With Valentine’s Day fast approaching I find myself frequently faced with tacky merchandise marketed to represent tokens of love. At this time of year I make a conscious effort to remind myself what true love looks like, and I can tell you this…
it does not come in the form of a heart wrapped in red foil.
Relationships take work. This has been the theme of the past year when chatting with girlfriends and talking about life. We are a mixed bag when it comes to love. Some of us are single, married with kids, married without kids, engaged, divorced, or in counseling. Not once have I heard the phrase, “Being in a relationship is supposed to be easy.” I don’t believe that this means being with someone has to take a toll on your heart and be a constant battle, but I do believe it refers to the dedication and tenacious commitment it takes to meet another person’s needs aside from your own.
I was recently out for coffee with one of my single male friends. We were talking about relationships and he said, “I’m waiting for the fairy tale.” All I could think to myself was, “For real?! You’re single, heading toward 40, and you still believe in the fairy tale?”
Waiting for a fairy tale relationship… most, if not all of the women I know, single and married, gave up on that notion a long time ago.
I thought this was an anomaly until I heard two other guys in their 30s say this. I was blown away. These sentiments did not resemble the nitty-gritty, tissue-ridden conversations I’ve had with my girlfriends. I find it interesting that some of the single guys I know are still waiting for a fairy tale relationship when most, if not all of the women I know, single and married, gave up on that notion a long time ago.
I don’t think that hoping for the ideal is wrong. In fact, I strongly believe in people chasing their dreams and becoming the best they can possibly be at whatever it is they hope to do in life. When it comes to relationships though, my approach is much more cautious, hesitantly optimistic perhaps.
A friend said to me, “You don’t make it to your 30s, still single, without having experienced a gut-wrenching heartbreak. At this stage in the game, we’re all slightly damaged.” I think for many people, that statement rings true. We all have our baggage, those places inside that still cause pain because we have not yet learned how to let them go.
The couples in my life display a varied mixture of happiness, struggle, heartbreak, and incredible friendship. The more I observe them, watch them participate in life together, the more respect I have for the complexity of relationships. I believe when two people find the secrets that make a marriage work it is no small miracle.
Fairy tales may not exist in real life, but true love sure does. I see it every day and it rarely displays itself in the form of white horses, flowers, hearts, chocolates, or love notes.
TRUE LOVE… exists in the wife who is seeing her husband through the physical devastation of cancer.
TRUE LOVE… exists in the spouse whose loved one returns from war tormented by PTSD.
TRUE LOVE… exists in fertility struggles for the couple that refuses to place blame and determines to keep trying.
TRUE LOVE… exists in bitter fights when careless words are thrown and apologies are tearfully spoken.
TRUE LOVE… exists in the comfort of a loved one’s nearness during the darkness of depression and loss.
TRUE LOVE… exists in the joy of children and the commitment to raise them in a dedicated partnership.
TRUE LOVE… exists when a wife loses her job and her husband encourages her to pursue her dreams no matter what it takes.
All of these are real life examples that I have seen lived out and been truly inspired by.
In her book “A Thousand Days In Venice” Marlena De Blasi paints a picture that has remained with me for years. She writes, “Living as a couple never means that each gets half. You must take turns at giving more than getting… there are seasons in the life of a couple that function, I think, a little like a night watch. One stands guard, often for a long time, providing the serenity in which the other one can work at something. Usually that something is sinewy and full of spines. One goes inside the dark place while the other stays outside, holding up the moon.”
How hauntingly beautiful, to imagine the inner strength and patience required to be light and peace to the person you love when they need so much more than they are able to give. What a lonely place that can be, and what a responsibility, to guard another person’s heart at the expense of your own for a period of time. To me, this is what true love looks like. The fairy tale often lacks the depth of a love tested by fire.
One of my girlfriends who is married to a man I truly admire says that she has two phrases she repeats to herself about her husband when they face challenging times:
“You inspire me to become the best version of myself.”
“With you, I will grow and evolve in my capacity to love.”
She refuses to dwell on his shortcomings and displays the admirable quality of taking responsibility for the way she will react during a tough time by focusing on the value the relationship brings to her life. She “holds up the moon”.
There is a good possibility that Saint Valentine, were he here today, would be slightly shocked to see the holiday evoked in his name. He was a man who gave his life to the assistance of persecuted martyrs, eventually becoming one himself on the fated date of February 14th. The man displayed an example of the highest degree of love possible: to lose one’s life for something the heart truly believes in.
As the poet Ogden Nash rhymed, “I claim there ain’t another Saint as great as Valentine.”
Editor’s Note: We originally published this piece on February 12, 2013. Due to its overwhelmingly popularity, we wanted to share it again this Valentine’s Day.