A few years ago I went to a wedding where the elderly gentleman facilitating the sealing (the Sealer) imparted some wisdom to the couple:

Everyone in this room’s greatest need is to know that they are loved. It’s a principle we must learn: Spending every day focused on how to fill that need in your spouse — that is where happiness comes from.

He recommended that the couple spend one evening writing down the things they each love about the other, put those lists above their bed, and read them every night.

I wrote this idea in my phone all those years ago and ran across it this week. This week being my first alone at home with two kids now that Jon is back in school. “Alone” is used loosely here; maybe I should instead call it “the first week I pretended to take on two kids alone, but still had tons of help so stop whining.”

Somewhere during the oscillating-hourly feelings of wondering what I was thinking having a baby when I still have a baby, and being so happy that I have two babies and let’s have more (in five years), I thought of what I would have put on my list three years ago when we were first married. The thought made me laugh. Compared to what I love now, those things seem so… light. Flimsy, almost.

Throughout my years of delving into relationship research, I often heard the phrase “Love is not enough”. As in, “Love is not enough to make a relationship work long term”. But wait, Love is everything, right? All we need is Love?

Before you panic or dismiss me as heartless, in this context the ‘experts’ are referring to society’s use of the word ‘Love’ to describe “an intense but short-lived passion”, better known as Infatuation.

The “not enough” part means that there are practical aspects that contribute to the well-being of a long term relationship, outside of simply feeling drawn to one another. Basically all the important-but-not-interesting elements that no one makes movies about.

Statistically speaking, for a relationship to be healthy and thrive long term, it needs shared values, strong character in both parties, mutual trust, financial stability, and a commitment to persevering through difficulties.

“Statistically speaking” may not be a phrase you want to hear in an essay about True Love, but I took this sentiment to heart in my latter dating years*. It’s a controversial approach in our go-with-your-gut, feelings-above-all society, but many trusted sources in my life had confirmed its usefulness.

*For transparency’s sake, I’ll admit that my actual first two requirements were (verbatim): I Enjoy Being Around Him, and, I Want to Kiss Him. Read: chemistry (I’m no saint). Once those factors were met, statistics were my jam. When Jon came along, he was the only man I had dated who met the chemistry requirement and possessed all the must-haves from my boring ‘In Addition to Love’ list. With him, love met logic. 

As I have been reflecting on what I love about him, what surprises me is that the qualities I sought and found in him back then aren’t necessarily the qualities that stand out today. That list contained straightforward terms that fit neatly on paper:

Intelligent, Loves God, Honest, Funny, Thoughtful, Hard-Working, Supportive of My Goals, Family-Oriented, Financially Smart, Committed. (Don’t forget Extremely Good Looking. I’m no saint.)

Contrast that with now, when the qualities I love in him are almost too complex to define. They may have started with keywords from my old list, but they are much more elaborate now. To my surprise, each of my ‘practical’ requirements has taken on an element that doesn’t show up in the stats:

Real Love.

I’m learning more and more why love is the greatest of all things: it is the ultimate enhancer. It’s like salt to food. It takes a previously one-dimensional attribute and brings out its richness and beauty until, ironically, the qualities that began as seemingly separate from love, end up producing more loving feelings and enduring attraction than any infatuation state could match.

In my dating years I thought for sure I needed someone with whom I could have long, deep conversations about anything and everything. So while we were dating, I loved that he would listen to my deepest hopes, fears, and challenges as we talked on the phone late at night.

Once, I texted him after a particularly chatty call to apologize for rambling. “Next time I’ll be more quiet and calm,” I said. He responded, “I hope you’re never quiet and calm around me.” (Good chance he regrets that statement by now).

As time goes on and we have covered all the deep stuff, I love him more for patiently listening to my daily musings on the most mundane of topics. They are far less interesting than the ‘deep stuff’, and far more frequent, yet he doesn’t make me feel silly no matter how many times I discuss our kids’ bowel movements or my concern for Olivia Pope’s well-being.

