Originally published January 23, 2013.
One of Mark Twain’s most famous and often quoted lines is “Familiarity breeds contempt…and children.” How well many of us identify with this quip, especially the first part, which actually isn’t exactly funny. Only last week, I was chatting with a colleague who said, “I’ve been married 40 years, and I’m just grateful my wife still speaks to me.”
I suspect many of us who are married (or have been) have asked ourselves if this is just the way things are. We marry, as a friend of mine says he did, as a result of drinking too much alcohol (wife no.1) or “a momentary lapse of reason” (wife no. 2) and hope for the best, thinking if we get lucky our lives might look a little something like a fairytale.
Cautionary fable might be more like it, however.
A friend of mine told me the other night after I found my brain rattled by yet another run-in with love gone awry, “Your life reads like a movie.” The comment was uttered partly in admiration and partly in an “it’s entertaining to hear about, but I sure wouldn’t want to live it” manner of speaking. You see, I’ve been proposed to six times. That I turned down four of those offers would make me appear wise. The problem is I accepted two. I only wish I had the excuse that I was drunk at the time.
I’m not sure marriage is the problem though. My friends and I often talk about the poisonous metals present in wedding rings that make the wearer turn into a creature no longer recognizable—a beast who has become demanding, critical, resentful, and likely to take advantage of all his or her partner’s weaknesses. I do not necessarily excuse myself from having been poisoned by 14 karat gold rings. Maybe next time I’ll try platinum.
My ex-husband says marriage sets up expectations where there were none before, and that’s the downfall of us all.
I have to disagree (no surprise there—the poisonous wedding band metals are likely still in my system).
I’m not exactly a hopeless romantic either. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “soul mates.” I remain unconvinced there is one man out there destined to fulfill all of my romantic desires. That being said, however, I do believe in true love.
What is true love?
Well, I’ll tell you…it’s certainly not what you think. It’s not love at first sight. It’s not the passion you feel when the devastatingly handsome man with the sparkly brown eyes kisses you for the first time. It’s not the chest flutters you get when you think of him. All of that, my dears, is infatuation. And infatuation is fleeting. Even love is fleeting.
But true love: that is something else entirely, and I guarantee it is not something the father of American colloquial letters ever experienced.
How do I know?
I know because familiarity makes true love grow. Whereas the love most of us experience and marry into begins as a bright flame that gradually sputters and often even goes out completely, true love can begin tentatively (though not always) and then widens and deepens with time and familiarity.
It does not retreat over time. It builds.
I’ve heard psychologists say the average person experiences true love only once a lifetime, twice if he or she is lucky. Those statistics are pretty sad. It means when you find it (if you’re smart enough to recognize it and, even more importantly, nurture it) you better damn well hang onto it.
Unfortunately, most of us never find it, or, if we do, we kill it as promptly as we can or maybe even deter it from growing in the first place. That’s because true love is scary as hell.
I should know. I’ve experienced it at least once, a fact which terrifies me to no small degree at the tender age of 37 given that true love experience number one didn’t work out so well. If psychologists are to be believed, I’m on my last chance at this gig.
I had my first experience of true love quite accidentally. It was one of those “I have nothing to lose” relationships I thought would never last that makes one go full out on vulnerability, risk, and “reckless honesty,” as fellow contributor Susannah Herrada likes to call it. The interesting side effect of throwing all caution to wind is that it connects you with another human being on levels the average romantic relationship never experiences.
I have frequently tried to explain this to people who have never experienced it, and usually, at best, I receive blank looks. Other times, I find my sanity questioned. So I’ll make an effort here to tell you what I’m talking about, to tell you what true love looks like. Maybe you’ve seen it, experienced it. Maybe it’s right there in front of you waiting to happen if only you will let go of all your inhibitions, fears, and resentments.
You know you have a case of true love on your hands, friends, when you not only experience all the usual characteristics of love (or infatuation) like persistent thinking about that beautiful man with the sky blue eyes and persistent longing for him but also the ability to feel that persistent longing (and find it deepening) with time. And I don’t mean the growth of infatuation over a few months. I mean that two or three years into the relationship you love that person more than you did after six months’ acquaintance, and you find that love deepening with each passing day. It’s that rare kind of love you might see once in a blue moon when a couple who has been married 50 years is still holding hands and kissing on the front porch at sunset.
Where true love is concerned, you not only love your beloved’s finest qualities but you love his weaknesses, too. You don’t just accept those weaknesses, you love them. And you long to protect them, not use them to manipulate and harm. This is a person whose eyes you can gaze into for hours, maybe days, without boredom. And again, you still feel this desire after years and years. There is nothing he can do to deter you from loving him. You may feel anger against him, but it does not diminish your love, no matter how much you may wish it would.
You see, true love is not all wine and roses. In fact, it can hurt to the core, even when it is good. Because when you love someone to the depth that you reveal all of yourself, every last shred of your vulnerability, you make that person a part of you. It’s not living on tenterhooks, mind you. True love is a deeply secure feeling, but it is deeply painful when the beloved is outside your reach. It is the kind of love Pablo Neruda describes in Sonnet XVII when he says it is a love “where I does not exist, nor you / so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, / so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”
True love is the kind of love that risks all without hesitation. It says, “I trust you. Take all that I have, and I lose nothing.”
But before you jump up and raise your hand, and say, “Yes! Yes! I’ve seen that! I’ve known that!” examine your love. I once loved a man so deeply and fully and accepted and adored all that he was, even the qualities others saw as liabilities, that I offered, if need be, to sacrifice all that I knew to occupy a space beside him till death. I waited for him “like a lonely house,” windows aching, and when he would not come of his own volition, I gave him a hard shove, an ultimatum.
And still he would not take that final leap into space that says, “I will expend the last full measure of my devotion for love of you.”
I found myself facing the hard reality that I felt true love for him, but he did not feel it for me. As a friend of mine once said to me, “Real love does not need shoving.”
The object of my affection, you see, had given doubt a foothold and allowed it to fester until he was overcome with fear, as most of us are, of giving way to full-on vulnerability, the vulnerability that says “be willing to give up all that you know to get something better.”
It’s the same kind of fear, you see, that makes people miserable in their jobs fail to leave them to start the business they’ve always dreamed of owning or that prevents a grand move to another continent when a delightfully tantalizing (if frightening) opportunity beckons.
You have to give up to get. It is a law of nature. Death of one thing is necessary to create life in another.
You may be wondering how I have fared in this grand scheme of true love gone awry. Well, I can say I have fared better than the man who let me go. At least I will never need ask “what if?” I threw my heart into the ring and risked its pulverization, found it pulverized, in fact. And when the dust had settled, I picked up the pieces, poured them into my pocket, and set about the long, slow process of putting them all back together for round two.
Because yes, there will be a round 2.
That is how life goes. The lessons keep coming until we learn them.
I often wonder if the man I believed to be the love of my life will ever learn his own. In the aftermath of the end of that relationship, he said to me, “I am a fool. I will regret this all my life.”
It may be so.
But only if when his round 2 comes, he commits the same error a second time.
I wish I knew the secret to finding true love. I still am not certain if it requires a certain mix of two people. I am not certain if you can have it with one person but not another. I do know, however, that it’s worth trying on for size. That person who is in your life right now, that sometimes makes your heart skip a beat, consider taking the frightening risk of being real with him and see where it leads.
Because one thing I do know is that you will never find true love by being anything other than who you are and loving someone else for any other reason than that he is being exactly the same—the person he is and wants to be.