The seven ages of love: 40s
Friday 26 September 2008
"Spring is in the air
There's magic everywhere
When you're young and in love.
Life seems to be
A world of fantasy
When you're young and in love."
(The Marvellettes, 1967)
Marvellous. Thanks Marvellettes. Sadly, your follow-up, "When You're Getting On a Bit and in Love", didn't do quite so well but, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, no one, it seems, knows what to talk about when we talk about love that has past its first flush.
Want evidence? Type "Love in your forties" into Google. Sift through the tips on how to have babies, keep fit or "attract and pick up women". What you will not find is anything resembling honest information-sharing or value-comparing on the subject of what love means and how it is supposed to feel for people at this stage of life.
And if you're old enough to care, then you're also old enough to remember another of pop's great works on the subject: Howard Jones's "What is Love?" with its straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matters lyric, "What is love anyway?/ Does anybody love anybody anyway?" What's the point here exactly? Well, the point is that while young love is well-documented, culture's references to mid-life love sadly seem to begin and end with one word: D I V O R C E. The young 'uns get all the heady and intoxicating romance. The oldies get wistful TV shows starring Penelope Keith, Richard Wilson or Wendy Craig, but beyond the drama of relationships breaking down it's difficult to cite a single item of major cultural impact that features people in their mid-forties in what we, for want of a less-loaded word, still call love.
And this lack of attention to mid-life relationship details is not confined to popular culture. When a man first meets a woman you can't stop him talking about her. When things break down, even more so. But their time in between? You'll be lucky to get more than a "Fine, thanks," should you enquire after the woman's welfare. And yet it is in this grey area between romance and break-up that we fortysomethings generally reside.
So what about me? Well, there have been a handful of serious relationships, any number of trivial ones, and I currently find myself engaged to be married at an undetermined date in the not-too-distant future. I'm a late starter, yes, but a combination of bad luck, poor judgment and the inevitable heartbreaking blows find me here, for perhaps the first time, ready to settle down and commit to a mature and loving relationship built on mutual understanding and a willingness to share every aspect of life in that unending quest for the elusive happy ever after.
As if. In reality, the fact that I have been dating longer than most and seen more relationships crumble to dust than the next man has merely served to show me that we are stamped with our behavioural patterns as indelibly as we are our DNA. We can learn to be better lovers, we can become more compassionate and understanding life partners, and we can strive to keep a belief in the value of love (a thing that is, in essence, as simple and pure as it seemed when we were children). But the moment a wrong button is pressed, we will still go and sulk in a corner exactly as we did when we first started tentatively "going out" with friends who happened to be girls.
Because no matter how hard you try to hold on to the idea that love is the only thing left in the world worth believing in the one guiding light you need and a spiritual force to be reckoned with reality is hell-bent on teasing, testing and taunting such notions into submission. And when fairy-tale notions of romance are removed, what are we left with? Is love as pragmatic as two people deciding to support each other until one of them dies? Is love a higher plain that we can ascend to via a combination of behavioural insight and tantric knowledge? Or is love, to return to the lyrics of a popular song, nothing more than "a simple prop" to occupy our time?
There are no easy answers. While countless meaningless surveys compare life expectancy between single and married folk, science has still not found a way to measure happiness. Had I, at 18, chosen to stay with my first girlfriend, would I have been a more content and less neurotic and questioning person? Who can say? Maybe it has just taken me an exceedingly long time to work out what other people instinctively understand: that love can never be perfect; that you choose your partner as best you can and then strive to make the most of that decision. Irresistible to women that one, I'm sure.
The comedian Tim Minchin includes a song in his current stand-up routine called "If I Didn't Have You (Someone Else Would Do)". Its brutal humour masks the fact that Minchin has been married to his childhood sweetheart for half of his life. The song points out the improbability of fate leading him to his perfect and unique life partner at 17 years old at a university in Perth. After he has played the song, Minchin tells us that, luckily, his wife has a pretty twisted sense of humour of her own. When I told my partner that I was thinking of quoting the song in this piece she said, "How romantic". And yet sometimes, it's exactly when you allow the scales of myth and wishful thinking to fall from your eyes, that you get to see things as they really are. And maybe, just maybe, that's what needs to occur to allow us mid-lifers to forge and maintain meaningful bonds of love. That, and a twisted sense of humour.
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