Last Saturday, to celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I went out to dinner alone – meaning without our kids – for the first time in almost six years. I know, I know. The reasons for this are too varied to detail in this post, but suffice to say it was a long-awaited and much-needed date.
My friends all asked the same question: “Did you have anything to talk about?” Thankfully, interesting conversation had always flowed easily between my husband and me. We talked about the kids. We talked about work. We made observations about the restaurant. We touched on the state of the world. We enjoyed each other thoroughly and delighted in the fact that we were actually able to complete so many different conversations without a hundred interruptions.
About halfway through the dinner I realized that I was really noticing my husband in a way that eludes me when we’re home. I was thoroughly present, and with this presence came a bit of the fear that I experienced regularly early in our relationship. How interesting, I thought. We’re here alone together, without the kids, and I’m feeling that old fear try to creep into the periphery of my heart. Utilizing the tools I teach my clients, I didn’t allow the fear to take hold, but I was fascinated by its attempt.
One of the most common themes among my clients is that their marriage fear is usually a fear of intimacy, a fear of the risks involved with sharing your heart completely with someone who is available and committed. We can say that we fear being engulfed or abandoned in some way, but I think that there’s also an existential fear that we all feel when we choose to be intimate with another human being. With the enormity of the marriage commitment, the fear often jumps to center stage and tries to convince my clients to leave the relationship with lines like: You don’t love him enough. You’re not really in love with her. You’re settling. You don’t have enough chemistry. You can do better. Fear is smart, and the lines play so perfectly into the cultural messages that espouse being madly in love with your fiance and being 100% sure that you’re making the right choice that it takes a lot of skills, tools, commitment, and accurate information to counteract the fear and battle it out of the driver’s seat.
The early years of marriage find a couple with a lot of time spent alone together. But once the first child enters the picture, the quality and quantity of time alone shrinks considerably. As I sat with my husband that night I realized that the kids are like a sheet of glass between us, thin enough that we can still see each other but enough of a presence to prevent a full experience of intimacy. I thought about what I imagine couples experience when all of their kids have left home, the transition that we refer to as empty nest. As I have very little professional and no personal experience with this transition, my date with my husband offered a small window into the empty nest: the grief of letting the kids go followed by a liminal stage of unknown and a rebirth not only of Mommy and Daddy as individuals but also a rebirth and, ideally, a renaissance, of the marriage.