National Post

Page URL:

February 14, 2001

The long and winding road

Donna Laframboise
National Post

In 1967, the Beatles recorded their hit single, All You Need Is Love. Soon afterward, it claimed the No. 1 spot on music charts in Britain, the United States and Canada -- as well as in non-English speaking countries such as Denmark, Israel, Poland, Spain and West Germany.

More than 30 years later, young people still find All You Need Is Love infectious. But in a society in which four out of 10 marriages end in divorce, and in which men and women often have little good to say about each other, it's worth wondering whether such lighthearted anthems, in tandem with Hallmark holidays, have led us astray.

I admit it, I celebrate Valentine's Day with gusto. Flowers, chocolates, intimate dinners -- I'm into them all. But begging the pardon of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and legions of nameless greeting card authors, love is not all you need. Neither is love, as the song claims, "easy."

June Callwood, who herself has been married for 57 years, recently declared in these pages that the perfect mate doesn't exist. Forget about Prince Charming, she advises her grand-daughters. Instead, she offers them a straightforward formula for romantic success. First, don't expect your relationship to be friction-free, since it's unrealistic to think two people will always agree on everything. Second, "discord over trivia is not evidence of a mismatch," but proof you're in a perfectly normal relationship in the real world.

In other words, long-term romances require more than starry-eyed pronouncements of undying affection. What Ms. Callwood calls the "temporary insanity that accompanies courtship" might get you through the first year, but keeping a relationship going over decades requires more than love.

Which perhaps explains why North Americans are so bad at this. Lulled into believing warm and fuzzy is enough, we seem to think long-term commitment should be as easy to obtain as fast food at a drive-through window. But the things that sustain the long-lasting relationships for which most people yearn are old-fashioned virtues such as compromise, forbearance, generosity, kindness and loyalty.

Every romantic partner has flaws. The difference between people who stay together and those who don't is the degree to which the partners are charitable and generous toward one another, to which they recognize and emphasize the positive rather than harping on the negative.

(Which means women who bad-mouth their husbands should put a sock in it rather than rattling off his shortcomings to the person behind them in the supermarket check-out line as though this were some kind of female bonding ritual.)

Everyone's life goes through difficult phases. Money problems, raising children, employment difficulties and ageing parents can all place enormous stress on relationships. The marriages that survive are characterized by everyday acts of kindness, by faith that good times will inevitably follow bad. Indeed, people who've been together for three or more decades often talk about how they went through a rough patch when the kids were young and how, 15 or so years later, they hit more turbulence. They also talk about how pleased they are, now, that they didn't head for the escape hatches during those times of trouble.

Those people aren't less prone to feelings of dejection or under-appreciation than the rest of us. They didn't get up every morning and take a pill that gave them a deeper capacity for compromise or forbearance. Rather, they're spending their autumn years with someone who was with them through it all, mending their wounds and sharing their triumphs, because they persevered. They remained loyal. When times got tough, they kept their eye on the big picture.

Not all matches are made in Heaven, of course. Some couples clearly don't belong together, and some people are repeatedly attracted to the most inappropriate partners imaginable. (Which means that, if everyone you know thinks he's a worthless loser, you should probably pay attention before you marry him.) But many marriage counsellors believe most relationships are worth saving. And these counsellors, too, would quibble with the Beatles.

Love, they would say, is rarely enough in itself -- especially not the milquetoast, air-brushed version we get fed by pop culture. Love that endures is fierce, steadfast, patient, kind and forgiving.

It's not glamorous, and it's certainly not easy, but it's what works. Happy Valentine's.

Copyright © 2001 National Post Online