My husband has never been a demonstrative man. I have no doubt he loves me, because his actions consistently bear this out, but he has always found it difficult to say the words or display his emotions. He is reluctant to hold my hand in public; bit the inside of his cheek until it bled on our wedding day to stop himself from crying as I came down the aisle. If there is a problem in our relationship he will email me rather than risk a row, setting out the issue like a staff memo so it can be worked through without raised voices or slammed doors.
Early on his emotional reticence was the source of a fair bit of conflict. To my shame, I can still recall some monster fights that I realise, in hindsight, I initiated simply so as to provoke a reaction from him. I achieved my aim- I saw him angry, distressed and passionate- but the arguments were draining and destructive, risked ruining an otherwise wonderful relationship. I stopped for fear of driving him away, and because by then I’d met his family and was beginning to understand.
Now in his late-40s, my husband was raised by relatively elderly parents at a time when boys were admonished not to cry, to instead take any blow like the man they were years off becoming. His mother, worn out from rearing four sons whilst her husband worked three jobs, told her youngest child that he had to learn to fight his own battles, to sort things out for himself and not bother her unless there was blood. His parents love this boy, my husband, but it is a pared-down, no-frills love. They have never once called him for his birthday in the two decades we have been together. They have never held or kissed him in my presence, or told him they are proud of the many things he has achieved in his life. They hug their grandchildren when we visit, but not for too long for fear of spoiling them.
So I understand it. I understand my husband gives me as much as he can, and he gives me a lot. He cooks because he knows I hate to; he doesn’t send flowers, but he buys me thoughtful books; he gives me that most precious commodity in a working mother’s life: time apart from our family to sit or think or write, and without me asking. He has endured bad decisions, irrational moods and appalling behaviour on my behalf, and reciprocated with far less of all three. He rarely praises me to my face, but when my first book came out he sent copies of the reviews to our entire circle. Real love is not sighing declarations or a jewellery box full of bling, I know. It is sacrifice and commitment and a deep understanding and friendship and putting in or up even when you don’t much feel like it. So what if he can’t easily say the words or show his feelings? I know how much he loves me and I understand.
Or I did. I’d stopped waiting for the words, looking for the bling. I was content with my lot, grateful for it. Then the kids arrived.
Having children has opened my husband’s heart. The emotions were always there, but now they are on display. He smothers our son in kisses, even though the boy is ten and starting to squirm out of his grasp. He swoops on our daughter as soon as he is home from work, and she in turn throws herself at his legs, their sheer love for each other made flesh in the force and joy of their reunion. I am in the background as he reads to them before bed. Their little faces lift up to him like flowers straining toward the light; he stops to patiently answer questions or ask their opinion; my daughter sits in his lap with her cheek against his as he tells the story and strokes her hair.