There’s a scene in Madonna: Truth Or Dare when a dancer asks her who is the love of her life. She waits a couple of beats, pretending defensively to need time to think about it, before croaking, sadly but resolutely, “Sean… Sean”, referring to ex-husband Sean Penn. I was 16 and in a dreadful relationship with a much older man when I saw it at the cinema, and, as with practically everything Madonna does, it caused me to think and reflect. Who (aside from Madge, of course) was the love of my life? Who would one day make me feel complete, lost, found, as though I might expire without him by my side? Who, in my life, would be The One?
I was still asking myself the very same question yesterday, 25 years later, as I sat, laptop to laptop, across a bar table from my partner, a peerlessly lovely and inordinately clever man, who makes me laugh aloud every day, is pathologically incapable of letting down my two children and me, and whose joy when anything good happens to any of us is so pure that I’ve been forced to reconsider everything I’d learnt about romantic love in the preceding three decades. And yet, still, I realise I’ve not engaged in the fantasy. I’ve been too many times around the track to think the concept of The One anything more than the kind of simplistic, fatalistic balls spouted by numpties who claim that everything happens for a reason. “I don’t think I have a love of my life,” I said, knowing I could with impunity. He looked up with the international expression of “DUH” and said, with typical grace, “Your friends, obviously.”
We both knew I didn’t need to disagree, that he wasn’t seeking any disingenuous assurances to make him feel better. If I were to draw a roadmap of my life, friendship would be the trunk road, branched by twisty, often perilous lanes on to which I sometimes detoured and got lost. My friends are my family, my confidantes, my support system, the people who make my world seem the right way up. And I don't mean the nice friends with whom I simply enjoy a thoroughly pleasant evening and a few too many drinks. Those people are splendid, but I mean the core friends who immediately notice when my general mood has shifted half a millimetre to the right and make it their business to find out why. I mean those who've held back my hair as I've redecorated a bathroom floor, or travelled 300 miles with Valium and a DVD of Showgirls to avert my personal crises, girls who've forgiven my cock-ups and mortifying faux pas, my moments of wild irresponsibility, occasional selfishness and poor life choices – and to whom I offer all of this in return, as our lives and challenges flux.
We have lived through heartbreak, bereavement, abuse, infidelity, mental ill-health, cancer and eating disorders
While boyfriends and husbands, great and bad, have drifted in and sometimes out of our lives, we, as a collective, have lived unquestioningly and unequivocally through heartbreak, bereavement, abuse, infidelity, mental ill-health, divorce, cancer, eating disorders, episiotomies, dysfunctional families, post-natal depression, domestic violence, homelessness and some really terrible haircuts, affording all of them due gravity, while never forgetting to make rude jokes at one another’s expense.
They’ve told me when I’m making a mistake and still feathered the nest for when I return, war-wounded, having belatedly discovered they were right. There’s zero jealousy, no tolerance for serious fallouts (we’d simply bang on one another’s doors until it was sorted), only honesty, acceptance and concern.
They are the girls who, when I’ve been going through some messy trauma, have pulled me closer, not pushed me away in discomfort and disgust, for whom I never have to download catch-up notes, even when several months have passed between meetings. They feed my very existence and, without them, I would starve, wither and die.
By contrast, it’s a socially unacceptable truth that I would not expire without my wonderful man. I could definitely live without him. I wouldn’t want to, I have no intention of doing so and, if we for some as yet unimaginable reason didn’t make it, I would be more sad than I can bear to think about. But the kind of romantic love I need manifests itself not in co-dependency, or in the surrender of self, but in a mutually uncomplicated, free-willed decision to be together because it’s much nicer than being apart. I could go on without him if I had to – I’ve been through worse. What I can't and couldn't do is live without my friends. They’re not a substitute for love – they allow me to feel it. They don’t get in the way of my romantic relationships – they augment them, as we share and compare our partnerships in a safe space. My ability to be vulnerable, flawed, wrong or smitten in their company equips me for a better time at home. And my other half knows it. He doesn’t care that I still don’t believe in The One, that after a lifetime of knocks, the only thing I truly believe in is The Eleven. Whoever shares my romantic life has to know and like himself enough to understand, respect and value the fact that he'll always come a very close second to the enduring, indestructible, great love of my life. And, from my perspective, that’s the closest one gets to living the dream.
Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships