At 45, S wants to get back to dating. He was married for a decade and is divorced for the last four years. I am coaching him on navigating the “difficult” world of dating. Often, he brings up references from his past relationship. It was a love marriage.
One of the reasons it did not work out is a fact that exists in all aspects of life—the excitement and romance ebbs over time. Be it a new car, new gadgets, new home and sometimes, even your partner. S is not certain whether he even wants to be in a committed relationship or date multiple people to keep things exciting. He believes it is not possible to keep the romance alive in a long-term relationship and people should accept it for what it is if they want to lead a “normal” life.
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I asked him what romance means to him. S quotes a definition he Googled: “A feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love. And remoteness from everyday life.”
If we go by this definition, it seems impossible to keep romance alive. How do you feel excited, experience mystery and remoteness from everyday life, when you live with someone and see them day and night?
To dig deeper I call my friend M, who got married 24 years ago, straight out of college. It was an arranged marriage. M and her husband seemed to have nailed a successful, loving relationship.
I ask M for her opinion on this subject. She says it depends on the starting point—was there romance to begin with? It makes me laugh when she calls romance a ‘KRA’ in an arranged marriage. Romance happens because you have to answer questions that relatives, friends and parents ask. Where are you going for your honeymoon? What is happening on your ‘first’ anniversary? M and her husband have never thought or talked about romance in their marriage.
I remind M of our teenage years and her intense comment about the kind of man she wants to be with: He should be into me so much that even if I step out of the room for a few minutes he keeps his eyes on the door, waiting for me to walk back in. Her husband has never done that. They have a great connect, intellectually and emotionally. They’ve had their share of ups and downs, like any couple.
Being together for more than a two decades, they’ve settled into comfortable patterns and given up on trying to mould each other into the kind of partner they want. Their focus is on the strengths of their relationship: ease of communication, acceptance of each other, collaborative parenting styles and awareness that they have been and will be there for each other.
M notices that in her friend circle, romance in a long-term relationship can be summed up as: expensive equals romance. An expensive holiday or gifting an expensive piece of jewelry is romance. Perhaps a cop-out of a non-intimate relationship. Another valid point she makes is the sexist approach of our society to romance. The burden seems to lie on the man: how did he woo you? Did he send flowers and chocolates? Romance is riddled with cliches and inequality.
So, what is romance in a long-term relationship or marriage?
I reach out to aunty B and uncle V. Last January we were at their 50th anniversary celebration. I watched them dance that evening and wished to be a couple like them when my husband and I reach that stage. The excitement they show in talking about their relationship itself is quite telling of the kind of journey they have been on together.
I spoke to them separately about their relationship arc. B says their relationship started with physical attraction, there was hardly any talk. In those times, they actually lived together for 7 years before her parents relented to have their south Indian daughter marry a north Indian man. From the first day they met, she remembers he was very attentive to her. From filling up her water glass to miraculously showing up at her doorstep when she needed something.
On her part, she indulged V’s passion for a variety of foods and till today she experiments and searches for different recipes to keep his meals interesting. B thinks V definitely does more for her than she does for him. He became a pet lover for her. He is petrified of the beach, after he almost drowned, yet they only go for beach holidays as her favourite thing is to swim in the sea. V worriedly waits at the shore, keeping an eye on her, waiting for her to have her fill of the sea. She points out that these might have started as a conscious effort but have now become a behaviour pattern. Yet, she makes sure to let him know that she notices and appreciates the big and small things he does for her even now.
V remembers vividly the first time they went out together. He thought they were going for a drive. B walked out with a picnic basket and stove. She had carried a marinated fish which she fried for him on a green patch in the outskirts of Bangalore city. Meanwhile, he sipped on the wine in the Waterford crystal glasses she had brought as well.
For V, romance means respect, reliability, loyalty and holding hands. Till today, he holds her hand as often as he can. He even puts his hand on her hip while sleeping, just to make that physical contact. As he ages, his biggest worry is that he might let her down by forgetting to do something for her. This statement of his ties so beautifully with what B points out about his attentiveness to her.
I ask him about what keeps them so into each other. There are two big things, he says. The first is B’s personality—he has never met a woman as strong as she is, from standing up for the right things to for herself. The second is her unconditional and dedicated loyalty. Even when she is angry or unhappy with him, he has the confidence she won't let him down or give up on him.
I am often requested to coach long-term couples on keeping the romance alive. But does romance mean date nights, gifts, getaways that seem to be force-fitted into being surprises? Or is it something deeper, like forming behaviour patterns that show the love and care for your partner? Is it that your partner notices and appreciates the things you do for them? Or is that ultimate loyalty of “being there no matter what” that your partner offers you? What seems apparent in M, B and V’s journeys is that every couple has to figure out their own definitions. And that in itself can bring the excitement they might be seeking in their relationship.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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