Archive for September 22nd, 2009

Tell Me the Truth About Love

teddybearsWhen her readers ask her if they’ll ever be lucky in love, advice columnist Bel Mooney tells them to never give up hope. After all, look what happened to her…

‘What’s it like to be married again?’ they keep asking me. ‘Oh, I’m used to it,’ I joke. ‘Being married suits me – it’s all I know.’

What can I say? I wasn’t single for very long, after all. Married for the first time in 1968 at the age of 21, formally separated in 2004, I remarried in September 2007, a month before my sixty-first birthday. And if I say that in marrying Robin, I married my best friend and that we’re ‘a comfortable couple’ (to borrow Dickens’s phrase), I realise it won’t sound very romantic to all those young women who dream of meeting The One. Or, indeed, to those older women who still cherish dreams of romance on Valentine’s Day – even if the realities of their lives don’t measure up to the dreams. Yet they should never give up hope. Hope is what I hold out to all those who write to me for advice at the Daily Mail, and before that at The Times. Love at first sight happens; so does the miracle of knowing that you love an old friend. It’s all possible.

‘Tell me the truth about love,’ Auden implored, and naturally most of the letters I receive ask (in different ways) for the same thing. ‘Why won’t he marry me?’ they ask. ‘Why won’t she make love any more?’ ‘How could he treat me like that after so many years?’ ‘How do you rekindle the spark?’ They turn to me, these strangers who know me through the newspaper, believing that I may have answers to impossible questions. And oh, I do try.

But you know, and I know, that there are no answers; there is no single truth – only the longing and the luck, good or bad. And the timeless universals of the heart. Have you ever pored over an anthology to find love poems and quotations that express your feelings? Or listened miserably to a melancholy song, whispering, ‘I was there’? Have you ever lain next to somebody, hearing that beloved breath in the darkness, and asked yourself, ‘How did I get to be so lucky?’ Or have you ever woken at 4am with a pain so heavy you think for a second that only great handfuls of pills could make it go away?

Have you felt that leap of the heart when you hear his or her key in the door – even after many years? Have you stared blankly at a grey landscape, unable to believe your life and love have slipped away together? Have you ever giggled like a teenager for the sheer delight of the joy that runs through your middle-aged veins? My personal answer to all those is: yes. Oh, yes.

The soundtrack to my youth was full of songs about young love, from the defiant ballad Too Young to Young Love and Only Sixteen. I like to see kids walking hand in hand, talking over and making their plans, staring into each other’s eyes because there is simply nowhere else to be. And it is real, that love – even if it does not last. Not to be patronised or laughed at or dismissed, it may well represent the pinnacle of emotion for those two over there – never to be matched for the rest of their lives. We should celebrate the utter perfection of a moment like that, knowing that, like a sublime sunset, it cannot be sustained. The delirium of first love is no less valid for being grounded in inexperience. We should shower our blessings on new romantic love, for it adds to the struggling joy of the universe.

Yet the sad truth is that contemporary divorce statistics and the serial monogamy of public figures call love into question in the eyes of the more cynical young. Each day fresh evidence slams home the message that love is likely not to last, its parameters drawn by human frailty. It seems to be assumed that a girl must try men on like so many dresses in a Zara changing room, and send them to the charity shop when the fashion changes, or that having irresponsible flings goes with being a bloke. In the face of that onslaught, I do believe it is harder to trust in lasting love today than perhaps at any other time in history.

Once a young girl wrote to me in anguish at the thought that her love would end. Her desperate ‘what if?’ was one aspect of the romantic agony. And of course the single most important thing to understand is that her feelings for her boyfriend will change. They must. None of us will feel exactly the same as we do now – no, not in five, 10, 20 years. Love can remain, yet it must alter with the passing days, hopefully growing deeper through experience, not in spite of it. This is the point at which romance ends. As someone who believes in marriage, and who sees glory in the everyday habits of coupledom, I would advise anybody to let go of romantic dreams – because they doom you to disappointment.

Of course, the ‘what if?’ question takes us beyond young love. Valentine’s Day is about romance, but love and romance are often in conflict. Who hasn’t wondered, even briefly, ‘How do I know this is The One?’ ‘What if there’s someone out there who might make me happier?’ ‘What if we’d have the best sex since the earth first moved?’ ‘What if s/he – the face seen on a train, the man in the next office – is the love of my life?’ Or – horror – what if I had married my first love, and never known the contentment I share with my current partner?’ ‘Is what I have all there is?’ Thus the heart stutters its confusion – and although this may to discontent more often than happiness, I honestly can’t find it in my heart to condemn it. For better or for worse, it’s how we are.

I tell the ones who are lonely and full of longing never to give up hope. Two years ago I wrote to a single man in his fifties who didn’t know where to meet ladies, advising him to do three things: (1) get a new haircut and some up-to-the-minute clothes, (2) start using face cream, (3) get out and about and do new things. It was wonderful when he got back in touch to say he’d done all three, started dance classes and finally met ‘somebody a bit special.’ Hooray!

Perhaps the most moving aspect of my own experience is that lasting love can take many forms and even survive divorce. On Valentine’s night I shall drink Champagne with my new love, my husband, my friend. But 40 years ago I drew a funny Valentine card for the man I would marry a week later, giving him my heart after knowing him three months.

We lasted 35 years, and yet, you know, he will never not have my heart. For I have come to understand this miracle – that some loves discover their true greatness when they appear to be over. So a marriage may finish with sorrow, yet the love that sustained it can survive its ending. Who would have thought it? I offer my experience as part of the mystery. And to prove a point I often make: that until we die, the best ‘what if?’ is an endless opening of the heart to possibility.


Month at a Glance

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