No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

My husband has rarely bought me flowers, and the few – okay, the two – times that he did, I think he got them from the supermarket. He reminds me that I had once specifically asked for food over flowers.

He used to buy me jewelry too, until I started losing them. And preferring books instead.

And there was a time when he wrote me cards, short reflections on our relationship and restatements of his love. And then he – and we – stopped writing altogether.

Love does evolve over time, into something far grittier. The sacrificing, compromising, forgiving, and understanding seem to take years to fully emerge. It’s only after years together that I looked up and thought, yes, that’s what we are now: a patchwork of butterflies in stomach, respect, fondness, gratitude, minor annoyances, insecurities, cultural and temperamental differences, and hopefully forgiven hurts. This patchwork is love that has been made ironclad through commitment.

In our thirteen years together I have felt Max’s love in unexpected and unscripted ways. I would never find them in a store-bought card, or in the most expensive bouquet. I can find them only in him:


Not long after we began dating I moved into Max’s place in an unfamiliar suburb 70 minutes outside of Tokyo. On one particular night that I was working late, Tokyo experienced a rare snowfall and commuter trains were delayed and rerouted. Still not comfortable in Japanese, I struggled to understand the announcements over the loudspeakers instructing passengers on new routes. I was nervous and took a chance, boarding a crowded train that only got worse as it sat on the platform waiting to pack in as many people as possible. I called Max and told him that I had no idea when I was getting home, and he asked me to ring him once I reached the station.

I finally arrived two hours later. Exhausted and frustrated and with tears in my eyes, I rang to tell Max that I had made it. “I know,” he said. I looked up and saw him standing at the entrance of the station with an umbrella. I don’t know how long he had been waiting for me.

We weren’t married yet at this point. In fact, we only dated a week before we both knew we were going to marry. The few friends I told thought I was crazy. They were scared for me, believing I was rushing into things. But somehow I always knew that I had found someone rare…a genuinely kind man who would always protect me, look out for me, and put me first in his life.


We had gotten into a particularly awful fight. As the years went on, I began realizing more and more that even love was not enough to stave off the differences inherent in our international marriage. Neither of us had ever deliberately intended to hurt the other and yet we did. And we struggled to make ourselves understood.

During this fight I went into the guest room where Max had been sleeping. Excessive pride is my weakness in relationships and I often refuse to be the one to “give in,” but this time I was worried. When I walked in, Max reached for a notebook and said, “Please don’t talk and just listen. Please.” He picked up the notebook and began reading to me through tears. In careful and precise English, he told me how much I had hurt him with the casualness with which I attack him with words.

I began to cry, not only because of the realization of what I had done, but because I saw, in the notebook and the hands and voice that trembled with emotion, what he has sacrificed for me. English is not a language he spoke until he met me. He’d studied it, yes, but he’d never had to use it regularly or depend on it for a relationship. He’d never had to struggle this much just to be heard and to be understood.

I was talking with a Japanese client this week about international relationships, as he and his American girlfriend broke up because of distance. He asked me if Max had moved to the U.S. for me. I told him, yes. Max had moved here for me.


Last year news came out that a private foundation was looking to recruit a married couple to go on the 2018 space mission to Mars. The trip would entail being confined together in a small capsule for 500 days. Max looked at me and beamed, “We can do it! If anyone can do it, it’s you and me!”

After all that we have been through together, it is the most romantic thing he could have ever said to me.

And he is right.

35 thoughts on “No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

  1. My husband and I aren’t big into gift giving either. It means a lot more to us to spend some time together or to do things for each other that we know the other hates to do. But, on Valentine’s Day around here, it’s mostly about the kids and making it fun for them. It’s a good day to make an extra effort to let them know how loved they are (at least, I hope that’s how they feel!).

