:
  • Tell your spouse what you need; I need your leadership, I need you to remember this important thing, I need some space, I need your smile. 
  • Examine yourself (pray, pray, pray) for how you can be better first, and only then gently tell your spouse you think some changes may need to happen. 
  • Make your bed a sacred place, a retreat; mommy-daddy space that is not centered around your child (not that they can never snuggle with you, but you get my drift). 
  • Stay creative and persistent. Keep chipping away at barriers that go up between the two of you until there's a break through. Taking a bottle of bubbly to the hot springs couldn't hurt... 
  • Provide each other some alone time (you take the screeching babe so they can have a moment of peace). 
  • Then spend time together, not in front of a screen. 
  • Touch is important, even if it's small. Be vulnerable, even if it's timid. When people are desperate to connect, even the tiniest gesture can break the ice. 
  • Value adventure and change, in spite of being tired.
  • Ask each other "get to know you" questions. You may have to be abstract or search the internet for questions you don't know the answer to after being with someone for half a decade. Re-ask questions that have changing answers; What's your dream career? What color am I most like? What makes you happy? If we had to do an impromptu duet, what would we sing? 
  • Learn to love your spouse how they want to be loved, not how you want to be loved.
  • When you want to scream about all the house rules he's breaking or clearly deliberately running around fostering all your pet peeves, remember all the things he could choose to accuse you of, but doesn't.
  • Ask him how he's doing. Somehow, this seems too obvious to ask someone you live with, but sometimes I'm surprised at how we can open up over that question.
  • Remember good times. Look through old pictures of both of you (view your friendship on FB!)
  • Let some things remain just between the two of you. Love letters, inside jokes, etc. Secrets that you don't have to keep secret are a powerful thing in the digital age. 
  • Stay engaged in a community - carve out time to be around couples you admire and respect. ASK your friends how their marriages are going and ask them to check in on you occasionally!
If you need a little "come back to me!" playlist to go along with this, well, I'm glad you asked...

Sometimes you have to sit down, look your baby in the eye, and agree that your relationship needs a big syringe of happy-juice (or just plain help). There's no shame in admitting it. In fact, I think it's vital honesty for a marriage. That said, Jonas, I choose you. Let's do this. [Here's a picture of us about to make out on a curb in Little Tokyo when we were down there for our engagement photos.]

What do you do to stay close in love?

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