Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lessons in Love Learned The Hard Way

I am not cynical about Valentine’s Day. Yes, yes- it is shamelessly exploited to boost retail revenue and often sullied with sentimentality and a rather narrow notion of love. But, having said that, if we use our heads surely we can use this day to celebrate and express our hearts. I mean- how could remembering and expressing love be a bad thing? What could possibly go wrong?

In the interest of full disclosure let me say- I have had a less than heart-warming history with V Day. And, as more than one wasband would be all too happy to testify, intimate relationships may not be my forte. So, this blog is less stellar insight than contemplative review highlighting a few lessons learned the hard way.

There were, of course, the early years- the years when my mother insisted that I give one of those cute animal-holding-a-heart cards to every other child in my class so no one would feel left out. Where was the meaning, the honesty, in sending Tommy Robinson- the dark-haired, wild-eyed, pint-sized hooligan who regularly mowed me over on the playground- a card declaring I wanted to make him “My Valentine?” First lesson: Coerced expressions of affection don’t mean much. (But of course coercion is not always so easy to spot, even in ourselves.)

Then came the complicated years- the years of young love- the years of waiting and hoping that the boy-man in my physics or math class (yes, I went for the nerds) would somehow intuit the passionate relationship we were having in my daydreams and declare his love for me. In later years- when there were actual dates, relationships and some awkward but surprisingly satisfying sexual encounters- I unconsciously adhered to the he-should-know-what-I-want folly. Somewhat understandably the “he” in question, no doubt terrified by the pressure to get-it-right without any hint from me, often ignored the day altogether. Second lesson: Don’t expect others to read your mind. If you’d like something, ask.

In my defence, I was never one of those women who thought V Day was a one-way street. I put considerable time, energy and thought into offering some tangible and poetic (yes, long poems were written) demonstration of my affection for the young man in question. It took a lot of years to figure out that I was giving what I wanted to receive and not necessarily what the other desired. Lesson three: Do not assume the other wants you to do for them what you would like them to do for you. When in doubt (again) -ask!

My worst Valentine’s Day came six weeks after my marriage to my sons’ father ended. In our decade together he had never given me flowers for any occasion, and I was okay with that. Hence my shock when I opened the door to a delivery of long-stemmed roses after we’d separated. I burst into tears. I think in that moment I recognized that we had underestimated the power of small symbolic gestures to keep the fires of intimacy alive (or at least remembered,) particularly during those exhausting years with small children. The roses carried the scent of too-little-too-late.  I was overwhelmed with grief for what had been lost. Lesson four: Never underestimate the power of small gestures to help bridge the times when life’s challenges may dampen passion's spontaneous combustion.

Fast forward fifteen years:  I was an older, wiser woman. I did not hope or hint or imagine that someone should just “know” my preferences. I spoke up, invited discussion, listened, expressed what mattered to me and what didn’t. My then-love now-ex was surprisingly enthused about Valentine’s Day- said he wanted to celebrate it, use it as a chance to do Something Big, wanted us both to surprise the other. So, what the heck, I agreed. I planned a weekend away at a hotel. I arranged a massage for him and bought him the noise-canceling headphones he’d been lusting after. And I wasn’t coy- while the gift was a surprise, I’d told him about the get-away plans. Mid-week, aware that planning was not his forte and not wanting to set either one of us up for disappointment, I gently reminded him that The Weekend was coming up. He smiled, nodded knowingly, and in his best conspiratorial voice said, “Oh, you just wait. I have a few very big surprises planned.”

Three days later I found a card (he’d misplaced the envelop) on the hotel bed, signed sparingly, “Happy V Day.” That was it. As predicted I was indeed surprised- although baffled might be a more accurate word. When I later asked, “Ah. . . . was the card the Big Surprise?” he got angry and shouted, “Yes, and don’t you dare ruin this weekend by being disappointed!” So, I wasn't- or at least I tried very hard not to be.

If he had said from the beginning that he didn’t want to do anything for V Day, I’d have been okay with it. But, he’d done what he was about to do countless times during the decade we were together: he’d said what he thought I wanted to hear and then, angry that he'd agreed to something he didn't want (and, incidentally had never been asked) to do, set us both up by not doing what he had said he would. Lesson number five (which took me a decade to really get): When someone shows you who they are and how they live their life, believe them.

Is it any wonder that I feel no angst and some relief to be approaching Valentine’s Day single?

