Last night, after I attended two Back-to-School picnics with my daughters, Pete and I stole away for some special, quality time alone.
At Super Target.
That’s right, folks. We went grocery shopping together. I helped him pick out a new shower curtain, and he stood gamely by while I picked up a new blush compact and some bagels.
This is what passes for romance when you’re both single parents of two small children each. Sexy, no?
But, to be honest, it was really nice. We strolled along, him pushing the cart, me holding his arm. I poked around through the handbags (I can’t resist handbags anywhere) and he weighed in on the ineffectiveness of using 3M Command Strip hooks to hang up towels. We kicked off our shoes to test drive the bathmats, and he made jokes about what a shame it was that the bedding section didn’t actually have any beds to, you know, “try out.” Weaving through the aisles, we chatted aimlessly about the kids and work and various bits and pieces that I don’t even remember.
What I do remember is how nice it felt.
When my marriage was in shambles, I read a book that very plainly laid out, in question form, whether your marriage had the necessary ingredients to re-establish a good union. One of the points that struck me — hard, in the gut — was the question of could you do nothing with this person and still feel that you passed the time pleasantly? Without the benefit of a fun schedule of activities, the company of friends, or expensive toys or vacations. Could you, quite simply, just be with that person and still feel fulfilled? When I read that section of the book, I felt my heart sink. My husband and I had long ago reached the point where, without some pleasant distraction, the air between us was heavy and sad and tense. It seemed like it had been ages since we had been able to just be together — just us — and enjoy each other. I didn’t know where we had gone wrong or how we had gotten off track, but when I looked over my shoulder, I saw that the road behind us was thick with overgrown problems and resentments. There was no going back.
But from that sad moment, I extracted a valuable lesson: to cultivate and nurture the simple times. When a couple is first together, everything is fun because you’re still learning about each other, hearing stories, exploring your relationship. But later, after the first few months or years, it is all too easy to begin to disengage. To begin dividing chores and duties, spending less time together and more apart, developing common interests and experiences with people other than your partner. Until one day, you have traveled so far away from each other down divergent paths, and the road behind you is too thick to find your way back to each other.
One of the gifts of divorce, if we choose to embrace it, is the chance to be more mindful in our choices and our patterns; to make different mistakes than we made the first time; to recognize how patterns established early on will influence and direct the course of the relationship in the long-term. We can do things differently, and hopefully find a different result.
I’m not talking about being hyper-vigilant or over-analyzing everything and suffocating the natural evolution of a relationship. What I’m getting at is recognizing and acknowledging the good stuff you share and protecting it because you value it, making course corrections as necessary to preserve it, and not allowing the noise and stresses of life to distract you while the relationship goes off the rails to crash and burn in a fiery divorce. I get that this isn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy every day, all the time. I know that when my ex-husband and I married, we understood that there would be “hard times,” but we imagined them to be akin to the struggles we faced with my daughter’s health, and the financial scares of my husband’s lay-offs. We congratulated ourselves on weathering those times quite well and solidly as a couple. But we didn’t fully understand that perhaps the hardest part of a relationship is just keeping it healthy. Healthy bodies can sometimes withstand even a severe, acute illness, but unhealthy bodies can be laid low by simple viruses. Our divorce was definitely precipitated by lots of small viruses, rather than one, massive heart attack. I believe the same is true of relationships — and it is far harder to restore them to health once they are unhealthy than it is to maintain their health in the first place.
So, I am busy noticing the easy things and the simple times and remembering that it’s important to nurture the aspects of a relationship that you love and value; to not take them for granted as somehow being inherent in relationship, unchangeable and constant. Because even those wonderful elements that come so easily in the beginning can fall away over the years like sand through our fingers unless we are conscious and present in our attempts to keep them full of life and energy.
I know that some days will surely suck — we’ll argue, we’ll be sad, or we just plain won’t like each other that much. But the only thing I can do to protect us from those days’ damage is to celebrate and reinforce all the awesomeness we’re creating now. Even when that awesomeness happens in the aisles of a Super Target.