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What we expect from marriage as it gets old

Editor's note: For nearly a decade, the author has edited a Sunday New York Times feature called "Modern Love." Oh, and don't forget: Valentine's Day is Friday.

What's the best way to recalibrate a marriage as the years pass? I wish I had the answer, because clearly millions of us would like to know.

I have sifted through roughly 50,000 stories that have crossed my desk. I have noticed people wrestling with two questions above all others. From the young: "How do I find love?" And from those wallowing through marital malaise: "How do I get it back?"

Though it's not really love they want back as much as attention, excitement and passion. No one doubts the enduring benefits of long-term relationships. But marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations.

In my own 21-year marriage, my wife has a habit of asking me to do something and then saying: "You're not going to forget, are you? Just tell me now if you're going to forget so I'll know to do it myself."

I'll say (for the hundredth time): "I can't know in advance if I'm going to forget. That's not how forgetting works."

"Just tell me," she'll say.

Among my 50,000 strangers, I've also heard from just a mere handful of couples who claimed to have maintained sexually charged marriages throughout the decades. So, for everyone else, what to do? Sneak around, trying to get our needs met elsewhere? Resign ourselves to the limitations of marriage? Confront the issue head on and work together to try to reanimate our relationship? And ultimately, what does each approach entail?

THOSE WHO SNEAK. Sneakers neither sulk nor celebrate; they redirect their attention to distractions that entertain and titillate. As a matter of convenience, much of their sneaking will be conducted online. Sneakers are never without their electronic devices.

For these gadget-obsessed types, the hardest work of marriage is listening. To their spouses they'll mutter "What?" constantly, but they won't listen when the statement is repeated and they are too embarrassed to ask a second or third time.

Sneakers typically log a lot of hours on social media stalking old flames from high school and college. The complexity and emotional toll involved in actually ever realizing this kind of fantasy ("If only I could be with _____, I'd be so much happier") are staggering. And yet these kinds of Facebook-inspired daydreams are among the most common dilemmas I hear.

THOSE WHO QUASH. There are many who choose to quash their unfulfilled desires, to accept their marriage for what it is and figure out how to feel okay about it.

Oh, well, they tell themselves, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I love my spouse and my family. I love my house and my garden. So we aren't having wild sex every day or every week or even once a month (or ever). You can't have everything, they argue. Be grateful for what you do have.

There's a temptation to dismiss quashers as being in total denial, but they aren't. They just don't see the point of wallowing in self-pity when they have accomplished what they hoped to in terms of marriage, family and career. As with most personality types, there's a spectrum, running the gamut from the bitterly resigned to the appreciatively so.

What a difference a spectrum can make, though, because those at the one end of the quashing range — the appreciatively resigned — seem to be among the healthiest and happiest of the marrieds.

Not much sexual passion left in the marriage? That's offset by what's left. Like Dr. Seuss's Whos down in Whoville who hold hands and sing after being robbed on Christmas Eve of all their food and possessions, the appreciatively resigned rise each morning not dwelling on their marital shortfalls but counting their mutual blessings, whatever they may be: a shared sense of humor, an exchange of kind gestures, the enthusiastic pursuit of a mutual interest. Somehow they have managed to grow together rather than apart.

THE RESTORER. When a restorer couple's marriage starts to feel subpar, they sit down and have a sensible discussion about where their marriage is and where they would like it to be. Then they set goals and seek the means to achieve those goals. Typically affluent, educated and highly motivated, restorer couples almost single-handedly support the vast and profitable marriage-improvement industry.

It won't take long for them to find out that, surprisingly, the most recommended strategy for reigniting passion in marriage — passion that has waned in part because of the deadening weight of its routines — involves loading up the relationship with even more routines: date nights, couples counseling, dance classes, scheduled sex, 10 for 10s (committing to 10 hugs of 10-seconds in duration every single day), fresh flower Fridays (a boon to the local florist, if not your marriage), required kisses upon parting, lunchtime exchanges of erotic texts, and possibly some creative midday play at the local Holiday Inn involving silk scarves and an eye patch.

These attempts at relighting the flame may work for some, but for others they seem to be less about feeling sexy or "rediscovering" each other than they are about demonstrating a nose-to-the-grindstone determination to try anything to stay together and remain vital, which can have a bonding appeal of its own.

Inevitably, as the intellectually curious people they are, restorers will return to their original and most perplexing question: How much do we have a right to expect from marriage? Is this simply as good as it gets? We do care about each other. We love our children. Health is generally good. Can't we just be happy with what we have? And isn't there a risk that in pressing for more we'll turn something pretty good into something really bad?

There is, of course. And it's a risk some will want to take. Others, though, will decide to pull back on the marriage improvement program and join the ranks of the appreciatively resigned. They will realize passion does not equal love, and that the loss of one doesn't necessarily mean the loss of the other.

This is adapted from Daniel Jones' new book, "Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers)."

© 2014 New York Times

What we expect from marriage as it gets old 02/06/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 11:00am]
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