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What Ben Affleck Knows About Companionate Love

Loving family

The day we became a family

Last night, as I was wiping the kitchen counters clean, my husband hugged me from behind and whispered in my ear, “you smell like … cleaning products.”

Things change once you have kids, that’s for sure.

My husband and I know this well, and after the comments he made in his Oscar acceptance speech, I’m willing to assume Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner know it too.

I, for one, loved Ben’s speech, in which he acknowledged that marriage requires effort and thanked his wife for doing “the best kind of work” with him for “10 Christmases.” Yet, I was disappointed to learn that the Twitter sphere has been widely panning him for his honesty.

We gluttonously devour pictures of our celebrity idols caught being “real”: schlepping groceries or going without a mask of professionally applied makeup. But when things get too real — when they admit that some parts of their lives are as complicated and unglamorous as ours — we’re disillusioned by the idea of them having something other than the fairy tale romance we imagined.

The truth is that no one does. Studies show even the most drunken, heady kind of love fades after an average period of about two years. And, the idea that love is a drug is more than just sappy songwriting: as researchers Arthur Aron, PhD and Sean Mackey, MD, PhD reported to WebMD, “feelings of romantic love affect the brain in the same way drugs like cocaine or powerful pain relievers do.”

When you look at it that way, it’s no surprise that passionate, new love doesn’t last. In order for a marriage to succeed, couples have to feel more than just love for each other.

Several years back, Time Magazine ran a fascinating article on the science behind love. In “The Science of Romance: Why We Love,” Jeffrey Kluger points out that couples in committed relationships must “pass beyond … the thrill of early love and into what’s known as companionate love.”

Companionate love. Doesn’t sound too thrilling, does it? And yet, there’s something really lovely about that term.

Companionate love is the stuff of 50-year anniversaries, of those elderly men who still see a beautiful young bride when they look at their aging wives. It’s the bond that keeps us together through the ups and downs of marriage, through the trials of raising children and as our physical attractiveness inevitably fades.

Admittedly, my husband and I weren’t the most exciting people before our son came along, so you can imagine how glamorous our lives are now. As a stay-at-home mom, my brand of stress is a quiet, droning kind that stems from the pressure of constant vigilance. My husband is in his first years of a commission-only career; his days are long and rushed, and he comes home wired and exhausted at the same time.

He wears a suit. I wear sweatpants. It can be hard for us to relate to each other sometimes, and it’s been a long, long time since the hazy days of giddy, new love.

I couldn’t do what he does. He tells me he couldn’t do what I do. Therein we find the most important component of our marriage: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

We each have to work hard to make our household run. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, and it is indeed work. It’s the basis of companionate love.

For my part, I try to resist the urge to thrust our son into my husband’s arms or regale him with a story about poop just after he’s walked through the door. I give him a few minutes to change his clothes and take a few deep breaths. I try to have put something together for dinner and to have changed out of my depression robe by the time he gets home.

For his part, he greets each member of the household with a kiss and asks about my day, even though my response usually isn’t very interesting. He sits down in front of our son’s highchair and the dogs run to put their heads in his lap. He lets out a deep sigh, exhaling all the pressure and frustration from his day.

“I love you, wee man,” he says to our son. And I see him start to relax.

As for our connection as man and wife? Strangely, our son has been the best thing that ever happened to our marriage. He gives us a shared purpose, a higher calling, a source of humor and awe in every day.

We lie in bed and find ourselves at a loss for the words to describe how we feel about our son.

He’s … awesome. He’s just so … awesome, isn’t he?, says one of us.  

I know just what you mean, says the other.

This may not be the version of romance we want from our movie stars. It isn’t sexy or exciting; it isn’t the stuff of fairy tales. But if you look closely, there’s something profoundly beautiful in the simple, ordinary pursuit of raising a family with your life’s companion.

Companionate love may not make it into the movies, but it made it onstage this year at the Oscars. And that’s not too shabby at all.

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