“Space [and] science fiction still bore me.”
— Astronaut Frank Borman
My wife and I communicate in code when the kids are within earshot. And since we have a hard time spelling quickly out loud, our secret language is usually whispers or eye contact. So after dinner she gave me a look.
Translation: “Do you want to go on a walk before the kids go to bed?”
We have to use code because if the kids hear the question but the answer is no: ruckus.
We’ve gone on walks together since we were first married. It’s one of our favorite things. But our walks have morphed over time.
When we were first married it was just the two of us, strolling, holding hands, and talking about our day. A few years later it was me, her, and a happy little boy in a stroller. Now it’s me pushing a stroller with a little girl throwing her sparkly jelly shoes overboard, my son pleading with me to put the scooter he begged us to let him bring into the bottom of the same stroller because he just wants to walk now, and my wife telling him he’s not allowed to bring his scooter anymore.
Needless to say, there’s a lot less hand-holding on our walks these days.
Sometimes I look back and think about what marriage was like in year one, compared to how it looks today. It seems like almost over night marriage has become, well, normal.
The excitement has quieted and life is now routine. Our love hasn’t grown cold. It just looks different. A little more normal. A little more… boring?
And chances are you’ve either experienced this yourself, or you’re dreading the day when you do.
So as a guy who woke up one day into that reality, here’s how my boring marriage has become better than the goosebumps it replaced.
The bored astronaut
I was listening to a podcast episode of This American Liferecently called “The Not-So-Great Unknown.” One of the show’s producers, David Kestenbaum, interviewed Frank Borman, an astronaut from the Apollo 8 mission. Apollo 8 was the first crew to reach the moon and orbit it. Just seven months later Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon.
So you might expect Borman to talk about how amazing it was to go to space, to be one of the first people to reach the moon, to witness a snippet of the vastness of the universe. But Borman’s response was much different than that.
“Space [and] science fiction still bore me,” Borman said plainly.
Kestenbaum asked Borman if it was interesting to watch an object float in a zero-gravity space shuttle. Borman replied, “Maybe for the first 30 seconds. Then it became accepted.”
The recording cut to a commentary section from Kestenbaum:
I think of explorers as the people who push into new territory and bring back exotic experiences to the rest of us in the ordinary world. But… the opposite might also be true. That after a while somewhere new, it starts to feel familiar. Even outer space.
It’s true. It’s why I get bored so easily, it’s why I don’t live in the mountains, and it’s why I’m kinda bummed about In-N-Out Burger coming to my city in Texas. Because I enjoy things for their unique experiences. But when the experience is no longer unique, it isn’t as enjoyable as it once was.
Marriage: an unremarkable trip to the moon
Maybe this is how you describe marriage.
When you’re dating, everything is pure wonder. Then you get engaged and you feel like you’re preparing for life’s grandest adventure. Then comes the week of the wedding and, if you’re not too stressed or sleep deprived, you’re more bubbly than ever. And finally you reach the wedding day when your “Happily ever after” is about to begin. The Honeymoon is awesome and so are the first few months of your new life together.
But then something changes.
When the magic disappears
It’s as if you’re watching a magician, but you’ve demystified her tricks. It’s no longer memorizing. While the rest of the audience is still watching in awe, scratching their heads and thinking, “How did she do that?”, you know the answer.
The magic has become normal. And when magic becomes normal, it isn’t magical anymore. That’s how marriage can feel when the thrill starts to wane.
So how do we get the magic back in marriage?
That seems like the right question, right? But let’s consider a different question.
What if there’s something better than magic?
In another episode of This American Life called “The Magic Show,” (I kinda love This American Life, btw), host Ira Glass says he was a magician-for-hire when he was young.
And he says something interesting about being a magician…
“So much of our pleasure in magic was just knowing how the tricks were done… The magician Ricky Jay once said this thing in an interview: ‘There are many effects in magic where what’s going on behind the scenes is actually much more interesting than what the audience sees.’ And as a magician you sort of want to say, if only you could know what’s really happening here…”
I love that last line. “If only you could know what’s really happening here…”
It’s the perspective of someone who is still amazed even after the magic is exposed for what it really is — an illusion.
It may seem like the spectators who don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes are the lucky ones. They can simply be amazed. They’re not burdened with the truth that none of this is real.
But according to Ira Glass, the magicians who know the unmagical truth are far more captivated than the audience they’ve hoodwinked.
“Ignorance is bliss,” at least in this case, couldn’t be further from the truth.
