I often read stories of parents separating after children. Or who want to separate. Who say they feel like roommates at home; who no longer recognise each other; who feel that the people they once loved are forever gone. They don't know what to do because of the children. It recently happened to my friends, two people I thought would be together forever.
I have no advice, it's such a personal balance, everything happens so quickly, one day that goes by without affection becomes a habit and soon you find yourselves far away from each other, on parallel roads. Only who goes through it knows and can decide what to do.
What I do have is my experience, a story of how my husband and I went through something similar for a good while and found each other on the other side of the tunnel (or maybe inside the tunnel). We went through two years of severe sleep deprivation that wiped out the harmony in the couple along with my every desire to spend time together (or with anyone else); we no longer kissed, no longer caressed, no longer hugged. We often argued, we criticised each other as individuals, as spouses and as parents, often not in an intellectually honest way.
But then, somehow, in a way that cannot be described, because it is only a feeling, we found our own path: personal, imperfect, all uphill, but it worked for us. And it saved us.
How did we do it?
We still wanted to grow old together. That desire never faded, not even when we questioned everything. Not even when we felt like roommates looking after children. Even through the darkest times, I kept thinking that my favorite choice — the choice of my heart if only I could control feelings — would be to grow old together. And I know Alex felt the same.
Had this fundamental desire not been true for me or him, I believe we would have been happier apart, as individuals and as parents. The love of one person is not enough to keep a marriage going.
How did we find ourselves again, in practice?
- Dialogue. Talking about it (soooo much!). With open heart. Without filters. Often wounding each other. Reopening wounds. Licking our wounds. If you don't have the courage to sit down and lower your defences, how do you think you can rebuild a relationship?
- Romance. By organizing one date night a week at home (we rarely went out because we didn't have a sitter): it was a simple dinner after putting the kids to bed, a glass of wine and a couple of things to snack were enough. And feeling like making an effort, because otherwise you lose before you even start. At the beginning it was hard, we didn't seem to know what to do or say — it felt like we no longer knew how to be spontaneous together — but after a few weeks we went back to laughing and really talking, about kids, about us, about the future, about our values, about the life we want. Little by little, we remembered why we chose each other and how we grew and evolved together towards those values and that future.
- Tango. Not the dance, the concept. We both wanted to take steps towards each other, in harmony, without stepping on our toes, because, if nothing else, there was still affection between us. Was it the passion of the first few months? No. Was it the love of the early years? No. But maybe it was more. It's awareness. It's respect. It's trust. It's someone who stands by your side. Who grounds you. Who stays when you feel at your worst. Who holds you tight as you try to find yourself. And it's also dialogue, because people don't read between the lines, and couples are never in each other's head, so all these things have to be said aloud.
- Sex. Not only doing it, but also and above all talking about it. Today I know it's important to learn to talk about sex. It's important to learn to joke about sex (or lack thereof): "Uh, I don't even remember how to do it anymore, I thought we were never going to do it again!", "Haha, complain a little more and you might be right!". It's important to learn to understand each other in sex, the one who wants it less and the one who wants more. Neither one is wrong, we both need to feel understood, we both need to be able to listen to our needs without guilt and without pressure, we both need to make an effort to accept and accommodate. A little more laughing and a lot less guilting.
- Oneself. Finding yourself. If you cancel yourself out in the couple, you lose yourself and hijack the couple. If you evolve and communicates it, you keep yourself alive and help the couple live on. We have to learn to work independently on ourselves, to give each other room to do what we love. For me, despite the tiredness, it's always been my dance lessons and the social salsa nights: that's what brought me back to life, Carlotta was still there. But if Alex hadn't given me space, how would I have ever found myself?
For couples like me and Alex who (for now) have made it, there are thousands of other couples who have thrown in the towel. Sometimes too quickly, without doing everything they could to find each other in the tunnel; sometimes too late, when their hearts had already been crushed. Sometimes with mutual respect and understanding; other times creating wounds that everyone—including children—will have to live with forever. Each couple has its own path, someone gets lost and find each other again; someone gets lost and finds others; someone gets lost, finds others, and then find each other again.
Life is still long, I try not to think too much about the future, but in my heart I want my life to end with Alex by my side, and I know we'll try our hardest to grow old and grey together, to maybe one day take a walk and sit on that bench facing the sea.