x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Love is only part of what makes a marriage successful

When your marriage is the most important thing in your life, what is the justification in sitting back and allowing it to just happen around you, instead of taking charge and providing it with the upkeep necessary?

I have some married friends who threw in the towel quite early on in their relationship with their spouse and simply gave up. "It's just too hard," I was told. "It's too much work; it shouldn't be this hard and it shouldn't require this much effort."

I'm sure none of them woke up one morning and decided: "I don't want to do this anymore." What happens behind closed doors between a couple will always remain just between them; we'll never get the full story. But to be told that "love should be enough, and it's not anymore" or that "it never required so much work in the beginning; if we were meant to be together, it would be easy and not require a whole lot" has me worried about the presumptions many might have towards marriage.

"It shouldn't require this much effort": I don't think I've ever heard anything so naive. The idea that falling in love is all that's required to build a partnership meant to last a lifetime is absurd and unrealistic. Love alone does not trigger interesting conversation, nor does it cultivate consideration and understanding between two individuals that might share different interests and varying temperaments. Love is crucial, but it's only part of the foundation.

I have taken to likening marriage to any other relationship in one's life, whether with a parent, a sibling or a friend. There is a give and take required of the two people in a relationship, otherwise it is skewed and lacking balance. One person can't always put in all the effort while the other person sits back and takes the attention for granted; it won't last, no one has such an endless reserve of energy. Eventually, you'll be fed up with the friend who never calls or never bothers to take the initiative and make some plans. You'll be disappointed in the daughter who never bothers to come home, or spends every phone conversation talking about herself and her life, never bothering to ask a simple question.

Marriage, I feel, is no different. Two people are required to put in continuous effort to propel the marriage forward through life and personality changes, through relationship growth and sometimes, through relationship stagnation. When your marriage is the most important thing in your life, what is the justification in sitting back and allowing it to just happen around you, instead of taking charge and making sure you are as involved in maintaining it and providing it with the upkeep necessary?

Mr T and I fall into our ruts just like any other married couple. We have our ups, which we make sure are plentiful, and we have our downs, which we scratch our way out of with jagged nails, if necessary.

He has not stopped leaving me notes to discover around the house every morning, even though we're no longer in the flush of being newlyweds. I still hunt for a treat he might like, a random surprise, every time I head to the grocery store, so I'll have a little gift to give him later on. He'll still make sure to call me at work every day to say "hello", despite knowing the conversation will be harried and brief. I'll still pretend I have something urgent to do inside so he won't feel guilty about watching his anime episode instead of doing something together.

The biggest challenge, I think, is keeping the romance alive when comfort and familiarity has taken root so deeply. I always moan and groan to him about how much I miss the early days, when I'd rush home after work to primp and preen in preparation for a date, when I'd get a call from him informing me that's he's just arrived and is waiting for me in the car downstairs, when I'd rush down to meet him, a little nervous, checking my reflection one last time in the lift, always praying that my hair does not frizz up, my make-up does not melt, my perfume does not overpower, my dress does not wrinkle before its time.

That exciting element of the relationship is no longer a dominant part of our marriage because when we go out for a fun or romantic evening, we're at home, getting ready together. He sees what goes into creating frizz-free hair or immaculate make-up. He's there when I spritz on the perfume, and more often than not, he's the one to steam a wrinkly dress. There are no more butterflies in my stomach when I walk into a restaurant to see him sitting there, waiting for me, as I wonder if I look all right to him, or as I drink him in because I haven't seen him in a while. All that, I have complained often to Mr T, is desperately missed.

Our solution to my latest complaint with regards to the lack of spontaneous romance in our marriage came courtesy of a blogger based in New York, who sometimes provides readers with tips and insight on relationships. Joanna Goddard writes the blog A Cup of Jo, and last month, one blog post titled "Keeping the sparks flying" tackled the exact same conundrum.

Joanna and her husband Alex now meet at a restaurant when they have plans for dinner, instead of meeting at home first and heading out together. Meeting at home, she writes, means their toddler is running around demanding their attention, and the scenario sees them both "getting dressed in front of each other, I pull on tights (or Spanx!), we share the bathroom and brush our teeth side-by-side, we ask each other those Married People Questions ... Can you pass me the deodorant? Is my shirt wrinkled? Will you buzz up the sitter? Wait, I need to pee ..."

Instead, meeting at the restaurant, she writes, "whisks us back to our early dating days and kicks off a romantic vibe for the rest of the evening". The butterflies are back, fluttering as she scans the room looking for her husband, hoping she looks nice. Suddenly, you're on a bona fide date with the only guy that gets you all flustered, instead of sitting down for yet another meal that holds no significance because of its repetitive mundanity.

It's these little things that count, that show there's some effort going into keeping all that love flourishing. Tonight, Mr T and I are heading out for dinner. From his end, he won't tell me where, insisting that it's a surprise. From my end, I plan to meet him there after work, as soon as I get the directions.

• Hala Khalaf is the deputy Arts & Life editor at The National


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