What does love mean to you?
The other day at the Mansion, an uptown Manhattan diner, I overheard Frank Sinatra sang his version of “Love is a many splendored thing.” For whatever reason, its fame as one of America’s classic love songs never seems to diminish. With the song repeating over and over in my head I walked home. Along the way, I took a brief detour to purchase a Valentine’s Day card for my husband. I stopped dead in my track in front of the drugstore’s Hallmark section. Was it possible? A category of Valentine’s Day cards for pets to send to their masters? What’s next, cards for Digitsexuals to send to their robotic partners?
And they called it puppy love
That silliness aside, let’s instead turn our attention to humans. Early each February I ponder the question of love and what it is all about. Valentine’s Day’s proximity also brings me back to thoughts of my first “love,” or so I called it. I close my eyes and can still see Mike Sublet, the new boy in sixth grade, who rocked my boat the moment he walked into the classroom for the first time. Mike had a shock of red hair which he wore in a tidy crewcut. He had hazel eyes which twinkled mischievously when he smiled and, as might be expected, an abundance of freckles which cascaded down his handsome face. He always wore carefully ironed shirts in colors which complemented his red hair. Mike’s brown penny loafers looked as if a Marine had shined them. He was an “A” student, a great dancer and a star on the soccer field. I was completely smitten. Then, at the beginning of the next year, I discovered a tall, eight-grader from Norway called Sven. I was swept away by an older man. So much for the puppy love of youth.
Later, I understood these crushes were mere hormonal infatuations. Then, as a young adult, I started to appreciate that there was something more significant in a relationship, something more complex and binding which replaces what I call the lub-dub reaction of physical attraction.
The proverbial question: What is love?
Then, if this is love, what does it mean? Of course, this is a rhetorical question as there is no one definition of love. We all know that love can morph into a myriad of different things. Not only does it depend on the individuals involved but also their culture, length of the relationship and other specific circumstances. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I propose we reflect on the love in our current relationships—with other human beings, please—and celebrate their attributes, even if there may be a few shortcomings as well.
I asked several of my friends around the world to answer these questions: Once the initial sexual attraction of a relationship diminishes, how does love change, and what does it now mean to you in your marriage relationship?
The importance of having someone’s back
My first respondent was Veronica, a successful business woman in her 40’s. She told me that she and her husband Todd were married in Florence, Italy exactly three years after their first date in 1993. Romantic, no? They own a fine wine importing company together in Chicago, a reality which could clearly complicate anyone’s perspective on love. On the other hand, as explained by Veronica, spending so much time together in business also affords them the luxury of having a more comprehensive appreciation of each other’s talents. “At this point, we are intertwined. Having blind trust as husband and wife as well as business partners, is critical in our relationship,” she explained.
Veronica continued, “I know Todd is there for me, no matter what I do or think. This is the foundation of our love and our work. He’s got my back. Even though we spend considerable time together, my husband still surprises me with some of his decisions, which I might instinctively expect to be different. I guess you could say that also keeps our marriage fresh and exciting, in addition to the fact that Todd looks like Christopher Reeve,” Veronica proudly added. I suspect if she had told me this in person, she would have added a you-know-what-I-mean wink.
Learning the value of patience and holding your tongue
A newly wed in her 30’s, Patricia replied, “That's easy. Love to me is comfort and acceptance and holding your tongue. Esther Perel (the Belgian Psychotherapist who studies human relationships) says it best: ‘you can be right, or you can be married,’ Patricia glibly replied with a youthful giggle.
Christine, one of my few middle-aged friends who has only been married once, answered the question philosophically. “To answer your question, I believe the Bible texts say it best but, in my experience, I will say that love in marriage is shared and respected emotions, the anthesis of selfishness. I will add respective trust, confidence and comfort.”
Geezer love in all its splendor
Another friend, Lila—who remarried several years ago in her 60’s—offers a seasoned answer to my question. “As for love, especially as a geezer, the most important definition for me is partnership - more than just the ‘for better, for worse’ pledge, but enduring respect and admiration. Love is maintaining a sense of humor, which certainly helps especially ‘at a certain age’, to keep daily life in perspective. Finally, love means that we value each other for the wisdom gained from a lifetime of experience, an irreplaceable gift.”
The celebration of differences but also shared values
Jane, an American playwright who is married to a Czech diplomate fifteen years her senior, has another view of mid-life love. “Looking back on a long marriage, having met later in life (well-armed with knowledge of what doesn’t work), I realize I appreciate our mutually explicit desire for kindness, compassion, humor and acceptance. We’re very different personalities: one extrovert, one not so much. We celebrate our differences, knowing that the values that form our life together are very much in sync.”
My male friends had equally thoughtful takes on the topic of love in their respective marriages. Harvey, my lawyer/spinning pal said it succinctly: “My love relationship now with my wife is more an emotional intimacy than physical.”
Dancing through life with the same partner
Another male perspective came from a long-time friend, Michael, who is still married to his original wife, 30+ years and going strong. “As a marriage matures, Love can feel like dancing. Partners settle into a more comfortable, intuitive rhythm...each sensing when to lead...and when to follow...and when to trade these roles to support each other. When we're really lucky, we get to share countless dances over decades...with our original dance partner.”
A third male friend, architect and activist, Doug, mindfully described love with his wife as follows: “ I think of love looking like these activities that Joan and I do as a couple: Creating conversation banter that is funny and pointless; saying ‘yes’ to one another; embracing and doing what we enjoy together, as well as not doing things together that we don't enjoy; giving before being asked; and letting me own the kitchen and cook dinner alone in our tiny quarters.”
For better or for worse
More than one person referred to the words in their wedding vows: “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” The positive side of the seesaw is the easy part. However, anyone who has experienced the negative side of the equation knows how hard it can be. This is really when your love is tested.
For me, love is the willingness to give generously and graciously without complaining or making it appear to be a sacrifice. If this also happens to be backed up with a strong marriage based on whatever is important to both partners, then the challenging part becomes much easier and a true measure of love.
Give Hallmark a run for their money
So, to wrap-up this exercise, which I hope provoked some thought on the topic, I leave you with one suggestion. Instead of paying Hallmark $5.99 (or more!) for a card with inane prose and a predictable red rose, take a few minutes to compose in writing your own sanguine observations about your spouse. Explain to them why they are uniquely special to you and why life without them—even with their annoying quirks—wouldn’t be the same.