The truth is that being uncoupled has made me more able to express my appreciation for all the places in my life where love is given and received. Free from the mine-field (or is that mind-field?) of hopes or promises (mine or another’s) I am able to let those who love me know how much I appreciate and love them. No disappointment, just continual delight in what is. While I have not padlocked my door to romantic relationship, I think I will from this point on- whether single or coupled- see Valentine’s Day as a celebration of all forms of love and intimacy with self, others, and the world.

Final lesson: Love is precious and life-sustaining. Don’t quibble. Celebrate it wherever and whenever you can- even on Valentine’s Day.

Oriah (c) 2013


  1. As always,thank you for sharing lessons painfully learned so honestly, my dear friend!

    1. Thanks Val. We still need to arrange that tea time! :-)

  2. Thank you for sharing Oriah. I especially liked Lesson #5 as I have struggled with believing my partner's way of life although it's been shown to me many times. I am coming to a place of acceptance about it and even finding ways to honor it. I have mixed emotions about V-Day, as I also get upset at the consumerism and marketing of it, turning it into a business. So I tend not to celebrate it with my boyfriend, or at least not ask for anything. But you are right when you say how could a day dedicated to love be a bad thing? I ended up writing a valentine poem that I'd love to share...

    1. oooo, I was looking for the poem- please do share if you feel it is okay to do so.

      As to consumerism- well, it's what capitalism does with EVERYTHING- and I think we can refuse to allow commercialism to rob us of the meaning we want to make of something. :-)

    2. Here's the poem; it's a bit lengthy for a comment but wasn't sure where else to post it.. enjoy and thank you for allowing me to share it :)

      My Valentine Prayer

      “Love is the energizing elixir of the universe,
      the cause and effect of all harmonies.” Rumi

      This year,
      I do not wish you bouquets of roses
      Boxes of chocolate with a card
      Or gifts wrapped up and tied with a bow.
      I do not wish you an expensive dinner
      Paired with the perfect wine
      Or stuffed teddy bears.

      This year I wish you
      A love that breaks you open
      And crumbles your illusions
      That you may finally see
      The light of God within
      That’s been waiting, all along
      To cradle you.
      I wish you a love, relentless
      In its desire to heal you
      And transform your wounds
      Into wings.
      May you invite in the love
      That uncurls your fists
      And turns them into an offering
      Of forgiveness
      For all the ways
      You have abandoned yourself.
      Become the spaciousness
      Through which love enters
      And surrender all the resistance
      You hold on to in vain.
      May love move into the places in you
      Where fear resides
      And linger,
      For as long as it takes
      To dissolve your unease
      And find your fearlessness.
      Like seeds in the soil
      Prayerfully plant your broken hearts
      Your stories of sorrow,
      And wait for harvest –
      Love is fertile ground for renewal.

      This year,
      May you stop chasing for love
      And come to learn
      It is not something to be found
      But rather,
      To embody.

      Anokina S.

  3. Your lesson # 5 took me even more than twenty years to really get. By now, for me it is crucial when starting a new relationship to see and accept reality. Thanks for reminding!

    1. Yes, #5 would be the Big Challenge- and the final lesson is the Big Reward :-)

  4. Thank you for a real account of Valentine's Day instead of the 'must be happy and part of it or else you're insignificant' which is the message 'out there'.


    1. Ruby- maybe we can start listening to the messages "in here" (pointing to chest) instead (particularly with a name like Starheart! :-) )

  5. Thank you once again for another heartfelt message. As I approach 50, I become increasingly aware that the decision or destination to be uncoupled is an opportunity, not a burden. This morning I woke up with my "partner," an 8 pound female rescue dog, and was reminded that for us, every day is Valentine's day. Susanne

  6. Oriah - as always and every single time – spot-on. THANK YOU. Roselle x

  7. Thanks Oriah - wise as always. I usually manage to let Valentines Day pass me by, but it's got to me this year, and I've felt very sad and angry the last few days - sad because of hearing the message that Ruby so accurately nails above, and angry that I've been unable to stop it affecting me and draining my self-belief and self-esteem. The inner messages then get drowned out by the external ones. Most of the time I can believe in myself and affirm my life, but I'm struggling at the moment, very aware of living in a society that doesn't celebrate or support the strength and courage of those who take a solitary path,whether by choice or circumstance.

