I’m standing up now and saying I’m not someone who believes in Love. The capital “L” love. The one in pop songs and airport novels. I believe we made that love up.
It’s important to note (before my boyfriend packs his bags and leaves) that I don’t separate the word “love” – real love – from words like “enjoy”, “laugh with”, “am interested in”. It’s the Idiot ideal of Love that screws things up, rather than the web of actions implied by the verb “to love”. Idiot Love is the destructive kind, the kind experienced by people who claim they think or feel “too much” (which is like saying in a job interview that your weakness is being a perfectionist). It’s the kind of love that gets sobbed over in nightclub toilets, or is the explanation for why your best friend still hangs out with that adulterous neanderthal in a Ben Sherman shirt. Love as an act of faith, without any proof whatsoever.
There’s no doubt that Idiot Love is a powerful concept. The same concept that convinces us that, at some arbitrary point, we’ll suddenly meet The One. Even those people who don’t quite believe in soulmates put their faith in the idea that one day the chopping and changing, the trying out for size of romantic partners, will stop dead. And that will be it. Forever.
I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was 16. “Human beings are not supposed to have just one partner,” he told me. My nonplussed response was, “What about swans?” which was slightly off the point, and did nothing to convince my father that I possessed the bohemian toughness he always seemed to want for me.
But perhaps he was on to something. When your relationship gets to the point where you find yourself watching a DVD, sharing a large bowl of dry cereal while both checking your iPhones, it’s only natural to think about what role love has in a long-term relationship. After all, if the film you’re watching is any guide, love is about a constant passion, powerful connections between uniquely compatible mates and vast amounts of life-changing sex. Very rarely does a mutual desire to save on washing-up by eating from the same bowl come into it. It’s a common refrain – in a long-term relationship, the initial passion goes, but is replaced by something else. The question is: by what, and is it enough?
Familiarity, contentment, security...these are all nice things. But are they nicer than the pleasure reaped from a string of short love affairs? We all seem to agree that as we change over time, so, too, do the people suitable for sharing our lives with: the sweet first love; the wildly exciting fling; the heartbreaker who teaches us what we don’t want to know. Until it stops. But what if it didn’t? What if we just kept on moving? The steady one for having children with; a silver fox for a midlife love affair; the good-humoured companion for retirement escapades.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, mainly because I seem to have a lot of friends who are single and whooping it up on dating websites, effectively making this rhetorical question their life. On many levels it seems to work. And I believe it would suit even more people fantastically well. For a start, it draws attention to the fact that there are thousands of people we could pair up with. The idea that there is only one person for everyone, and if you don’t find them all you face is an eternity of loneliness, is scaremongering that we all lap up under the equally misleading idea it is “romantic”. It’s appealing because it plays into the notion of each of us being a unique snowflake that can only fall for someone who matches our own awesomeness. The truth is, sometimes the guy leaning on the bar with his bum crack showing and a stash of peanuts in his pocket is just as funny, kind and sexy as the tortured genius with a directional haircut you’ve been mooning over for three years.
Aren’t you, really, more in love with love if you adore someone while the going is good, then gently release each other when it becomes more like work than play?
That model suited me well enough, for I was a serial monogamist (with the minor caveat that each relationship ended when I had an affair, stretching the definition somewhat). Each relationship would begin with a burst of love and end with a vacant, soulless, “Bye”. But that was partly, I think, because I had bought into the idea of Idiot Love so much, I couldn’t see that love could also be companionship, amusement at each other, and an ability to share space with another person for long periods of time and not wish them to be pulled under a train. I had this idea that Love was gnawing, thin and angular, and required both parties to pass long silences in empty pubs during the day because it was just so intense.
Therefore, if you are not giving me emotional dysentery, I’m off.
The bottom line is, everyone loves the beginning of a relationship. What can be more fun than finding someone great who thinks you’re great? And everyone hates the end. Who wants to hurt or be hurt by someone you used to think was great? Break-ups, even the kind ones, are painful, messy and best avoided. Setting yourself up for a lifetime of them seems masochistic.
Which leaves us with the middle bit. Yes, it’s the middle bit that’s tricky. But that’s why it’s the best bit. And that’s the bit I feel people are trading in for the permanent potential of lots of short relationships. Yes, they get to kiss a new mouth every so often, but it’s just a mouth. They don’t know the person it’s attached to.
I am in no way advocating settling, here. No-one should ever settle in an unhappy situation. I know, for example, four divorced couples in their early 30s and they all say something like: “We got married when we should have been breaking up.” And – rather than thinking: “Shame you didn’t realise that at the time” – I applaud this outlook. They gave it a go. It made breaking up harder, but it also meant they were sure – really sure – they’d tried everything when they split.
Back to the couple eating cereal. What if he stands up and shouts: “Bugger this. Let’s get chips and walk around the park in the dark”? And she slowly puts down her iPhone, fistful of cereal halfway to her mouth, with an astonished look on her face, a look of having woken up. They leave the iPhones at home, and with their hot chip breath white against the night, they talk to each other about not much, really, but it’s funny and good and they both get pink cheeks from talking too much. This is what I’m talking about: love does not blossom without tending. You have to make a certain amount of effort so you enjoy time spent together because what is love if it’s not friendship? And if that sounds like hard work, the pay-off is finding out that this other person has thoughts and secrets all of their own, just like you do.
The ultimate achievement in a lifelong partner is gaining an understanding of another human being. A person that you have the opportunity to understand and to know – nowhere near completely – but as much as it is possible to know another human being.