Snow, or maybe sleet, pinged against the living room window behind me as I sat on the sofa, watching two people in pea coats awkwardly skate around a rink on the screen. Their laughs, their smiles, the “romance” of it all… it irritated me. Hallmark can be irritating, but that wasn’t my problem; something inside me resented the happiness before my eyes.

I resented what I didn’t have.

I know better than anyone how unrealistic those movies are, and I’d never been prone to think I could replicate them. But that December day anger spilled out of my heart and I stopped to ask – “Why do happy couples make me feel like this?”

I didn’t want to ask the question because I already knew the answer. My husband and I were ships passing in the night, exhausted by two small babies, trying to improve our communication and not doing so well at it. Our first year of marriage was a breeze, but the two years after – the two years of pregnancy and moving and two girls exactly two years apart – shook us to the core. I was angry all the time. He was (naturally) averse to my anger. I wanted help but didn’t say what I wanted. He tried to help but didn’t do it “right”.

So seeing these relationships on a screen reminded me of everything we didn’t have. Even when we went on dates, we didn’t fully enjoy each other. We didn’t really connect when outside the house because we weren’t connecting at home. And as with most marital issues, wound after wound compounded the problem.

Around the ice the couple skated, their strategically unbuttoned coats billowing in the wind, him grabbing her hand and her laughing back at him. Why can’t we be happy like that?

That was two Christmases ago, and it started me thinking: If I already HAVE a relationship, if I already HAVE a husband… is there something I could do to bring the romance back? Obviously Josh had a part in this too, but I knew I couldn’t control him. The only part of the equation under my control was (and is) me. I wasn’t after something unrealistic. I just wanted to make better what I already had.

What made dating so fun in the beginning? This is where I began. Things like mystery, space, unexpected gifts, discovering new things about one another – these are what keep a young relationship interesting. And these are the things we lost in our stressful season. It’s hard to have mystery when you think you know everything about someone, and space seems impossible when you’re bumping elbows with them in every corner of your tiny house. It’s hard to think about gifts when you’re rushing home with milk from Meijer. But that effort, that intentionality, is what made us fall in love when we were dating. It’s what I sought to restore.

So I asked myself: How would I act if this were the first time I saw Josh? If we were at a party and he caught my eye? Wouldn’t I want to be funny, flirty, attractive to him?

I made an effort. Instead of brooding glances from the kitchen stove I dressed up a little, like I was being picked up for a date. I made jokes and I gave kisses (more on my struggle with affection in a future post), I flirted with him like in “days of yore”. At first, he was caught off guard – he noticed the change, and this felt awkward for me. But I kept trying: Setting my Type-A, work-focused self aside for a moment to be more lighthearted. Shutting down the voice in my head that told me, “This isn’t really you,” and “You’re not good at this.” A few weeks in, Josh was joking back. “You’re more fun lately,” He commented. He helped me without my asking. We bantered and joked and felt more connected. We talked more at dinner. All of this happened quickly, like a snowball rolling down a hill, to the point I asked myself – How could it be so easy?!

It wasn’t easy, though. The internal battle was, for me, quite difficult. Each moment I felt like it was dumb or I wasn’t equipped or how stupid the whole experiment was, I remembered: It’s not about his response. It’s about me. I’m doing this because I want to, no matter what the outcome. I’m planting seeds of romance in my marriage and waiting to see what pushes through the dirt.

Because let’s be honest: There was some build-up of dirt to push through after a few years of surviving.

We changed, both Josh and I. I didn’t go into this to manipulate him to change. He changed of his own accord. And I didn’t do it to prove anything to anyone except myself. I’m a problem solver in my work, my home, and my motherhood – but I was standing there, hands tied, in my marriage. My husband is a kind and amiable person who loves the Lord like I do. So to act as if I couldn’t do anything in my marriage, when I had everything at my fingertips, was a misuse of my very own gifts!

I realized that mystery, space, flirtation – these things can be restored to marriage. We found a way. But the way is in those little moments at breakfast and dinner. It’s in the tone of a voice and the grasped opportunity. It’s in making time to send a text or crack a joke. Most of all, it’s being a safe place to land for one another. We had stopped being safe and started being sarcastic. We kept track of who did what and didn’t express our needs. Christ as our foundation was fundamental, but flirtation and funny-ness go a long way, too.

Somehow, Hallmark inspired a change in me, one that in turn changed my marriage. Rather than anger and resentment, now I see opportunity – an opportunity to make my marriage the kind of fairy tale I hope for, as far as it is up to me.

These days, when I’m balancing a business and babies, when he walks in the door as I’m cooking dinner, when we’re working side by side on something in the house, I remind myself: Romance is a give and take. Somebody has to start it. I can wait for him to think of it (which now that we’ve made progress, he often does) or I can take the step myself. If I want to be pursued – I can start pursuing. If I want thoughtful gifts – I can be thoughtful myself. If I want us to grow closer – I can step into the space between.

Hallmark may be an unrealistic fairy tale; this is true. But if I can make my marriage a little happier, a little less rote and a little more romantic? I’ll let Hallmark inspire that change, and let God make it happen.

This post is not prescriptive, but descriptive of my particular marriage and what worked for us as a healthy, Christian couple pursuing God’s vision for our relationship. I do not think the burden of affection falls only to the wife; in my case, I am the less romantic, so this was something that helped me. More on affection in an ebook coming soon! For more on the difficult parts of our story see the Hard marriage highlight on my Instagram.