    It would be nice to know that someone (anyone at all!) thinks it would be possible to spend 500 days in a tiny space together! And it’s nice to hear about real-life happily-ever-afters. πŸ™‚

  2. What beautiful sentiments, Cecilia! Always gratifying to know others have found truly heartwarming and fulfilling relationships! I have been lucky enough to discover a very similar partner later in life and am so very grateful for him in my daily life. As you mention, that doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations and some rough spots, but if true respect, compassion, and love are displayed in everyday interactions, that, in my opinion, is the real difference. (And after my first 22-year-relationship I feel I’ve earned this!! lol) Thank you for sharing!

    • Yes, you’ve earned it! I’m so glad that you have a similar partner in your life, Lynn. I entered our relationship with such high and narrow expectations, and it was a real eye opener (and disappointment) when we entered the stage of warts and fights. I’m emerging from it now to realize that hey, we’re still ok, and I realize that is love.

  3. Cecilia, so sweet! I think you guys are such a great couple. I liked hearing more about your story and how you work through an international marriage, especially because it’s been a pressing issue on my mind. I have the sense that it will be nearly impossible for me to find someone here: I’m almost 30, getting a PhD at a prestigious university (doing feminist/queer studies, which is even worse?), and a foreigner ambitious about starting a career back in the US. It might be possible for me to stay in Japan for a few years, but I want to teach someday at a top college/university in the States. Not to sound depressing, but I go through life expecting no man, especially a Japanese one, to be seriously interested in me.

    In any case, I’ve found your story really inspiring. Where are the great men like Max out there, who would be willing to take a challenge with me, too? I have to confess when people are telling grim tales of how Japanese men are not awesome, I sometimes say, “But I know a man who…!” and mention you two. (Sorry!! ^^;; Haha…) And for me, the part about the notebook was very moving. Languages always stress me out–I always want the other person to understand exactly what I mean, or else I feel anxious & unhappy. It’s a sacrifice of sorts for him, but it gives me hope that love/sincerity is what matters the most in the end. (Just to be clear, you are also amazing! I am sure that he is also great because that’s the person he can be with you.)

    • Aw, thanks Grace, for everything you said here! And it’s totally fine for you to use us/M as examples to defend the Japanese man! Well, I’ve also heard my share of stories from Japanese wives and I think it takes 2 to tango. I think it’s the way that Japanese culture has set up the whole marriage institution. When I came back from my honeymoon some of my female Japanese co-workers and friends couldn’t wait to get the dirt on M. They literally asked me to list all the things that bugged me about him, and when I said that I was fine, one of them said, “Well, you just wait then.” They were literally disappointed when I said that there was nothing that bugged me about M. Maybe wives have every reason to be frustrated by their husbands, and it was sad to me that instead of taking their feelings to their husbands they would use them as the butt of jokes. But maybe that happens after years of being ignored by their husbands…I don’t know.

      Back to you – don’t give up hope! I had the same mindset – I went to Japan having already given up. For some reason I just didn’t expect it to happen for me. What are you looking for in a guy? Never mind, you don’t have to tell me in this pubic forum (I’ll email you ;-)).

      Anyway, thanks again for your nice words. We’re two flawed people who haven’t given up. I think that is the most one can hope for πŸ˜‰

  4. I’m always a little uncomfortable to comment when someone talks/writes about love. I’m afraid of either sounding too naive or too smug. But this was very touching to read. I loved the part about your relationship being a patchwork of so many feelings, acts and emotions. It makes me think of my parents’ marriage. They come from similar yet different backgrounds, and I’ve seen their love hold strong despite their different. πŸ™‚

    • Akshita, I always appreciate your comments and feel that you always have something to add to the conversation. So please don’t hesitate to share. I appreciate what you wrote here as well, and it is inspiring for me to know that your parents have held strong despite differences! Because I’ve been thinking about what I could pass on to my son when it comes to our marriage, and hopefully it is a model of how to work through and past difficulty, and the understanding that love goes through cycles and ups and downs. I’m sure that is your parents’ gift to you as well.

