Okay, it’s Valentine’s Day, and I admit that I’m feeling a little gooey and squishy about those I love today. Like many people in middle age, I’ve seen all kinds of love and I think I finally have a handle on what makes love true instead of false.
Real love doesn’t manipulate, force, cajole, beg or bully. It is kind at its heart and forgiving when things go wrong (which is often). True love is rare in this world, because it is freely given and freely received, with no strings attached. Most love doesn’t work like this. It’s transactional in nature, but that’s an exchange, not a gift.
I’ve been married to Jason now for almost nineteen years. I’d happily do it all over again, even with every up and down we’ve faced. We are both completely different people now than when we met, but at our core, the love and generosity we have shown to one another has grown instead of faded.
When you add in two kids, our love life has a different shape and texture to it now, but it doesn’t feel diminished. We’ve added children and cats into our family’s recipe and our day-to-day experience is sweeter as a result. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Nothing worthwhile and lasting is ever simple and straightforward. We fight for what we want most and that makes the reward of what we have built even better.
Here’s my short Valentine’s list of what true love looks like for me:
First and foremost, kindness is key. Jason and I both work at treating each other with basic dignity, respect and courtesy. Some days this is hard, but it’s always worth it. One day a few years ago, I realized with a shock that I was often kinder to the barista at Starbucks or a stranger in a store than I was to the man I pledged to spend my life with. So I try to keep this quality front and centre in my home interactions.
Life without laughing is not much fun. Happily, Jason and I like to make each other laugh and it’s a successful ingredient in our marriage. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we laugh, quite wildly, at least once a day and usually more. We aim to crack each other up as often as possible and this quality is like oil to grease the wheels of our relationship and keep it moving smoothly forward.
For me, this means putting others’ needs ahead of my own from time to time. I don’t always do this, nor do I think it’s necessarily healthy to do this exclusively. As Anne Lamott says, “Now I take my turn and it’s a radical act.” But we live in a selfish world, so every single time I choose those I love over myself it’s a way to demonstrate my love through action, which means so much more than just words.
One of the most precious aspects of a long-term marriage is that your commitment is demonstrated on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter how many years you are together if they are mostly drudgery, but if they are peaceful, comfortable and safe, it’s at least partly because you are both committed to each other. This means I choose Jason over every other man on earth and he chooses me over every other woman. Not once, but every single day we are alive.
We’d never make it if we didn’t forgive each other. Jason and I have both committed to say, “I’m sorry” on a regular basis when we’ve behaved badly. We model this for our kids and it’s often challenging and wounding to our pride, but the vulnerability we demonstrate thaws the air between us and keeps our relationship warm and stable. We promised in our vows “to forgive and be forgiven” as both are equally difficult and we get a lot of practice in this area.
Space to grow and be who we really are, without conforming to any mold or expected form, is one of the biggest gifts we give to each other. True love is always free. It doesn’t demand or hold grudges or resentments. It recognizes that room and air and light is required for growth and that healthy people continue to change and evolve as long as they are alive. Jason and I give this space willingly to each other and it’s one of my absolute favourite things about us as a couple.