Our concept of romantic love is doomed, but there are always fridge magnets
Coping: Parents provide us with skewed expectations about what a partner should be
‘The word partner sounds like a person you might set up an unsuccessful novelty fridge magnet business with’
Not to seem hopeless about it, but there is an extent to which our concept of romantic love is doomed. This occurred to me – and not for the first time – one dark Monday morning around 6am as the first of the autumn cold turned damp in readiness for the sunrise.
I was waiting for a lift to the airport, watching the window panes sweat, while my partner (what a loathsome word; it sounds like a person you might set up an unsuccessful novelty fridge magnet business with, but I challenge you to find a better one) slept peacefully upstairs.
I was heading away on a work-related trip for a couple of days, and he had sworn that he would get up early with me and, I don’t know, see me off, make some tea, get a good run at the day, start the dinner, or whatever other reason people get up unreasonably early. This tableau plays out every time I have to take an early flight. Each time I wake him to say “Bye, I’m leaving now” and he jolts upright in the bed, hair mashed sideways and slightly puffy facial features arranged in an expression of total focus, as though he was somehow been in the middle of something very pressing, and not asleep at all.
I don’t mind a jot that he doesn’t wake up “to see [me] off”’ at 5:30am when I’m only going away for a few days. To wake at that time for that reason strikes me as an act of extreme mania, or at the very least deeply unwise. That is the work of a parent, not a “partner” (loathsome word. The fridge magnets would say something inane like ‘As you get older, a broad mind and narrow waist exchange places!’ and would have an image of a portly but maudlin basset hound, perhaps sitting in a basket of some sort).
In the car on the way to the airport, the breaking gloom of the morning was an insipid blue, and Dublin’s features looked like a landscape painting in a charity shop window, bleached by light and time. There was time to consider that we do hold unreasonable expectations within relationships. It is a discomfiting, emotionally incestuous admission, but in fundamental ways, we base our romantic expectations on the relationship we had with parents. They teach us what love should be. Even those people who had bad parents have instances in memory of feeling safe and important.
This first experience of love is powerful, and does us no favours in terms of preparation for romantic love later on. When you are very small, the parent accepts a one-way relationship. They don’t tell us the extent to which we are a burden to them. They put us to bed, comfort us when we wake in the night without telling us they’d rather be asleep themselves. They anticipate our hunger and prepare our food. They give with no expectation of anything in return, and we absorb all this without question.
Framework for love
As small children, we need this level of care. The problem is that we carry that framework for love into adulthood, and find ourselves feeling we owe our partners that sort of love, or more commonly (because we are flawed and our parents’ love made us selfish), that we deserve it from them. We want to feel that our needs are never a burden, or indeed that they “should just know” what we want or need without our having to say it. We want unbridled giving, pre-emptive empathy, and all the while a sense of being central to their lives.
The alternative to demanding parental love from a partner is admitting a fundamentally terrifying truth; that we are alone, really. That we will never feel as loved and secure as we did as infants, and rather than being the model of love itself, parental affection is just one form of love. It is also a form of necessary martyrdom. We would be selfish to expect it in our partners. Even our parent (hopefully) had someone to complain to about the challenges of selfless love and care. Being egotists, we presumed that seemingly living for us gave them nothing to complain about. So my partner (loathsome word), should get his sleep, and I’ll bring him back a fridge magnet.