“True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision”
That quote from The Road Less travelled by M. Scott Peck is one of the most accurate, and helpful, depictions of long-term love. It demystifies the myth of romantic love, and reminds those of us who are engaged in the hard but ultimately rewarding business of marriage that you have to “work at love.”
Of the ways in which we “work at love” the half dozen forced garage red roses and the ubiquitous struggle to find a last-minute table for two for Valentines night seems like the hardest.
For men especially, pushing the boat out on this “special” day is surely something of a trial. In the early days of a relationship when romance is at its height it is used as little more than a test. Girlfriends who were quite happy sitting propped up at a bar on date-night expect their boyfriend to transmogrify into Sex and The City scriptwriters inventing original ways to express their romantic feelings. For the uninitiated, untrained male Valentines Day is a minefield. Guessing the cup size for your girlfriend on the Agent Provacteur website and knowing that picking too big is better than too small, knowing not to buy smalzy red roses when her favorite flowers are lilies, taking a day off work and going for a picnic in Wicklow picking up a pre-booked hamper from Donnybrook Foods en route, understanding why a slim volume of poetry trumps trashy jewellery, knowing joke cards are a no-no, (there’s a few tips for you lads!) – are well outside the boundaries of most men’s understanding – or, indeed, interest. I remember a recently betrothed work collegue coming into work furious after her fiancé has bought her a magnificent bouquet the night before. “Every man should know to send his girlfriend flowers at work,” she confessed tearfully, “ so everyone can see.”
For married men, who have been terrorized and trained over many years, it’s tantamount to little more than emotional blackmail. This is the day when your wife expects you to appreciate her via a rota of annual restaurant/hotel trips, frustratingly acquiring a collection of sexy underwear which, although it is now the right size, your wife seldom has the energy, or motivation to wear.
After ten years of marriage, we finally called a halt on celebrating Valentines three years ago.
“Where will we go for dinner?” I asked, testily.
“I don’t mind,” he said, meaning of course, “I don’t care.” Knowing enough not to say “let’s stay in this year”, (took me five years of hard-core tutting to train him out of that plea) he finally booked a restaurant (I gave him a list – with phone numbers) where I made him sit with a single red rose in a small cheap vase between us, nodding in mournful solidarity with the other men sitting in silent couples longing to be in the pub. We endured the purgatory of an average meal, talking about the same mundane parenting, domestic subjects that we would have talked about at home, except without the blessed interruption of television to keep us distracted. After dessert he looked at me and said, tentatively, “What would you like to do now?”
“I would like to go to a disco,” I said, “and dance salsa ‘til dawn, then walk home along the river and watch the sunrise.”
He looked gratifyingly horrified until I added, “What do I look like I want to do? I want to go home, put on a tracksuit and watch the last of that Curb Your Enthusiam box set ‘til we fall asleep.
“Will we pop into the Village Inn for a quick one on the way home?” he said hopefully. And there were all our friends making the most of their babysitters having put each other through the same ordeal.
When we got home I said, “Lets never do that again,” and, I swear, I think that was the most romantic thing I think I had ever said to him.
I am lucky insofar as my husband is a great gift chooser and giver. But while I enjoy and love every piece – it is the memories of the times that they represent more than the jewelery itself that I am attached to. His face when our son was born, his stoicism and strength at my brother’s funeral – the mystery of how our feelings of love have changed, and yet through celebrating births and enduring grief, something has held us together. That thing is romantic love, but it is stronger, and grittier and more visceral than merely sitting in a restaurant, or flying to Paris for the weekend, or picking out underwear from a catalogue.
Like all women, I wish I was told I was pretty more often, or bought more cups of tea in bed, or told I was loved every hour of every day and endlessly thanked for the work I do for our family.
But underneath the nagging, needy insecurity of being a female in a world where romantic desire is depicted as the be-all-and-end-all over the duller and more everyday realities of love such as trust and loyalty and respect, I believe that
romance, real romance, is so much more complex and beautiful and mysterious than the ridiculous and commercialized hype we have turned it into. It’s in the everyday, often so well hidden that you have search to find it. An unexpected “I love you” that you are too often busy to hear. That sneaky and inappropriately timed offer of sex when you bending over the vegetables in your gardening gloves. It’s noticing how beautiful your husband’s eyes are when he takes off his glasses, and allowing yourself to revel in that moment of desire instead of nagging him about going for laser eye surgery. While open expressions of desire and love are great, for some of us romance is much more subtle thing. Of course, perfect love is when love and romance merge together.
On Liveline this week there was the ultimate Valentines success story when an older man, Don Mahon told the touching story about how, on the day of his wife’s funeral in 1998, he received a Valentines card that she had posted to him 18 months beforehand.
Proving that romance is not something you can force any more than you can force a good red rose. It’s nature and fate colliding. It’s the mysterious shadow of love, and sometimes it works better when it is left where it is and not dragged into the limelight.