I saw an elderly couple on a commuter train recently who looked like they were grumbling, but she must have said something that tickled him because he broke into a laugh and blew her a kiss. There, just then, the rush-hour clouds parted and the sun shone down on them.
That’s what romance is. Whatever our age, however long we’ve been a couple, it is a tender, transformative or exhilarating moment. But it is just a moment and yet so many of us pin our hopes and dreams on it, and consider ourselves failures if no one blows us kisses on a train.
I am not being cynical or anti-romantic. Quite the opposite. I’m all for love, but that’s exactly my point. There are so many kinds of love that we often overlook when we talk about “love”, which have their own satisfactions and joys, and while it’s not a competition, these loves aren’t as controlling or possessive or as occasionally blind as romantic love can be, and they don’t demand breakfast in bed or handwritten love notes. So, why do we fixate on romantic love as the best, highest, giddiest, which will apparently make us feel the most alive?
Firstly, romance doesn’t always amount to anything deeper than a dopamine-filled head rush and, even when it does, it’s wrongly assumed to be a permanent feature of love, when it’s more a thing that comes and goes, like a gust of wind or the seasons.
As a serial single person, there have been times when I’ve struggled with being on my own, when all around me are pairing up, but I have never been ‘unloved’
Secondly, romantic love is not the be-all. As a serial single person, there have been times when I’ve struggled with being on my own, when all around me are pairing up, but I have never been “unloved”. Yet throughout my twenties and thirties, I was constantly being asked what I was doing to find love, as if I had a gaping hole inside until the man of my dreams turned up to fill it. It’s too easy to internalise this question – "Why haven’t I found love yet?" – and became miserably fixated by it.
The value we put on romantic love can become tyrannical – “Have you found love?” my married friends have asked, with concern written on their faces. “Is there any love in your life?” Yes, I want to say. There are friends who’ll come around for lunch and we’ll talk until dinner and they’ll stumble home after midnight. The friends who are pillars of strength, who’ll carry me in moments of crisis.
And all those other kinds of love: of children, of nieces and nephews, the love of work and art and nature and the endless supply of unconditional love from parents which makes everything we do interesting to them, whatever our age. None are substitutes for romantic love – they are equals and I wish we could be released from thinking otherwise.
When I say “we”, I mean particularly women, because the expectation of romantic love is something we’re fed from an early age and told to aim for as our ultimate goal through fairytales and pop songs and girl-meets-boy films and happy-ever-after novels. So many brilliant and beautiful women I know strive for it and, if they don’t achieve it, they feel not quite whole because they’ve internalised the myth that if you don’t have romantic love in our life, it is somehow a reflection on you – a failing.
There is a part of me that hopes to become the couple on the train, to grow old with someone, but it is not something that I think tops all else. And if romantic love is supposed to bring us the most intimacy and companionship, it’s not always the case in reality. Some couples don’t seem to know each other all that well; others feel more alone together than if they were alone. And some have lost their own boundaries and no longer see themselves as a “me” and “you”, but as an “us”. I’m not arguing against the joy of coupledom – I’m just saying that the grass isn’t always greener.
I’m not undermining romantic love either, with its fizz and butterflies and miraculous spark. But I wish we’d acknowledge other kinds of love alongside the erotic a bit more. They add such richness and pleasure to our lives. Let’s show these loves a bit more love.
Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships