If you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to miss when love changes. Sometimes it’s gradual—unravelling slowly like a ball of yarn rolled across the floor. And other times its lightning fast. Triggered by something so powerful it cannot be quieted or undone.

For Holly and Jake Barber it was so gradual Holly hadn’t even noticed it. Hadn’t seen the signs. Hadn’t felt her husband distancing himself from her. Between PTA meetings and soccer practices and bake sales, she hadn’t even noticed the fact Jake never met her eye anymore.

They were so disconnected that when their 7th wedding anniversary came around the month before, both of them forgot. It fell on a Wednesday—their busiest night of the week with back to back kids’ activities from after school until bedtime. It wasn’t until the next morning when Holly was adding a dentist appointment for Ava to their family calendar on the fridge, she noticed the words written in red and surrounded by hearts.

7th Anniversary

Her first reaction was to be angry with Jake, to compare this to all of their past anniversaries and feel annoyed he didn’t bring her flowers like last year, buy her jewelry like the bracelet on their third or write her poetry as he had on their first. Her anger faded to sadness as she realized she was just as much to blame as he was.

She was sad that they had become that married couple. The married couple that lost their own identities when they had kids. For years they had been Holly’n’Jake or Jake’n’Holly. Said as though it was one continuous word. Inseparable. Two halves of a whole. All those usual couple clichés. But now, well now they were The Barbers. Or Ava and Wyatt’s parents. Holly even caught herself referring to Jake as “daddy” when she talked to her sister. She hadn’t even realized she’d done it until Sasha laughed and said, “Whoa there, what you and Jake do in the bedroom can stay in the bedroom.” Holly’s cheeks had flushed with embarrassment.

When she called Jake at work to tell him they had both forgotten their wedding anniversary, he laughed, clearly finding the entire situation far less worrying that she did.

“It’s not funny,” she said. “And it’s certainly not a good sign for our marriage. It shows we don’t prioritize each other, that we don’t focus enough on us.”

“Okay,” he replied, slowly drawing the word out as if trying to decide which direction to take the conversation. “Well, it’s not like we could have gone out last night anyway, you know Wednesdays are a write-off.”

“I know,” she said sulkily. “But I really wish we had at least bought cards for each other. We should buy cards for each other today and exchange them tonight.”

He groaned. “I’ve got a packed day today Holly. I don’t think I can get out to get one. Then Wyatt has soccer and Ava has piano.”

“Thursdays are almost as bad as Wednesdays,” she said, feeling defeated.

“How about I duck out 10 minutes early and come get you guys. We can stop at the RiteAid to get cards before I drop you and Ava off.”

She laughed. “We can’t buy cards for each other from the same store at the same time. That totally defeats the purpose.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

She didn’t. Which is how they found themselves hours later in the greeting card section at RiteAid with their backs turned to each other, picking out cards. Ava and Wyatt were down the aisle opening up as many of the singing cards at once as possible. Between the noise of the cards and the sound of the kids arguing, Holly found it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. She picked a husband card off the rack just as Jake cried out in triumph.

“Found mine!”

“Already? No fair! The wife cards are always better than the husband ones. It’s like the greeting card companies believe all men sail, fish, or tinker on old cars.”

“Don’t worry about the picture. Because I know you don’t like cats or the color pink and your card has both.”

She laughed but stopped abruptly when she saw Ava hitting her little brother on the head with a card playing “They Say It’s Your Birthday”.

“Stop it!” she hissed at them through clenched teeth. “I’m not paying for any cards you wreck.”

 They both nodded solemnly at her but as soon as she turned her attention back to Jake, she heard the sound of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” followed by a soft whack. Wyatt had retaliated. She closed her eyes, gave a deep sigh, and decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting.

“I guess this one will do,” she said, grabbing a dark blue card with a red mustang on the front from the shelf. “Don’t show me until after we pay.”

She glanced at the back of the card. “Eight bucks! Holy shit…that’s more than my favorite magazine. How much is my card?”

Jake flipped his over and laughed. “9 bucks. You always were an expensive date. Must be because it has lace on the front.”

“New plan. There’s no way we’re paying 17 bucks for cards that are a day late and—based on your description at least—ugly as sin.”

Jake nodded and made a move to put the card back.

“Wait!” she cried, and he pulled it back quickly. “I still want you to give it to me. I just don’t want to pay for it.”

A mischievous grin spread across his face. “Roger that,” he said. “You watch for security and I’ll slide this into my jacket.”

“Funny guy. But I’m not suggesting we shoplift our cards. Just that we exchange them here and then go buy a magazine each.”

“Now that is a brilliant idea,” Jake said, and he extended his pink monstrosity of a card to her. “Happy Anniversary, my dear wife. These have been the best…”

Holly could see him trying to work out in his head which anniversary they were celebrating.

“Seven. The number you are looking for is seven.”

“Right. These have been the best seven years of my life. Enjoy your card, it took me ages to figure out which one to get you.”

“And happy anniversary to you,” she replied, handing over the mustang card. “I decided on the car over the boat or fish, hope you approve.”

They stood shoulder to shoulder and read their cards. When they were done, they both exclaimed, “Thanks, sweetie,” returned the cards to the rack, collected their squabbling kids and headed over to the magazine section.

At the time she tried to think of it as a funny little story that spoke to the true meaning of love. How love wasn’t about buying sappy cards or celebrating every little moment. It was about being so sure in your relationship you don’t need sappy cards or celebrations to know you are loved. Of course, it’s easy to feel that way when things seem good. It’s when you start to spot the cracks that you can see where you had been so wrong in your assumptions.