There was a time when I thought I knew exactly how my life would turn out.
I was married, I had the two kids, we had a decent home. We were saving for retirement and for the boys’ college, not spending too much, but not in want either. It seemed like a comfortable place to be after growing up in a family where sometimes we weren’t sure just how to make ends meet. To need a washer and dryer, and at the very first opportunity, head to the store to buy a washer and dryer, seemed like an amazing place to be.
Only, it wasn’t.
Maybe it was the washing machine that clued me in. The money was in the checking account, but for weeks I wasn’t allowed to buy a dryer. Since he earned most of the money, I knew I needed permission. I tried fixing the old dryer myself (somehow he would never get around to it even though he strenuously opposed me doing “man things” so I did it in secret, while he was at work). My efforts helped, but not much. I took heavy loads of wet clothes to the laundromat to dry, so the boys could have enough clothes for soccer, baseball, and school.
We finally got a new washer and dryer, but those weeks of difficulty wouldn’t go away in my head. To him, they seemed insignificant, but if the money wasn’t there for us, his family, who was it there for? I didn’t suspect him of having an outside relationship; he’s not the type.
It just wasn’t there for us.
For the first year after the divorce, I told people he was flawed, that he was incapable of caring. But now, seeing him with a different woman, with the kids, I realize I was probably wrong. He wasn’t incapable of caring. He was just incapable of being invested in the family unit I thought we had built together. And, so was I.
“When did this happen?” Was the obvious question. Was it early, when even before the kids were born his video games began to supersede intimacy? Was it even earlier, when he would mansplain how to set up my tent or Google any assertions I made to prove them wrong? Me, a feminist since sneaking a reading of “The Feminine Mystique” at age 12, and he, raised strictly with dad as “the man of the house” — was it ever destined to work out?
But plenty of people have started farther apart and come together, stayed together, grown together, made it work.
The truth is, love can happen fast, but distance can grow so slowly it isn’t perceived. Glacier-like, it creeps in a bit at a time. You take your eye off the ball and suddenly you’re blindsided.
I know there was a time when we vowed to make a regular effort to just connect, to listen to one another, to look at one another. But he was usually playing through a difficult spot in his video game, and I was always editing someone’s wedding photos with my usual single-minded purpose.
Families are held together by this bond, but we neglected it. Is it any wonder that I ask every family I photograph to take some time as a couple, to just celebrate their love?
At some point I know I realized that I’d only have the kids around for 20 years. We got halfway through that, with them becoming more independent, and the unbearable loneliness beginning to creep in. Soon I wouldn’t have the kids around. I already didn’t have him any more. I hadn’t for years. Maybe never had.
But maybe there was a time … who knows?
In a photo session, when I get just the couple together, I tell them, “Look at each other. Just look.” I’ve photographed so many in-love couples, and it’s a moment of magic for them.
If you haven’t in a while, look at each other. Not just a cursory glance … really SEE. Ask a question. Find out what she’s feeling. Really care how his day was. Flirt. Share a moment.
There have been reams written about what your partner needs, but what they really need is this: to be seen. Heard. Valued.
They need you to give a shit about them, and about your family. When you do that, you will find a way to make the rest of it work.