I’d gotten home from work around 10 p.m. after a 14-hour day. It was the start of the term, and I was setting up some programs at the university. Mel, my wife, had been home all day with three sick, boogery, feverish kids.
I walked in, and Mel was at the table, eating cookies and milk while looking at a laptop. She was still in jeans and a t-shirt. Usually by this time of the day she is in PJs, but the fact that she hadn’t taken the time to unwind and undress told me she’d had a rough day.
After working 14 hours, the one thing I wanted was a kiss and to hold my wife. When I was in my 20s, this usually meant sex. But now, in my 30s, I’m more interested in simple physical contact with my wife. People often describe me as a people person, but honestly, it’s not true. Social interaction feels a lot like acting to me. I’m good at making jokes to disarm a person. But honestly, I often find chatting with others exhausting. With Mel, my wife, I don’t feel that. I feel a deep comfort in Mel’s arms. There is also something about being at work, sitting across from people, chatting, legs crossed, arms folded, handshakes, and formality that makes me long for some form of real physical contact that I really only get from my wife.
I sat next to Mel, put my arms around her, and kissed her cheek. And as much as I wanted her to turn and embrace me, she didn’t. She kept her body slightly rigid, hands forward on the keyboard.
I pulled away.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I just spent all day with sick boogery kids clawing at me. I don’t want to be touched for a while. I just…want some space,” she said.
I felt offended. It made me feel like she didn’t love me. I was her husband of 10 years. She should want to be held by me…right? I wasn’t one of her children, I was her husband.
“I just wanted to hold you,” I said. “I’m not asking for sex, or anything. I’m too tired for that. I’m getting old, obviously. It’s been just a long day.”
At the mention of being held, Mel cringed a little. Once again, I was offended. I usually am when this happens. And it doesn’t happen all that often, but always more than I’d like. But it was late, and I didn’t want to fight.
“Fine,” I said.
This was not the first time Mel had said that she didn’t want to be touched because of the kids clawing at her all day. Honestly, I didn’t get it. I don’t know if I ever fully will. For me, as a man, it’s a difficult thing for me to wrap my head around. I always want to touch my wife. She is the most beautiful woman I know. So much of my attraction to her, my love for her, my passion for our relationship is manifested through physical interaction. At this stage in our marriage, it isn’t just about sex. When she kisses me, I feel more confident in our relationship. I feel better about who I am as a man. This became particularly apparent in my 30s. I don’t feel as attractive as I once did. I have a difficult time keeping off weight. Not that a lot of women looked at me in the first place, but sometimes they did. But as I’ve gotten older, I don’t get that affirmation like I used to.
I’m also starting to watch a lot of my friends get divorced because they fell out of love. I worry about that. Falling out of love sounds sneaky and organic, like a weed that creeps into a flowerbed. Never in my life has physical interaction with my wife felt more needed as a confirmation that she still loves me. That she isn’t drifting away from our relationship because of the stress of raising a family.
When I read what I just wrote, it sounds whiny, but it’s the reality of who I have become in my 30s. I feel a deep need for my wife to kiss me and hold me.
We were both in bed now. It was almost 11, an hour after I got home. She slid in next to me, and I put my arm around her.
“It’s not you,” she said. “It’s just…I love the kids. I love you. But all three of them were sick, and I couldn’t do anything without the baby clawing at my leg whining, so I held her all day. And Norah, she just wanted to be snuggled.” She let out a breath. Then she went on, trying to describe how boogery, drooly, pukey children tugging at her body at her all day makes her want to crawl inside a bubble. “In the evening, after a long day with the kids, I just want a moment, an hour or so, to not be touched. To just spread out, and not worry about someone pawing at me. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that these days with the kids feel like sensory overload.”
And as she spoke, I compared it to how tired social interaction wears me down. I understood what she was feeling just enough to realize that we were at an impasse.
“Does that make sense?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It does. I don’t like it, but I get it.” Then I told her about my day, and how, at the end of it, all I want is to be held.
“I’m not sure if any of that makes sense, but that’s how I feel.”
Mel crawled into the hook of my arm and rested on my shoulder. I put my arm around her, and we just stayed like that for a while, not speaking.