A young woman recently asked me, very sadly, why it is they say that love conquers all – when it clearly doesn’t? Having been suddenly and unexpectedly dumped by her partner of ten years, in a particularly cold-hearted way, she was left wondering whether he’d actually ever truly loved her… and what love was even really about? And this is something I myself have pondered many times throughout the years. We use the word so easily and casually. We attach it to situations that appear to be anything but loving, and to people that we barely know. Maybe love means different things to different people; more likely, we just don’t understand it. Still, her question got me thinking again… and I had an epiphany. The answer was obvious, leading me to wonder why I hadn’t understood it sooner. Love is a committed sense of care, duty, and responsibility for another. Without that, it isn’t love. It might be infatuation, lust, co-dependence or habit/familiarity – but not love. When I reflected upon that young woman’s relationship I recognised that he never behaved as if he had any degree of responsibility for her. He did things for her – sometimes. He told her that he loved her (the last time being the night before he announced that he was breaking up with her), and he used pet names; however, he rarely put her needs before his own and was often more than happy to leave the donkey work to her – despite her begging and pleading for more help. Whatever love meant to him, it did not involve loyalty or genuine concern for her. But, where she was concerned, even when they were going through the roughest of patches she was still willing to be considerate of him – continuing to take him into account, as she’d always done. Sadly, I can see now that most of that didn’t even register with him. You might ask why she chose to stay with him (something she herself is now wondering), and the answer is that she retained that sense of duty and responsibility toward him. She had seriously considered ending the relationship more than once but she didn’t want to leave him in the lurch financially, or render him homeless, or not have access to their pets. She worried about what would happen to him. In the end, he left her in the lurch financially and walked away from the pets without a backward glance (because he’d found a shiny new object to play with, and someone else to put a roof over his head). Even then, he still claimed to love her; however, as I’ve already said, whatever love means to him, it doesn’t involve loyalty or a duty of care and responsibility. The leaving wasn’t the problem. No one should stay in a relationship in which they are unhappy. It was the way in which he left – and it spoke volumes.
Now, when I say duty and responsibility, I don’t mean that a relationship should be treated as if it is something to bear, like an unpleasant but necessary chore. I know that some people do feel resentful about having to be continually supportive of others… but that isn’t what I am talking about here. Think about the person who treats their partner neglectfully for years, without a second thought – until that partner finally reaches the point at which they can take it no longer and leaves. All of a sudden, the neglectful one becomes the sorry one – the one who promises that they’ll change their ways and be the loving, supportive person that they should have been all along. My question is, can genuine care and concern for another be suddenly turned on, like a light? And if so, why was it turned off in the first place? I find this to be one of the most insulting and disrespectful modes of behaviour in a relationship. If a partner’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being was of no concern to us yesterday… how come it is today? And how come we were perfectly content to allow them to feel unsupported and unimportant – until we finally pushed them too far? It is highly manipulative behaviour that has nothing to do with love and more to do with self-interest. We either care about how our partner feels and is coping with life, or we don’t. And again, I am not talking about the kind of relationship in which one half’s emotional issues and neuroses are continuously centre stage, with an expectation of continuous, unconditional support. That kind of behaviour will eventually wear down even the most dedicated partner. It also has to be said that we all take the person we love for granted, every now and then – before ending up recognising what we are doing and sheepishly making amends (even if we have had to be reminded!). However, where there is a genuine sense of duty and responsibility toward our partner, we’ll never let them fall too far or too hard. Even when we’re angry with them.
I will give you an example. My partner wakes up every morning seething with outrage that the sun has had the audacity to rise. He is not a morning person, to say the least, and it takes him a while to ‘come round’. I have learned to expect and accept it, and just give him time to thaw out. Recently, however, he had a little rant that really irritated me because it was aimed at me, and was about something that he himself also does (failing to refill the kettle after using it). So, I leaned over the bannister and made it clear that I wasn’t impressed, and we had a row. I decided to just get dressed and go straight into my little office and get on with my day’s work, rather than have a cup of tea with him first, like I usually do. About thirty minutes later he tapped on the door and handed me a mug, commenting on the weather, in a conciliatory tone. I thanked him and said nothing about the argument because I knew that that was his way of apologising to me. I was still peeved with him, but I appreciated his intention. He has done this kind of thing many times and I know that he genuinely cares about my well-being and safety. Even when he is furious with me. And I am exactly the same. I have harboured feelings of absolute rage toward him – whilst making sure that he has what he needs and is okay. It definitely isn’t always easy but it does always feel like the right thing to do.
So, in answer to the distraught young woman, I would say that love – when supported by a sense of duty and responsibility – can conquer most of the time, if not all of the time. But also, that love probably means different things to different people and is dependent upon circumstance. I think that love needs to mature, rather like cheese or wine. The young cannot be expected to understand the nature of love and the demands it makes upon us; they only know how the idea of it feels (which can be pretty intense). And just because two people have been together for years, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are bound by a mature love and sense of commitment to each other. Sometimes it is more to do with habit, or motivated by the fear of being alone. Love requires awareness, patience, persistence, and sometimes even sacrifice. And it needs to be a joint effort, even if it isn’t 50-50 (60-40 can work, and even 65-35, at a push). The young woman found out that her partner had left her for a shiny someone he thought would make him ‘happy’ (his words) because they’d been going through a difficult patch – a shiny someone who was also in a relationship… and who suddenly decided that she didn’t want to upend her own life after all and dropped him like a hot brick. So, not much love there, then. However, the one who was tossed aside as if she was nothing more than a bag of garbage is already rising from the ashes… and is starting to learn how to love and take care of someone again – and this time it’s herself.