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Falling in love again
What three weeks in a camper van did for our 29-year marriage
After the kids move out, a common assumption about marriage is that you get to “go back” to being a couple. It’s just the two of you again! You get to say what you want, eat what you want, do what you want! Wherever you want! As loudly as you want!
But can you ever really go back?
I barely recognize those two kids in the wedding photo — the ones who held hands and promised their hearts to each other in 1993. We were a few years older than my son is now when we got married (GULP), and we were still six years away from becoming parents.
A lot has happened in 29 years. We moved to a new state, bought a house, raised two kids, held several jobs, wrote books, traveled to Europe and India, and went back to school — and those are just the highlights.
We’ve supported each other through triumphs and failures and complete reinventions. We’ve loved and looked out for each other, and we’ve hurt and misunderstood each other. We’ve gotten through health scares, political turmoil, losing parents, menopause and a global pandemic. And we have the muscles and bruises and a repository of shared jokes to show for it.
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What does “us” mean now?
“Going back” to being that couple in the wedding photo doesn’t even make sense. But going forward…now that’s interesting.
When it was just us again, we had to take stock. We had to ask ourselves (and each other) if the definition of “us” had changed.
Who are we now?
What do we want?
What must we fix?
What must we forgive?
These are not simple or painless questions, and arriving at answers takes time, honesty, and work (and, in our case, the help of a marriage counselor). I expect most people in long relationships have sinkholes to fill and messes to clean up.
But Rome (and a partnership) wasn’t built in a day. Who says you can’t put the work down for a while so you can have some fun?
You can work on your relationship and have fun at the same time
I invite you to add another question to the rather sobering list above.
What would be fun for us right now?
Prioritizing fun when there’s work to be done can feel irresponsible, like playing hooky or eating dessert before dinner. I had to push back on that.
I had to remind myself that the work of maintaining a healthy, loving partnership is never finished.
Rael and I have been doing this work for a long time. The last few years have been some of the most complicated yet. I don’t imagine we’re alone in that.
At some point we realized the intensity of our relationship work was causing its own problems. We had to replenish our shared well of happy experiences and memories. We had to make room for fun and delight.
We needed more than another date night or Netflix binge. We needed an adventure.
So we hit the road on a three-week, multi-thousand-mile road trip in our camper van.
Finding ourselves on the road
We mapped out a route that took us to see family, friends and national parks in Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. This would be our longest trip since before we had kids, and our first time in the camper van together for more than a couple nights.
It wasn’t the adventure we had in mind when our kids were toddlers and an empty nest was little more than a mirage. Back then, we fantasized about planting a For Sale sign on the front lawn, hopping on a plane with a backpack and a credit card, and figuring the rest out as we went along.
Time tempered that vision, and COVID, grief, and circumstance altered the plans, but one thing remained the same: our shared desire to explore.
The trip was glorious. Time with family and friends, awe-inspiring scenery, miles of hiking, a good balance of structure and spontaneity, long stretches of quiet, time to talk and laugh and play board games and listen to audiobooks… it was the best trip we’ve ever taken.
At this point you probably have questions about the camper van, such as did we outfit it ourselves, did we get sick of each other after three weeks in a small metal box, and, most importantly, WHERE DID WE POOP.
I’ll save the specifics for another conversation — how about an “ask me anything” discussion thread about our camper van experience? If that sounds interesting, let me know in the comments.
Coming home to new possibilities
We’re home now. A neighbor friend was walking by as we unpacked the van. We were grimy, dazed, and couldn’t stop chattering about our trip. With a sly grin she remarked, “it’s like you two went on a second honeymoon.”
“That was WAY better than our honeymoon,” I replied.
Everything feels different. Not in a “this vacation solved every problem forever!” way, but in a “wow, new things seem possible now!” way.
After years of COVID isolation, we feel incredibly fortunate our trip even happened. The preciousness of our years together is once again blindingly obvious, as is our shared devotion to our kids. We have renewed appreciation for each others’ differences, and see how life is better because of those differences. We’re laughing more and sniping less. The romance is back.
Things just feel lighter.
Our trip gave us the chance to experience the results of our hard work. It’s difficult to gauge how it’s going while you’re in the middle of it. Now we can trust our work has paid off.
We’re deep in the transition back to real, grownup life. I admit to some entitled grumbling, but am pleased to report the buzz hasn’t completely worn off. The daily showers and flush toilets aren’t bad, either.
Also, I’ve added some relevant links in the comments.