Love is not for the faint of heart; at least not the kind that’s got any staying power. Staying in love can often be the hard part.
I had the jeweller engrave the round gold pendant with the words ‘Love, John’. A thin cross-hatched border framing the words made them bulge with significance. I was 16. When I gave it to my 15-year-old girlfriend and she hung it around her neck, we felt as if we had entered a sacred space. We had finally liberated the word that had been caught in our throats for months, and now that it had escaped our lips we couldn’t stop saying it. Love. We were in love. We were completely, uncontrollably, deliriously in love.
The charm of a first love is its drooling innocence. Exposed to feelings we didn’t know we had, we hardly know what to do with ourselves. We walk around with scrambled brains, blushing and giggling and saying stupid things. First loves are powered by feelings alone, spared from the tedious practicality of common sense – and what fun it is. Life is no longer dim with uncertainty. It’s coated in chocolate!
That is, until a casual word or a gesture suddenly capsizes our love boats. Just as the feeling of love was new, so is the ache we feel at love’s passing. We are disillusioned, but not for long. Soon we will set sail to recapture that blissful feeling.
Somewhere along the line we learn that love involves more than just feelings. We understand that for love to endure, a whole spectrum of human needs must be addressed, not just our yearning hearts. Or do we?
Commonly asked questions
My experience as a volunteer advice giver for the Elder Wisdom Circle website suggests that many of us never make this leap in logic. We are grown adults making puppy love. Advice seekers accessing the the website tap into the acquired wisdom of seniors to help them navigate through life’s hard moments. They are primarily young, however seekers of all ages turn to us for guidance. Broken relationships dominate the subject lines of letters that stuff the mailbox each day. Commonly asked questions include: “How can I reclaim the early excitement of my relationship?” “How can I win back my ex?” Each belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what grown up love requires of us. For every anxious letter writer seeking our counsel, one can only imagine the number of other people in the world who are as desperate for love, as they are unequipped to accommodate it.
I am hardly an expert on love, but I have successfully completed its obstacle course. You might even say I learned a few things along the way. Like most people, I was schooled in the ways of love by passively observing adult behaviour as I grew up, and by absorbing the conventional wisdom about love emerging from TV shows, song lyrics, self-help books, and the occasional mind-bending dive into metaphysics. The best teacher, however, was my own experience, especially painful experience. Pain pried my eyes open to the truths found hidden in the depths of relationship despair, the same truths sought by so many brokenhearted letter writers. It is easy for me to identify with their anguish. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to my former self when I correspond with them.
How does one regain the magic of courtship?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t. Love – the feeling and love, the state of mind – are as different as yellow and blue. They can complement each other, but they exist in their own spheres. Love, the feeling, is a half tank of gas that will leave you stranded when you least expect it. Love, the state of mind, is the field of awareness in which we perceive and respond to the needs of our partners. It is built to last. Because it is not always enjoyable, we are reluctant to call it love. It requires that we give as much as we get. Making it through tough times together is how love deepens. Forget the old magic. This is the new magic disillusioned lovers should be turning their attention to.
How can I win back my ex? The nature of love is that two people come together willingly, so when seekers ask for strategies to win back their old lovers, I tell them that this only happens in romance novels and silly movies. I also point out that the other person was never theirs in the first place. We are not each other’s possessions. I can almost feel them scowl as I write the words. Sometimes respondents write back, but not often on this topic.
Perhaps it’s not love
Then there is the cluster of letter writers who put up with bad behaviour from their partners, over and over again. I suggest that this is not love. It’s torture. I field a fair amount of letters from longtime friends who puzzle over whether it makes sense to transition into lovers, as if it were a mathematical rather than a chemical equation, as if an intimate friendship were somehow of lesser importance.
My street logic is no match for professional counselling, but then it’s not supposed to be. I’m more the chin-scratching uncle that visitors to the site never had. One thing I am sure of is that falling in love is easy. Any fool can do it. It’s staying in love that’s the hard part. Love costs everything, more than armfuls of flowers, more than bushels of hugs and kisses. It’s one thing to admit the truth of this standing radiantly on an altar, and quite another to admit it when standing behind a slammed bedroom door with tears streaming down your cheeks. Love is not for the faint of heart, at least not the kind that’s got any staying power.
So before we go on record and declare our love on a sliver of metal, we must consider that we have not reached the finish line. We have only taken a first step. Unless we are prepared to run a marathon, a box of chocolates might be a better idea.
John Ptacek’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. He is a writer based in Wisconsin, USA.
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