The same is true about marriage.
The ordinary wonder of matrimony
In his book, The Meaning Of Marriage, Pastor and author Tim Keller says:
While marriage is many things, it is anything but sentimental. Marriage is glorious, but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet, it is also blood, sweat and tears; humbling defeats and exhausting victories. No marriage I know more than a few weeks old could be described as a fairy tale come true.
If you’re looking for a magical relationship where you both complete each other, where she exceeds all your expectations, where he helps you find your truest self, and where every day is a grand adventure, you’re going to be disappointed. Because that’s not what marriage is about.
“Till death do us part” isn’t sexy. And it’s not magical. In fact, that part of the marriage vow is specifically about the wonder and beauty of marriage after the magic has disappeared.
To be clear, when I talk about the magic of marriage fading, I’m not talking about falling out of love, or “settling”, or lowering your expectations. I’m also not saying you can stop going on dates or pursuing each other. On the contrary, those things are essential.
What I’m talking about is the importance of realizing that in the beginning our marital ideals are just that — idealistic.
The reality is, your spouse won’t complete you, your marriage won’t perfectly satisfy you, and your life together will never be enough if your goal for marriage is to fulfill your deep inner longing for happiness.
That’s because marriage isn’t meant to make you happy. It’s meant to bring lasting joy. And the frustrating reality about life is that, while temporary happiness and lasting joy may look a lot alike on the surface, sometimes they are in complete opposition to each other.
I recently read a New York Times article that illustrates this point perfectly. Wendy Plump, the author, shares her story about having an affair during her first marriage.
Here’s a quote from the article:
The great sex… is a given. When you have an affair you already know you will have passionate sex — the urgency, newness and illicit nature of the affair practically guarantee that.
This is what I mean by momentary happiness. If I went out and had an affair, I may be happy for a night. But if you’ve ever drank enough to have a hangover the next day, you know that a fun night isn’t the end of the story.
So as I sit here thinking about my boring marriage, I feel incredibly thankful.
Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I don’t want to look our lives to look like Little House On The Prairie. We both desire adventure and thrill. But if I had to choose between excitement at all costs, and a boring and safe marriage where I know with confidence who will be waiting for me when I come home from work tonight, I’ll take option B any day. Because lasting joy is worth sacrificing temporary happiness for.
Here’s how Plump ends her article:
I look at my parents and at how much simpler their lives are at the ages of 75, mostly because they haven’t marred the landscape with grand-scale deceit. They have this marriage of 50-some years behind them, and it is a monument to success. A few weeks or months of illicit passion could not hold a candle to it.
If you imagine yourself in such a situation, where would you fit an affair in neatly? If you were 75, which would you rather have: years of steady if occasionally strained devotion, or something that looks a little bit like the Iraqi city of Fallujah, cratered with spent artillery?
Marriage is a life-long relationship between two people who, on their best days, love each other and feel it, and on their worst days, choose to love each other anyway. It doesn’t guarantee happiness, (neither does anything else), but it promises lasting joy.
It’s a relationship that sometimes brings laughter, butterflies and googly-eyes, and other times brings sleepless babies, scheduled sex, and budgeting. And while that may not sound romantic, there’s nothing more comforting than knowing that no matter what happens — for better or worse — tomorrow morning when you wake up, your spouse will still be right there next to you.
So disillusionment with marriage is not a red flag; it’s not a reason to panic; and it’s not an indicator that you’re falling out of love.
In fact, it might just be the beginning of understanding true unconditional love.
The Unromantic Lover
In the interview with Atronaut Frank Borman, David Kestenbaum asks, “Are you a romantic person?”
Borman:“I think in some ways I am. I get emotional at good movies at times, and things like that.”
Kestenbaum: “What movies do you watch?”
Borman: “Probably the best movie that I’ve ever seen is Casa Blanca. I love Casa Blanca.”
Kestenbaum: “Why do you like Casa Blanca?”
Borman: “Casa Blanca was a wonderful war time story of the recognition that a good cause is more important than a human relationship… Win the war and lose the woman is what that was all about.”
Kestenbaum: “That’s the opposite of romantic.”
Borman: “No, it’s very romantic.”
It’s not until the end of the episode that we find out Borman’s wife Susan has had Alzheimer’s for the past nine years.
“I’m with her every day,” Borman says. “And she can’t walk or talk. She can’t feed herself. It’s very difficult.”
And David Kestenbaum ends the story with this: “Which is either the least romantic thing you can think of, or just the opposite.”
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