As newlyweds, I loved that he was so committed to whatever he was working on and determined to excel at whatever he did. Think: studying for the LSAT on our honeymoon and on our first Christmas together.

Fast-forward to this past summer, when we spent every day deliberating about where he should take a job after graduation. His focus was always on the well-being of the family, and more times than I can count, he asked where I would be most happy.

My respect and admiration for him grows daily as the sacrifice and commitment to test scores has become sacrifice and commitment to us, and the focus on work has become a focus on finding work that will allow us the most time together. 

Three years ago I would have put on the list that I loved how thoughtful he was to find a way for us to play Tony Hawk on an old GameCube, or other similarly ridiculous things that make me smile. Turns out I must have only been in like at that point, because compared with the thoughtfulness I’ve seen in difficult times, that was amateur hour.

One night, after studying for finals for 15 hours and recovering from an illness, he got out of bed to rock our sick baby and sing him to sleep. I remember sitting in the other room thinking, Now this is love. I could stay here and listen to it forever.

Sure, I used to love it when he told me I was beautiful, back when I felt more beautiful than I do now just after birthing two kids in two years. Yet he tells me more now than he ever did before I spent 2/3 of our time together as a pregnant person. I believe he means it, and I believe that is real love talking because infatuation doesn’t talk that way. It loses steam and tapers off, usually around the first time morning sickness makes you puke in the bed.

As much as I loved receiving sweet texts for no reason when we were dating, that quick flutter in my stomach has nothing on the feeling of complete support when I think I’m going to lose my mind.

Case in point: Last week I had one of those days when I didn’t know how I could possibly do this parenting thing any longer that day (or month?), much less find dinner for us all. Without saying any of this to Jon, I quietly went to my room with the baby to cry and pray and otherwise melt down.

A few minutes later, Jon came in and let me know he was going to take Clayton for a walk to get us some pizza. Without my telling him, he just knew that a toddler and dinner were too much for me right then. The next day I texted him to thank him, and to let him know I was having a mini-meltdown so the pizza thing meant a lot. He simply said, “The first of many mini-meltdowns for us both, I’m sure. I love you so much.”

This, my friends, is real life love. It’s longsuffering, sustaining, abiding. Compassionate, timely, empathetic. Even when it seems like it’s just a pizza.

There is much more that belongs on my new-and-improved What I Love About My Husband list, but not everything is for the internet. And even my private list is becoming more difficult to write as our love grows. How can I describe in bullet points a well-being and comfort I never knew possible?

I share these things, not just as Husband Pride (I invented that term to replace ‘Husband Brag’ because I think it’s a good thing to let those around us know how much we love our spouse. Complaints get way too much air time!) but also to put in a plug for Real Love.

The Rom-Com-Tinder-Taylor-Swift-Song ‘love’ that gets all the attention is so fleeting. It can be caught for a short time, but it will leave before the mini-meltdowns and ugly cries begin because it hasn’t earned the trust necessary to be exposed to them. It won’t bring you pizza when you’re sad, because it hasn’t paid the price to learn how your heart works.

The tricky thing about Real Love is that you can’t find it. It must be built. I’m learning that within any relationship, every act ranging from the practical to the romantic can either be a loving act or an unloving act, with nothing in between. Plenty of times, selfishness, busy-ness, pride, and depression, among other demons, have shown up in our marriage, making us both think we had a free pass at not showing love.

But whenever the fair-weathered emotional highs of infatuation abandoned us, it was sacrifice and a commitment to loving anyway that pulled us into Joy territory. That Sealer was right: the deliberate choice to show my husband he is loved is easily the act that brings me the most happiness in my marriage, and oftentimes, my life.

It was the lighthearted and cute things that started it all, and the rational and statistical matters that allowed me to take the marital plunge. But it’s the Real Love that makes me happyThe qualities that seem unimportant when held up against the quick thrills, are actually seeds that when properly nurtured, will grow the roots of a deeply loving marriage. 

I’m still working on that ‘properly nurturing’ thing. But in the meantime, I still enjoy being around him, and I still want to kiss him, even more than I did in the beginning. Love may not be enough, but it is everything.