If you write about your life – as a blogger, columnist or memoirist – you sometimes hear the advice, “don’t write breaking news”. Don’t write about an event as it’s happening; hold off until you have even a tiny sliver of time and distance from it. Sometimes this is good advice, but personally I think a real-time letter from the trenches (of heartbreak, of child-rearing, of grief, whatever) is worth a thousand measured pieces written with the cool gaze and steady hand of perspective.
Sometimes, the only way to know what you really think is to write it down.
Recently, Baroness Fiona Shackleton (a divorce lawyer who has represented Prince Charles and Paul McCartney, among others) appeared on the Today programme to make the case that lessons on how to make a marriage work* should be taught in schools.
*It’s a Daily Mail link, sorry – it’s that, The Times or The Telegraph, and the latter two are both paywalled.
And frankly, given the lessons you do have to sit through with the curriculum as it currently stands (I’m looking at you, oxbow lakes), I think Baroness Shackleton’s suggestion is eminently sensible. Most of us will never have to explain the causes of acid rain after Year 9 Geography; most of us will be in a long-term relationship and at least consider marriage at some point.
I’m 28 and have been in a relationship for seven years, and there’s still only a handful of things I absolutely know about love. I’m not the mere baby I was at 21 when we got together and I was nuts about his cheekbones and scathing sense of humour, and we haven’t yet weathered three decades, a handful of traumatic life events, and the relentlessness of raising a kid or two. It’s a long-term relationship in many ways – shared home, shared bills, shared dog, shared friends – but I’m aware that compared to our parents and grandparents, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
My little sister is about to go to university. Her ‘proper’ growing up starts now – living away from your family for the first time recalibrates you as much as any other major life change. She’s going to be living a chrysalis-butterfly cycle for about the next twelve years, growing and stretching and shedding old layers and discovering new ones with every passing month. Almost everything I write, really, is for my teenage self – the advice and wisdom I wish I’d had access to at 17 or 18. But since we can’t physically reach back through time and enlighten our past selves, we have to do the next best thing: pay that wisdom forward.
So, to my sister, and to any other young women and men who happen to stumble across this: buckle up, kids. The end of your teens and your twenties are a never-ending exercise in reinvention. And who you love will play a tremendous part in that.
Kindness is the most important trait in a partner. Without question. Look for the person who’s lovely to animals and children, and who says yes when someone needs a favour. Look for the person who makes you want to be nicer.
Following on from that, if someone puts you in a position where you have to give them the benefit of the doubt over and over again – walk away. Once is alright; learning how to see the best in people is as important as learning not to put up with bullshit. But more than once? Move on.
But finding the right person is just the fucking start. One of the cruellest tricks played on us by fairy tales is, “and they lived happily ever after”. The right person is still a whole other human being you have to accommodate. And human beings are flawed, difficult, needy, irrational, which makes relationships hard, hard work at times. Caitlin Moran wrote an interesting column on this last year, suggesting that your life will only be as good as the partner you share it with. And I’m starting to think that being with the same person for years and years, married or not, is a bit like childbirth – if we told the truth about how difficult it can be, no-one would ever do it.
Your partner’s job will have an impact on you, and yours on them – especially if your work schedules differ wildly. Finding time for romance when one of you has a 9-5 gig and the other works evenings and weekends is an uphill battle. The line, “Sex?! When? Not without a fucking Time Turner!” has been shouted across the flat more times than I care to recall – and no, I’m not saying by whom.
Chemistry is a hard drug. Honestly, if we could bottle the feeling you get when you have pure, humming chemistry with someone – when every exchanged glance is a firework display, when every conversation makes your heart race, when every touch makes you want to dissolve – we’d have a catastrophe on our hands. It’s worse than cocaine or heroin, and like any drug, what people can tolerate varies. Some of us get wasted after every hit, some of us are borderline immune.
Unrequited love – or lust, as is usually more accurate – makes you insufferable. Go with it. Listen to the songs, write the shit poetry, over-analyse the messages, replay the conversations. It is, up to a point, a benign kind of misery. A not-entirely-unpleasant kind of pain. And it passes – it may only take days, it may take the best part of two years – but there does come a point when you look at the person you once lost your mind for and think, “did I really…? What was I on?”
Gwyneth Paltrow was right about one thing, and it wasn’t steaming her vagina: “when two people throw in the towel at the same time, then you break up, but if one person’s saying: ‘come on, we can do this,’ you carry on”.
It’s a cliché because it’s true: once the honeymoon phase is over, love is largely a choice. Choosing to stay when it’s shit, choosing to ignore attention from someone else, choosing to do the right thing when the right thing is the hardest thing in the world. You go through phases when you’re having to actively decide, daily, to stick around. The reason we look at couples in their eighties who’ve been together for 50-60 years and ask, “what’s the secret?” is because we don’t want to accept the obvious: there is no secret. There is no magic formula. You just keep buggering on. And if you’re a hopeless, irredeemable romantic (*coughs*), that may sound a bit depressing – but it’s also empowering, in a strange way. Because it leaves your happy ending in your hands.
The funny thing is, you can write nearly 1200 words about love, and still feel you know nothing at all.