I once spent a weekend in another city with a couple who had been married for about 5 years. On my last night in town, I proposed taking them out to a posh restaurant to thank them for their hospitality.
As we prepared to leave the house, Lila looked over at her husband across the room and whispered to me “I’d forgotten how handsome he is”. And Randall did look handsome. Instead of his usual ratty jeans and T-Shirt, he was wearing a smart pair of slacks, a turtleneck sweater and a stylish blazer. He was cleanly shaved and well-coiffed to boot.
At dinner, Lila got up at one point and Randall watched her walk across the room. He was clearly mesmerized by his wife, which was understandable, as she had gone to the trouble to put on an elegant dress, attractive jewelry, and a tasteful amount of make up. She looked stunning, just as I remembered her from their wedding day.
I decided to do the gentlemanly thing and take a long smoke break, even though I don’t smoke. When I returned to the table they were cuddling like newlyweds. It was sweet to see.
A small moment in a long-term relationship, of a sort that I suspect will be familiar to anyone who is married or has married friends. Lila and Randall clearly loved each other, but had passed the point in their marriage where they would put the extra effort into getting dolled up for each other and going out on a date. That took the random impetus of a house guest, even though it was good for the marriage they treasured once they had been spurred into action.
When I was in marriage counseling game, I pondered this problem a lot. One doesn’t want married people to come home each night terrified that their spouse has abandoned them, i.e., at some level “taking your spouse for granted” is a good thing. But how to stop that level of security from sliding into laziness, lack of appreciation, and eventually, resentment and estrangement?
I encountered the other end of this phenomenon when counseling divorcing people. A large proportion of the divorced people I saw were working on some self-improvement project. Some were trying to quit smoking, others were taking courses in how to be a better listener, others were sprucing up their wardrobe and still others were trying to lose 10 or 20 pounds.
When I would ask my recently divorced patients why they were attempting to better themselves, the modal answer was “to attract a new spouse”. Knowing the marriages of the people concerned, I appreciated that in some cases they were exiting unsalvageable relationships. But in other cases I felt fairly sure that if the person had put as much effort into being a good mate to their spouse as they were now putting into being attractive to a complete stranger, the story of their marriage would have evolved very differently.