I was talking to a woman whose relationship is in crisis. She wants more commitment; marriage, a settled home. She and her boyfriend have been together for five years but the more she pushes him for an answer, the more he retreats. He tells her that he is committed, that he has told her he loves her, and asks, why isn’t that enough? She cannot answer except to say; “because it’s not.”
The more they talk, the less they understand each other; resentment takes the place of love. I asked her, if she knows so clearly what she wants, then why she is choosing a situation that makes what she wants an apparent impossibility? “I love him,” she said. “But what does that mean?” I asked. “If he can’t give you what you want and you demand of him what he can’t give, where’s the love?”
“I love him,” she said again, “and he loves me too”, as if she was speaking to somebody particularly dimwitted; as if the mere utterance of those particular words are the answer to everything. Dimwitted I may be, but I have always felt that if love is blind then refusing to understand what love really means is blinder still. Love is an action, not simply a word.
As heart-stopping as the phrase might sound, the words “I love you”, can sometimes be as meaningless as the word “sorry”. Unless we are truly sorry enough to put that word into action by changing our behaviour, or show somebody how much we love them by our actions rather than our words, neither seems to me to be of much value. Sometimes I think the phrase “I love you” is no more than a get out of jail free card. In other words, I have told you I love you so just shut up about my obvious lack of commitment, my unwillingness to listen to your needs, my failure to give you my full attention. I’ve told you I love you so you have no right to ask for anything more.
When I was much younger, I had a boyfriend who told me, every day, how much he loved me. And, every day, he found fault with something I had done. I was so naive and dazzled and flattered by the “I love you” part that it took me a while to put the pieces together and discover they didn’t fit. Eventually, I asked him how he could love me when he disapproved of almost everything I did, as well as everything I was. He looked at me, bemused, as if I had suddenly started talking in tongues. “Because I tell you I do,” he said. I left him, rather to his astonishment, but I had grown weary of the word love used as a way of silencing me.
I know my closest friend loves me and has done for forty years. She doesn’t have to tell me, she just turns up. When I was going through a particularly bad episode of depression, sometimes I would call her, just to hear her voice. Once, it was very late. She said she was going to pop over for a cup of tea. I told her not to be so daft and that it was nearly midnight. “I really want a cup of tea,” she said, so I put the kettle on.
There is nothing extravagant about a cup of tea; it is not a wild declaration of affection, except that it is. As domestic as it is in the detail, when it comes to love, it is the details that count. There is often more passion in the ordinary minutiae of life than in grand, dramatic gestures or red roses and champagne – although a bottle of champagne never goes amiss. I am particularly fond of champagne, which a close friend knows. The other day, she turned up at my door and handed me a bottle. “It was on special-offer at Tesco,” she said. And then she got in her car, and drove away. She had been thinking of me among the groceries.
Of course, rose petals scattered in a trail to a bedroom can be romantic (although it seems to me to be more of a way of showing off) but romance is not the same as love. Knights in shining armour have to get off their horses eventually and if they leave you to clean up the stables, you can be damned sure they’re not going to be an attentive companion.
Love is not a given and nor should it be an expectation. It doesn’t need loud, extravagant speeches or operatic gestures. It is a gift, small, precious and intimate; a brief text from a friend to say they are thinking of us, a spontaneous hug from a lover or an unexpected kiss from a child. I hold those fleeting moments in my innermost memory. They make me feel cherished in a way that fleeting passions never do. Cherished: It’s such a good old-fashioned word and, for me at least, is what love is all about.