    1. Anne, I hear you - have felt that way quite a bit during the last few Valentine's. For some reason, this year, I just felt okay with it all, felt like I could make it about any kind of love I wanted and truly didn't feel like it was about being someone's One And Only. Funny how I could not "convince" myself of this in other years and this year. . . . it just was. In other things (like the challenges of chronic illness) I have discovered that I most want others to "get" what I myself am not "getting" about my own limitations/struggles. I wonder if this is similar here- we only stop wanting the culture to support the choice to be single (or at least not posit it as less-than) when we ourselves are thinking/feeling that it is less-than. Just a thought. And sometimes Valentine's just catches us at a difficult time and. . . it hurts.

  8. This is so spot on. Thanks so much for writing and sharing. Hope you don't mind me sharing it with some of my friends that I felt needed to hear exactly this. I look forward to more from you!!

    1. Shesaidso, always happy to have folks share :-)

  9. I'm a firm believer that love has never done anything but be true to itself. i'm always amazed at the bad wrap that love gets. People say things like love is blind, love hurts, love makes you crazy etc. But all love can be is what it is the stories that we wrap around this most precious gift that makes it anything other than what it is. Truth be told, there is never a lack of love, ever. It surrounds us, it's omnipotent, omnipresent and can be tapped into at anytime. The very breath we breathe is love. Also, it can never be distilled to just one person, the stories could make one believe such is true but it is not. To believe that in this great big universe only one person can give us love or take it away for that matter is kind of foolish. I will admit that everyone's journey towards love is unique.
    Have you ever sat in a completly dark room? It is rare that such a room exists because if there is just the slightest of cracks, light will make its way in and darkness has to flee. I see love the same way, a little goes a long way but everything unlike it once exposed must fall away. Self-love will not allow another to strip you of anything within you that is true. So loneliness, hurt, etc. are not a part of love, they are the stories we attach to it.

    1. Hassandra, he love that interests me is the love that manifests in the lives of real human lives- which often does open the door to pain (as it opens the door to loss that matters.) That is not to say I disagree about it being a gift- but it is not a one-sided all-is-bliss gift but a gift that demands much, requires us to feels sorrow and loss and betrayal in a way we never would if we did not love. If it does not open us to feeling more deeply all of what we feel (including the diffiult feelings) I'm not so sure it is love or mere sentimentality.

      It is a very common spiritual theory to say that conditions do not cause pain, but the stories we tell about them are the cause of pain. Again, a good theory- but when I have sat with a woman whose child is dying she is telling no story- she is feeling an animal agony in her gut and chest and it is pain. When we are lied to and betrayed by someone we trusted to be truthful with us (in the name of love) there is often- at least initially no story, no thought- just a raw agony of fire moving through the limbs. This is what it is to be human- to feel it all.

      Spiritualizing it may remove us from the pain we fear but it will also remove us from the fire of deep passion, raw caring and spectacular joy that is part of the human journey.

    2. Oriah, I read your response a few times, waiting for what I knew would come, that sweet spot that joins what we both are saying but just in our own unique way. I agree that love opens us to hurt, opens us to betrayal, grief and opens us to many things unlike itself. To minimize anyone's journey regarding such would be ego driven, not love driven; considering I have experienced all of these things. It is love that has taught me to recognize anything unlike it; a great relationship once I have been in a loveless one, loyal friendship once I have been betrayed, compassion after having experienced judgement, humility after having lived an egotistic reality. So that "fire of deep passion, raw caring and spectacular joy", count me in sister because I am a part of that journey too. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share...your blog, like your books, poetry and living are a blessing.

  10. Yes Oriah, I agree with you - there are times when I'm completely at peace about being single, and then I don't have the desire for affirmation from outside myself and can coast through Valentines Day. Maybe when 14th Feb is approaching I need to spend time with the married friends whose relationships send me home feeling deeply thankful for solitude, rather than those who are true soulmates (: This year I think the issue was that I'm struggling with some practical stuff and then it's all too easy to wish that there was someone to share decisions and difficulties with.

    1. Ah yes- I understand that completely- at times it seems like it would be so much easier to share some of the practical load of life. And then I remember life with my ex- where I carried my half and a good portion of his half of the practical load and I am once again relieved to be on my own :-)

  11. V-DAy . . . 365 days in a Year . . . :)

    1. Well, I think love 365 days a year can't be a bad idea. But, one of the reasons we human beings set aside "special" days is to reset ourselves, to remember what we may have forgotten in the busyness of the daily activity. Then, perhaps we can expand out and make it about love for the week, the month, three months. . . the year. . . our life :-)