I've been married for 18 years and my heart still quickens when my tall, redheaded husband enters a room, especially if I wasn't expecting him. Should I catch sight of his peach skin naked, I reach out and press my face into the powder scent of him. I genuinely don’t notice the ways in which we’ve aged unless I hold up a photo from years before when our skin was smoother and our hair more lustrous.
What’s kept us together over these years are not the big overtures—not the surprise 40th birthday party he threw me, or the guitar he’d always wanted that I bought him—but the tiny touches: little love notes tucked into his lunch. Texts he sends during the day with the simplest of thoughts: “I’m loving you right now” or “I’m so lucky to have you.” We both take note of things and subjects the other finds interesting—because we’re vastly different people—and surprise each other with a book on Buddhist psychology (for him), a T-shirt or a new fountain pen (for me). There are others: stopping what we're doing if the other one has something to say, and always making eye contact and physical touch before the day is over, no matter how brief.
These tiny gestures of love may seem too small to count as marriage glue, but they’re actually connective tissue, holding together the structure of our union. And it’s not just in my head: John Gottman, a well-known clinical psychologist and researcher on marriage has written extensively about seven principles that help marriages stay together. Our "tiny touches" counts as both his first principle, "enhance your love maps"— always taking the time to know and care about what interests your spouse—and his second, "nurture your fondness and affection."
Even the smallest gesture reinforces the muscle of love, just like even one squat builds booty muscle. Every moment of turning toward your partner strengthens your bond. And bonds have a funny way of building other things, like sexual attraction and communication.
You may be tempted to say I’m just lucky—except, it’s not luck. We've worked for this happy marriage, even fought for it at times. In our earliest days, when we could have loosened our hold on one another over demons and denial, we stuck it out. When, deep into our thirties, and set in our ways, we gave birth to our first (and only) child, shaking up the foundation of our lives, we continually turned toward each other. And even still, in the grumpiest of weeks, when my libido has been submerged beneath the fatigue of responsibilities, my husband’s gentle pat or quick “I love you” wakes up the cellular memory of his more intimate touch.
When my husband and I make our verbal displays of affection public on social media, sharing an article or an image the other one will find amusing, or even just one of our signature love messages, it’s often greeted with scorn, as though we’re talking about how “rich” or "thin" we are. I know this response stems from the inordinate pressure many people feel, driven by advertising and entertainment culture, that if attraction begins to ebb, it means something is wrong. It’s easy to turn to blame and victimhood, but these habits lead to greater weakness in the bond. Avoiding blame is another of Gottman’s principles.
It’s precisely in those wavering moments, when responsibilities, stress, childrearing and the indignities of age drain away the thrill of romance, where people are often inclined to take that step outside the sacred door of marriage into an affair, that tiny touches are needed. Just like you wouldn’t throw out a pair of pants because of a small hole, marriages need constant mending and attention. My husband and I are proof.
Over time, libido wanes, bodies lose their taut luster and responsibilities and children come between couples. Even my father, who married twice and had many relationships in between, who is now settled into a cozy, unmarried partnership that will likely go for the duration admitted, “After a while, relationships become about more than passion.”
Passion has the qualities of an illicit substance: the first few hits are ecstatic, but over time you need more to get to the same high. Love, when its embers are nurtured, becomes passion—it may not flare on at all hours of the day like it did when you were twenty, but it burns hot, just the same.