You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.
My 27-year old niece posted on Facebook this week, “Three years ago today I married the love of my life….” While I’m genuinely happy for them, and I think they’re a wonderful fit, it’s the phrase that gets me. The cynic in me has to roll her eyes. “Really?” How does one know, at twenty-seven, who or what will be the love of your life? No disrespect to the passion and intensity of youth (au contraire, it’s often these days I wish for my youthful self), but I would be more inclined to sit up and pay attention if that sentence came from someone, who is, say, seventy.
What do people really mean when they say that? Are they talking about the intense, obsessive love of romantic novels? Are they talking about the greatest sex of their life, E.L. James-style? Or, instead, maybe an intoxicating mind-meld connection, where your lover literally finishes your thoughts? Or, God forbid, all of the above? Does the duration of the affair matter? Was it a short, but searing love story, or an epic tale, winding through years of one’s life? “He was the love of my life,” the woman sighed, where the “he” was a brief shooting star in the summer of her youth. “She was the love of my life”, said the old man, remembering his wife of 50 years. Can they both be right?
This week I will have been married to my husband Andrew for 30 years. At times it seems like only yesterday we stood at the altar at Braddock Street United Methodist Church in Winchester, me in the wedding gown my mother wore, and Andrew a slip of a guy, all dark hair and eyes only for me. He was my young romantic love, wooing me with champagne, flowers and nights of dancing; he was my very own Christian Grey in our free and easy twenties, so smolderingly sensual and hot, women would swoon at his feet. And now, he is my creeping-past-middle-age, grey-bearded love with a bad shoulder and bad knees.
Ah, those were the days. But lust – as well as youth and beauty – are fleeting — all too fleeting. According to the latest issue of Psychology Today, in an article entitled, “Lessons for Living – Five Truths People Learn Too Late”, romantic love lasts about a year and a half. Geez – That’s only 5% of our total 30 years together. “Romantic love is when we have this consuming emotional experience with another person, and it usually lasts about a year and a half. Deep love comes after – after we see how imperfect the other is and commit ourselves to them anyway.” So the other 95% of the love experience is where the real work gets done.
I was married at 22, so I have been married to Andrew for more than half my life. Not only was he the love OF my life, but he has been – and still is – the essence of the love IN my life. Over thirty years, his love has been the root source of strength and continuity for me. Both of us are different people today than we were thirty years ago; but that root of love is buried deep and strong. His love has been a constant river of pure unconditional love running through my days. And like a river, it has refreshed, renewed, and reflected me back to myself at every critical turn in the bend.
Real, enduring love should provide the medium for each of us to grow and become our best selves through all the years of our life. I am reminded of something our son Ben said, after his heart was badly bruised during an intense, on-again, off-again relationship in high school with a rather complicated and demanding girl. Once it was finally over, Ben summed it up with this epitaph: “Mom, it was never going to work. She just couldn’t let Benny be Benny.”
Andrew’s gift to me has been just that – a lifetime of love that has let me be me, imperfect me, over and over again, through my twenties and thirties, my forties and now my fifties. A flowing life line of love – a love for a lifetime, for all the roles of my life. Now that can truly be called the love of one’s life.