  5. Well, good thing I have kleenex handy. I agree with Ariel — this is my favorite post you’ve written.

    Mr. O gets me flowers on our son’s birthday, which is a tradition he picked up from my dad, who gives my mom flowers on my birthday and my siblings’ birthdays. Those flowers mean more to me than Valentine’s Day roses ever could.

    • Thanks so much, Carolyn! That means a lot to me!

      And I love Mr. O’s tradition of giving you flowers on your son’s birthday (and your father’s tradition as well)! He never forgets that your son’s birthday is a celebration of you too. Thanks for sharing that.

  6. What a lovely portrayal of your relationship, Cecilia. The way you captured the two of you on the train station platform brought a tear to my eye. Real relationships are about what happens behind the scenes in the unscripted moments. The gestures that aren’t necessarily glamorous or typical are the ones that mean the most to me.

    I am so glad you made the decision to share these words. Thanks for your vulnerability.

    • Thanks for your warm words, Rudri. Yes, I think you said it perfectly here: “The gestures that aren’t necessarily glamorous or typical are the ones that mean the most to me.” I guess that’s why I don’t really observe Valentine’s Day…it celebrates “love” superficially and commercially. The real love comes in daily life, in difficult moments, etc.

  7. Thanks for sharing your beautiful stories with us, Cecilia! The gift of love and understanding between partners is probably the best gift one could give or receive, I think. Lovely post!

    • Thanks so much, Ngan! It really is a special gift. It’s a privilege to encounter it and then I think it requires real and deep appreciation to work hard enough to maintain it. I fear that I have sometimes taken my husband for granted in the past so this is a good thing to always remember.

      • I worry about this too, Cecilia. I keep having to remind myself to thank my husband for the little things, like taking out the trash. It’s those little things that often slip by without thanks, but the easiest things to recognize on a daily basis. Have a lovely day and weekend!

  8. So lovely. πŸ™‚ One of my favorite posts of yours. I began dating my now-boyfriend 2 years ago and I very quickly knew that I was probably going to stay with him if not “forever,” then at least for a long time. I am glad to hear that you had a similar gut feeling early in your relationship, that you listened to it, and that it turned out so well.

    • Thank you, and thanks for saying that πŸ™‚ It makes me happy to hear that you have also found a good partner, and that you too had listened to your instinct. I’ve definitely learned that sometimes we have to listen to our gut, and that people on the outside can only know so much. Two years is great. I hope that everything evolves as you want it to, and that you’ll be together for a very long time!

  9. I love this one! You capture marriage perfectly. It really isn’t about tokens of romance after a while. It is about having a comfortable place to fall and somebody who understands you (and you understand them) better than anybody else in the world. I don’t know about the mission to Mars, though!

  10. I love the way that you express what marriage is, and you’re right. It is that. It’s not all roses and happiness and smiles. It’s made meaningful by all that and an overarching love, commitment to one another, to make it work. I love the idea of going to Mars together. You must write a book on it when you come back, a book on the marriage that survive 500 days on another planet. I’d read and buy it! πŸ™‚

    • Ha ha, it will definitely be a bestseller, eh? I am so terrified of those things, ever since the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Thanks for your comment here, Jessica!

  11. Cecilia, I’m crying through this. Yes! Love morphs throughout the years, and romantic notions of love – flowers, cards, Facebook declarations – are nothing compared to the gritty living of day-to-day life and still being able to respect, honor, and love each other through it all. It’s being able to triumph over the hard stuff, like moving, job changing, raising kids, even aging and realizing that none of that is created on a bed of roses or paved with petals. What a great, honest, lovely post.

    • Oh, thank you so much, Justine! Yes, love is definitely what’s left once we have survived all those gritty life bumps and hills. In the beginning I cared so much that we remain flawless, but a few years in I knew I was only expecting the impossible, and I’ve since completely changed my definition of love.

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