Recently, I was talking to a woman whose relationship is in crisis. She wants three children. Her boyfriend wants none. What should she do? I asked her why, if she knows so clearly what she wants, she was choosing a situation that makes it an impossibility. ‘I love him,’ she said. ‘He loves me too,’ she added defensively. ‘He tells me all the time.’ ‘But if he can’t give you what you want and you demand of him what he can’t give, where’s the love?’ I asked. ‘I love him,’ she said again, as if she was speaking to somebody particularly dim-witted.
Dim-witted I may be, but I have always felt that if love is blind, then refusing to understand what love really means is blinder still. Love is an action, not an intention. Whenever my husband says to me, ‘Is there anything I can do for you, darling?’ I think there is no finer phrase in the English language, just as I think a cup of tea appearing unbidden at my desk when I am wretched with work is an act of intimacy. It is as much love in action as running to the help of a friend who needs attention is love in full flight.
My closest friend is particularly good at it. If I call her to tell her I’m in emotional meltdown, she turns up on my doorstep and takes me in her arms in a consoling hug. Just the other day, when life seemed particularly complicated, a text flashed up from another friend. ‘Thinking of you.’ It was small in gesture but large in affection and, immediately, the world seemed better.
We love the idea of love but few of us do it well. The heart of love is in the giving rather than in the saying. For me, the words ‘I love you’ can sometimes be as meaningless as the word ‘sorry’. Unless we are truly sorry enough to put that word into action by changing our behaviour or we show somebody how much we love them by our actions rather than our words, neither seems to me to be of much value. Sometimes I think the phrase ‘I love you’ is no more than a get-out-of-jail-free card. In other words, I love you so just shut up about my obvious lack of commitment, my inability to anticipate your needs, my failure to give you my full attention. I’ve told you I love you so you can’t ask for anything more.
When I was younger, I had a boyfriend who told me, every day, how much he loved me. And, every day, he found fault with me. I was so naïve and flattered by the ‘I love you’ part that it took me a while to put the pieces together and discover they didn’t fit. Eventually, I asked him how he could love me when he disapproved of almost everything I did. He looked at me, bemused. ‘Because I do,’ he said.
Instinctively I knew it wasn’t true, that it couldn’t be true, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood he didn’t really love me at all. He wanted to possess me and love was the language he used. Love is not a given, nor should it be an expectation, just as it does not need any loud or extravagant declaration. It is a gift, small, precious and intimate; a text from a friend, a spontaneous hug from my husband, a kiss from my child. I hold those fleeting moments in my innermost memory. They make me feel cherished in a way that fleeting passions never do. Cherished: it’s such a good old-fashioned word and, for me at least, is what love is all about.
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