My parents taught me many lessons about love. Lessons I am grateful for. Lessons such as: Infatuation has a limited lifespan, but the end of infatuation need not be the end of love. A relationship, at some point, will involve hard work, clear communication and conscious effort. Without these things you don’t actually have a relationship, just two people tiptoeing around each other. Love is an ongoing choice. You have to choose to love your partner every day.
I took these lessons to heart. Hollywood was trying to tell me that love was a magical cure-all. That in the face of love, all obstacles would shrink and become mere stepping-stones to even deeper love. That love was an instantly recognizable feeling that would never go away. I rejected what Hollywood told me about love, and believed what my parents told me.
The first time I fell in love, I was determined to put in all the requisite hard work. Determined to do whatever necessary to stay together well after the final glimmer of infatuation. (Note to my younger self: if you are fundamentally incompatible, no amount of hard work—or love—can salvage the relationship. Both your parents and Hollywood forgot to tell you that.)
My parents shared the kind of love I thought I should want. Long after they stopped displaying affection in public, long after the first rush of young love, they continued to present a united front, to make decisions together. When they disagreed with each other, they would go into a closed room and communicate until they could come to agreement. They only ever said nice things about each other in public. These things were lovely, and I admired them. But…
My parents had all of the hard work and the choosing each other every day, and none of the Hollywood sparkle. I knew that Hollywood was selling me lies, that love doesn’t really conquer all, but I still didn’t want what my parents had. I didn’t know why I didn’t want it. I just didn’t. I wanted something else. I wanted the best of both worlds. Public displays of affection AND good communication. Deep emotion AND choosing each other every day. Stars in my eyes, at least sometimes. My parents were supposed to be among that precious number of successful marriages, the ones that didn’t end in divorce. Their relationship (so society told me) was one of the good ones. It was the best I could expect. So why didn’t I want it?
When my first relationship imploded under the weight of incompatibility, I decided that maybe love and marriage just weren’t for me. Maybe I would be single forever. Maybe I would find somebody and love them, and only stay with them as long as it remained easy. Maybe I would have relationships, but not real love. Not real love, because real love would require work, and I had tried the work and it was too hard. It made me miserable. Who would want to commit long-term to that kind of work?
And then, when I was twenty-three, something completely unexpected happened. My parents separated. Two years later, they divorced. When they told me they were separating I was sad. Of course I was sad. But simultaneously my heart whispered: “Yes. This makes sense.” When I heard that the divorce had been finalized, I recognized a hope that had been slowly, quietly growing within me. Somewhere during the time it took for my parents to become independent of each other, I fell in love. Truly, madly, deeply.
My parents’ divorce was my miracle cure-all. It taught me that I could hope for more than what they had. Hollywood exaggerates, sure, but deep emotional love is not a fabrication. Some people with divorced parents ask themselves: “How will I build a strong relationship when I have no model of a strong relationship?” My parents’ divorce freed me to build my own models, to stop trying to emulate my parents and to do what works for me. It enabled me to believe in love.
My parents’ relationship was not one of the good ones. I know that the quality of a relationship is not measured by how it ends. Some affirming, beautiful relationships end in mutual agreement to part ways. But my parents’ relationship was not one of these. In conversation with my mother, I have learned that the cracks ran deep, right back to before they were married. Only rarely during their twenty-five year marriage were my parents happy together. And this is sad. Immeasurably sad. But it also gives me hope. I want something my parents didn’t have. I want something better than what they had. Now I believe it is possible.
My partner and I have lived together two years, now. It takes hard work but the work is worth it because, long past the final glimmer of infatuation, we adore each other. Occasionally we have long, sobering discussions into the night about how to make our lives together work, and the following morning I will wake up and look over at him and feel myself swell with love and gratitude at my good fortune. There are stars in my eyes, sometimes. I have hope for the future, because I know we are already off to a better start than my parents ever were. I know what I want for myself, and it is not what my parents had. I want what we have.