Love, at its best, is intoxicating. It makes every commute into a flight of fancy; every bedtime a dream that’s waiting to catch you in its cosy embrace. Love is all the best of humanity. It’s a two-way flow of kindness and affection. It’s a safety net for a bad day. It’s sex on tap. It’s a mirror which reflects yourself back in the most positive light. It’s a partnership to help you achieve your goals. It’s a safe space in which you can imagine a shared future; a future supported, perhaps, by age-old social institutions of marriage and children.
I’ve always been a romantic; it would be inauthentic to pretend otherwise. Aged seven, I started writing comically precocious love songs. Aged 10, I composed my first (ill-fated) Valentine’s Day poem to a boy in my class.
Tellingly, my favourite film is ‘Notting Hill’. My favourite book is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. My favourite song is ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ by The White Stripes. Respectively, these are representations of unlikely, enduring, and fleeting love – love in its myriad forms.
Whether it’s down to growing up with parents devoted to one another; whether it’s through consuming a cultural diet of rom coms and pop songs; whether it’s the result of having attended an all-girls’ school since the age of 13 and as a result never having quite demystified the opposite sex, I don’t know, but – regardless of its origin – my love affair with the notion of being in love has come naturally all my life.
And then, aged 19, I was lucky enough to experience the transformational life experience that is first love – and, inevitably, the first real heartbreak which, like scar tissue, fortifies you against all future ones. In the immortal words of Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, ‘If you really wanted to screw me up, you should’ve gotten to me earlier.’
The somewhat disillusioning part of being an adult is you realise that, as much as you might want to fall in love, there’s too much at stake to really, well, fall.
Because you learn that, as much as love can be intoxicating, it can also just be toxic, its poisonous effects seeping into every aspect of your life. It can be blind, but all-too-often it can be blinding – clouding your sense of judgement and self-respect. It can be fulfilling, but it can also be all-consuming, alienating you from everything else that enriches you as an individual: your friends, your family, your career.
And sometimes, even if you love a good person, and that love is reciprocated, then it still isn’t enough to sustain a future together – not without sacrificing yourself as collateral damage. And that in itself is its own kind of heartbreak. In the words of Samantha Jones in ‘Sex and the City’, ‘I love you – but I love me more.’
To call out a few pop music cliches – to love and to be loved in return likely isn’t the greatest thing you’ll ever learn – nor will love alone lift you higher, or up where you belong – not for very long, at least.
It’s natural to fall in love with the idea of being in love, simplified in pop lyrics and glorified in black and white films. And why shouldn’t we? Almost annually, one of my best friends and I go to see The Cure – drinking wine in the sun and soaking up the heady romance of their lyrics.
But, in the real world, enduring romantic love is something different entirely.
So yes, I’m still a romantic, but in recent years I’ve become a pragmatist, too. The two aren’t mutually exclusive – in fact, for me they are natural bedfellows.
Love is cups of tea and kindness; it’s never going to bed on an argument; it’s being a team. Love is respecting another person and letting them thrive, while simultaneously extending the same courtesy to yourself. Love is slow-burning and gradual. That is, until the day you realise, during a long walk to nowhere in particular, that you would like the journey to go on forever.
With every year that goes by, the prospect of happily ever after becomes more and more complicated – and I wouldn’t wish it any other way.