I was 15 when I first read Romeo and Juliet. It was an English GCSE set-text and before I even came to the play, I already thought I knew it all. World’s greatest love story blah blah blah. Star-crossed lovers etc. Ends badly. Irritating interventions from a nurse. Rose by any name and so on.
In fact, Shakespeare’s most famous play was so embedded in popular culture that it barely seemed worth the effort to read it. Romeo and Juliet were the archetypal romantic lovers – the couple that launched a thousand Valentine’s cards. I didn’t think to question their ardour. It was, surely, the ideal to which we all aspired? (Apart from the death bit, admittedly).
But my English teacher, Mrs Melhuish, challenged my assessment of the play from the start. She dismissed Romeo as a bit of a wimp who let Juliet down when she most needed him. For all his flowery language, Mrs Melhuish argued, Romeo was a teenager “in love with the idea of being in love”.
It’s a comment that has stuck with me ever since. And it’s only as the years have gone by that I’ve realised what a common problem this is. I spent most of my 20s dating men who were similarly in love with the idea of being in love, rather than wanting to deal with the reality of a relationship. I was courted by men who were incredibly good with words, who could spin a flattering sentence out of thin air, who would tell me how ardent their devotion was, and how we were destined to end up together.
One boyfriend in my early twenties proposed within the first six months, claiming it was destiny. Another pursued me for years insisting we were “meant to be together”. Yet another painted such a vivid picture of our future life together he claimed to have dreamt about it. They would quote poetry at me, these eloquent, charming men. And I would lap it all up.
I don’t share any of this in order to claim my own irresistibility. Far from it. Because none of it was really about me; it was always about them – what they wanted; the shared future they saw. And I, raised on a diet of romantic comedies and soap-opera storylines which taught us to believe in the myth of star-crossed fate, was only too willing to collude in my own deception.
What actually matters is not the ability to quote poetry but more tangible qualities. Kindness, for instance, which is neither flashy nor glamorous but which is, I now believe, the single most important characteristic for any human being I want to share my life with
I wanted to be swept away by it all. I lusted after the declamations, the words, the affirmations of specialness. I thought this was what love was: being overpowered by someone else’s certainty; being flattered into submission.
And because, in my 20s, I was still in the process of finding out who I was, this is exactly what happened. I forgot to work out what I wanted, because I was too busy being wooed by someone else’s words. It’s an occupational hazard for a writer, I guess. We’re so aware of the power of the precisely chosen adjective that we fall hard for someone who knows how to use them.
But after a while, I realised the verbiage of love was often camouflage for a deeper absence. The partners who were best at saying stuff were almost always the worst at doing. They would promise to help me move house, only to stay out all night with friends and sleep through the appointed day. They would fail to turn up when I was in hospital. They would cancel birthday dinners or be rude to my friends and any time I asked them to do something with me which would require a modicum of inconvenience, I would feel as if I were asking an enormous favour, requiring weeks of tentative preparatory groundwork. These were the men who, like Romeo, were in love with the idea of being in love with me, rather than the messier reality.
It has taken me 38 years to realise that you don’t have to outsource your emotional self-worth to someone else who talks a really, really good game. What actually matters is not the ability to quote poetry but more tangible qualities. Kindness, for instance, which is neither flashy nor glamorous but which is, I now believe, the single most important characteristic for any human being I want to share my life with. Of course compliments are nice. Of course we want to feel loved and desired, and to be told that. But words don’t mean anything unless they’re underpinned by solid foundations. Real love is not just saying, it’s doing. That’s what lasts after the poetry stops and the rose petals have been scattered and the star-crossed lovers have grown up a bit and worked out who they are.
It turns out Mrs Melhuish was right all along.
Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships