I read a letter to an agony aunt recently from a woman with two children who’d been single for a long time. She’d built up her career, moved house and raised her children to an age where they were fairly self-sufficient. And now she said she wanted love. She wanted a new partner in life. The response from the agony aunt, after congratulating her on how successful she already was, encouraged her to think of love not just in terms of finding a new romantic partner – in her words, if this woman ‘lowered her standards enough, she could find someone in a week’ – but to seek fulfilment in other kinds of love too, through meeting new people and getting involved in new projects, giving something back to the community, and so on. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of response. Most of us want to find a romantic partner in life, and there is a lot of pressure in society to do so. But there are many different kinds of love, and a couple of films I’ve seen recently have made me think about how love changes over time, and about the different bonds people carry through their lives. One is The Theory of Everything, which I found touching and uplifting because although the love between Stephen and Jane changes, it doesn’t disappear. The other is Blue Valentine, another film about a couple whose love changes, but sadly it twists into something unrecognisable, making the whole thing remarkably bleak.
Both films show these young couples on their wedding days, the moment when Disney films would stop rolling the camera. We all expect this one great love will last forever, partly because of all these cultural examples we’re given from such a young age. Blue Valentine is so painful because you can almost see where the cracks in their relationship come from – the pressures of money, and of very different careers, creating a path of broken dreams which chips away at what was so beautiful and genuine. It is summed up best for me in the lyrics of Coming Up Easy by Paolo Nutini: ‘It’s a shame -the way it seems to go / Because now my best friend, my partner in crime / I’m afraid it looks like we’re gonna have to go our separate ways / You see the thing is I love you, I love you, but you see I resent you all the same / And all my other friends they’re just saying you’re slowing me down.’ Sometimes life changes people too much, and changes the dynamic in a relationship more than people can cope with, without it being anybody’s fault.
Both films are difficult to watch because these couples get together in difficult circumstances, surmounting the odds, and then you watch how life gets in the way of what was so hopeful. But it doesn’t have to end with such bitterness and anger as in Blue Valentine. I really liked how The Theory of Everything was marketed as a love story, even though they aren’t still together. It is still a love story – at the end of the film they do still love each other, just in a different way. Even though a relationship which looked so picture perfect at the start, despite all the problems they faced, didn’t end up lasting until the end, their relationship didn’t die. It’s the saddest thing when you see couples who have been together for years begin to hate the person that they shared so much with.
The most painful bit for me of ending relationships has been not just losing a partner, but losing a best friend. Someone you’ve spoken to every day for years is suddenly cut off from you, for months at least, or forever if you can’t manage to change into a friendship. If you can achieve that change, it must produce some wonderful love. Often the love between friends is the strongest, I think – it doesn’t have any of the extra pressures of family love or romantic love, which is probably why it lasts so long in many people’s lives. I have a friend today I’ve had my entire life, and although our lives have gone in wildly different directions, seeing each other is the same as it’s always been. I have other friends from university who, true to the cliché that you make best friends at university, I am very close to – again, sometimes without seeing them for months at a time. In the last year or so, I’ve had the enormous joy of making a lot of brand new friends, either from being back at university, or from dancing, or from the sheer luck of moving in with strangers who turn out to feel like new brothers and sisters (without the constant piss-taking I actually get from my brothers whenever I see them). Making friends as you get older is like getting unexpected presents. Unlike with trying to find a partner in life, you don’t go out seeking new friends. Text and email conversations are tears-of-relief-inducing in their uncomplicatedness, and getting to know people is just sheer enjoyment. And suddenly you find that you have a whole extra batch of people sending you messages of support when they know you’re having a tough time, and to plan trips and fun and games with. I love it.
To borrow from a third film I’ve seen recently, Birdman: What do we talk about, when we talk about love? I think in some ways it’s silly that we only have one word covering such a range of emotions and connections, particularly as it is so often hijacked to only mean romance and Valentines’ Day (FYI, email distribution lists, I am going to start unsubscribing from all of you who keep trying to peddle expensive Valentines’ Day crap at me three times a day. LEAVE ME ALONE). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to find a partner, and it is something I want too, being a bit of a romantic – albeit one becoming steadily more cynical at the bizarreness of dating. But what those two films, Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything, made me realise is that love isn’t static, it changes and adapts and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep it the way it was at the beginning – and that doesn’t have to be as depressing as it sounds. And through it all, keep those friends who know you well enough to give you the things you want and need without you having to ask, and the people who you’re still as close to after months apart as you are when you see each other every week. I will leave you with some excellent advice I read recently (yes, on Pinterest. It’s a gold mine of inspirational life quotes): “If you gotta force it, just leave it alone. Relationships, friendships, ponytails… Just leave it.” Thank you, Reyna Biddy, whoever you are.