Today in North America, lots of people will be thrilled, lots of people will be crushed and the florists, gift shops and card shops will score beaucoup bucks from this celebration of ‘love’ foisted upon our public consciousness. I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day due to religious reasons (no, I’m not Muslim either), but I’ve always had a hard time conveying that to the men in my life in the past. One would think being let off the hook for yet another gift-giving holiday would be pleasing to them, but I guess culture gets the best of them in the end game. My late husband asked me to marry him on Valentine’s Day. I let that one slide 🙂
I’ve been engaged in discussions about and reading a lot of opinions about dating and love lately on a singles place that I hang out. I’m learning why so many relationships fail, in some ways. Where in the world do we come up with these notions that love is this ephemeral, gossamer thing that is a flighty as a butterfly in a massive garden? That it strikes us without warning, like an object falling from the sky? That one must be ‘in love’ in order for a relationship to function? I think culture – particularly the entertainment media, boosts this thing to infinite proportions and sets so many up for failure right after the sexual attraction bloom wears off. Where does love really fit into the picture and what the heck is it anyway?
The first thing I want to address is the notion that there is ‘unconditional’ love between two adults. Requiring unconditional love is a condition itself! The entire concept is, well, addled. We don’t love anyone without some kind of boundaries – even though those boundaries will vary from couple to couple. I’ve heard people say they want love like their dog gives them. Um, okay? Dogs have unfailing devotion, this is true. But fail to feed a dog, mistreat it, abuse it, and it will turn around and bite you. Same for people. Yes, as long as you care for the dog, it will be unfailingly happy to see you day in and day out (or even five minutes after leaving when you forget something in the house and return momentarily!) I’ve wondered what people who say they want unconditional love really mean, in their own minds, when they say that. If they mean love me, warts and all, I can get on board with that. All of us have faults, flaws, irritating habits and such. But some of them we might want to examine and change, both for ourselves and for the sake of those with whom we share our life. We have the capacity to change until we are dead. It just takes effort, sometimes a great deal of effort. And we are a lazy bunch, admittedly. Should we have to change to be pleasing to another? Maybe. Two people trying to fit together into a new life will have to make some modifications, that is a reality. Oh, but love can transcend reality, right? No. We still must learn to compromise, to subjugate our egos, to work towards a common goal, when we forge a bond with someone and intend to share space with them. There must be open and honest communication though, for this to happen. And patience, huge gobs of that.
Then this business of being ‘in love’. What? What does that mean to people? I’m terribly pragmatic I guess. Anyone, even beloved family, after years and years of being together, loses some of their luster. It is human. When one has been privy to bathroom habits, illness, childbirth, bad tempers and the like, the glow can fall off that initial attraction. At that point you are left with the real person underneath, and hopefully that is someone that you respect, value and make a conscious and active effort to act lovingly towards. Beneath our public facade is always a real person, and hopefully you like that real person. Why? Because that is the person you are going to share the rest of your life with – or at least presumably that is why you are there, to form a life partnership. In truth, people can grow apart, or are initially really unsuited for each other. I think though, that this is far less the case than we give a pass for. Or perhaps the real truth is that people are more serially monogamous than lifelong monogamous. I am not sure. Maybe we just don’t want it enough anymore. That bothers me at this stage of my life. I don’t want a series of relationships – I want one to which I can dedicate myself to making it work, knowing that my partner is committed to the same. I read someone that said “It is easy to fall in love. It is difficult to remain in love.” My opinion is that what we call being ‘in love’ is the initial rush of getting to know someone, the initial sexual attraction, it is the whole ‘new’ thing and it involves a lot of physical things. It is my opinion that there has to be a woo-hoo factor – you have to be sexually attracted to someone. Long-lasting marriages of the past would disprove this, as well as arranged marriages that last. So do we emphasize this too much? Social mores have changed greatly and we have far more sexual freedom today than even fifty years ago. For me, at this point, I have to have it. Sexual satisfaction for both man and woman is crucial to a long and happy marriage I think. That probably sounds humorous to anyone much younger reading this, since I’m in my fifties. I know my kids think its a bit ‘icky’ that both their mother and their grand parents might still have a vibrant, healthy sexual desire, and that they factor that into their dating prospects. Active sexual lives into ones seventies and beyond is a good thing – it is good for our bodies and our minds. If you have any insight into nursing home activities, you will find that the sex drive is the last of the drives to go – perhaps because we revert to more primal things as we age, the ‘old’ brain as some will call it. Some people are simply more sexually oriented than others too, be that hormone related or simply a pleasurable bent within the person. Having been married twice and losing my last partner to death, I know that for me, it is important. You can still have a satisfactory relationship without it, but it surely helps a lot to keep the heart open. Due to an illness unknown to us, my husband had functionality issues in the last year or so of his life which were formerly ascribed to other things. I did not love him any less, for that love was already my choice. It did not make me want to stray emotionally or physically. But it was more difficult on me, I will admit that. It also taught me a lot about what loving really is. It has made my choice of celibacy outside of a relationship easier too. When one has true emotional intimacy, the depth of physical intimacy is so much more. That is what I want again. I know many people that are very sexually active, with no emotional context in the frame of their activities. They are not happy. Sex is not a replacement for physical intimacy – it’s just a biological function at that point. Pleasurable? I am certain in some ways yes. But having had really deep emotional and physical intimacy with a man that I loved, I’m not willing to exchange one for the other. Maybe that is selfish or greedy, I don’t know. I only know that I want the erotic depth that I had in that framework once again, and for me that involved my heart and mind in addition to my body. That combination is rare to find, and especially difficult for me apparently, as I’ve only had that trifecta event once in the over four years since becoming a widow. I still struggle with the fact that it did not run both ways, and the shattering discovery that it meant so little to the other party. It is simply another lesson that I have learned in my quest for personal growth, and I am recovering slowly from that painful revelation. I do better some days than others, but I am much further along the recovery path than even a month or so ago.
So what is real love? I also hear people say they want ‘real’ love. I guess for most of us, that is going to depend on what we need to feel ‘loved’. Because I am pretty blunt and open in a relationship, I tend to say “I need this” and ask what my partner needs or wants. Little things matter more to me personally than the big things. I think it is difficult for people to identify what makes them feel loved. We recognize when we feel disregarded or hurt. But pro-active help for a partner is harder. I think this is particularly so for men, who often subjugate feelings in lieu of doings. For most men, to open up and express feelings simply makes them too vulnerable. There are a lot of men who have been blindsided and hurt, and their ability to recover from that seems longer even than for women in some cases. I see evidence in my male friends of handling this two ways – becoming the sexual conquest dude or the withdrawing and not doing anything dude. Yet most men that I know well enough to discuss this with openly will say they again long for a loving and vibrant relationship. They, like women, are having a difficult time determining how to do that in today’s environment. Many thought that they had real love and then were stunned to find out they did not. Were they neglectful? Perhaps. It is easy to do long-term for both husbands and wives, and women are more attuned to the emotional part of the relationship I think simply by default of our more emotional nature. Real love is work, no matter how much you feel for someone. It takes work to keep anything worthwhile going, be it a business, a farm, or a relationship. If you neglect the little things in any venture, the big things will eventually suffer. Remembering the little things in a long-term relationship requires a huge amount of effort and awareness – and while one is living, making a living, keeping all of the balls juggling in the air that make up a shared life, it is easy to forget this. Benign neglect is still neglect. You must make your relationship important in measure to the rest of the things that make up your shared life. Real love is not for the wimpy. It requires commitment, vulnerability, effort and tenacity. And it is so very, very worth it. I speak from experience.
To those of you reading that have a current love – please tend to it, and not just on an over-hyped commercial holiday. Care for it. Give it the same care as you would a garden – checking the soil, making sure there is ample water, keeping the weeds of discontent cleared. Give it a new infusion of amendments like affection, attention, and verbalization so that it remains a vibrant and living thing that will provide you the framework that you need to strengthen your core being and face the world – be that a kitchen and farm, a desk in an office, or whatever your daily duties are. Love your partner. Serve them. Value them. Nurture them.
For those of you like me, without anyone on whom to express your love, affection and attention…well, I don’t really know what to say at this point. Guard your heart carefully, but do not close it off entirely. If you get hurt, or make a wrong choice, examine it and figure out what went wrong if possible. If that isn’t possible, just let it go. We don’t always get answers to things, which is hard. Damn hard. But we are resilient, we are stronger than we know. We must be happy with ourselves before we can join with another and multiply that happiness exponentially. Use this time alone to become the best you possible and develop your own depths and interests. It is your life and it is not on hold because you are single. Go, and do. Be happy.