Parenthood - Season 4

The bad news is, we have to wait until July before we can hold Heather Havrileksy’s How to Be a Person in the World in our sweaty hands. The good news is, the Ask Polly columnist wrote an article for The Cut this week about “What Romance Really Means After 10 Years of Marriage”, which easily tops the list of this year’s Valentines-related reading. In prime fashion, Heather debunks a few of our culture’s most destructive illusions about long-term romantic relationships (short of the Soulmate Myth). But it’s not just for married folks. It’s for all of us who’ve ever bought into the photo-shopped notion that romance equals euphoria, or blissful self-fulfillment, or nonstop infatuation, that anything other (notice I didn’t say “less”) is not the real thing. It’s also for anyone who’s ever projected that notion onto the almighty.

Heather finds such rom-com definitions supremely lacking (part and parcel of a wider juvenilization) and has the gall to insist that there’s something deeper and more romantic that happens in a marriage-with-a-capital-M, i.e., once the final “Yes” has been said and proving AKA law can finally be laid to rest (in theory). Once the sweatpants come out, you might say. We’re not talking about “vulnerability” so much as reality.

Some would say she’s simply describing intimacy, but to my ears it sounds a lot like grace, and maybe that’s not a coincidence. It reminds me of a de-glamourized/-dramatized version of Walker Percy’s famous aphorism, “We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their face away.” Substitute “worst of us” for “most mundanely unattractive parts of us”, and multiply it by a factor of years, and you’re close to what Heather is on about. It won’t sell movie tickets, but it is beautiful. More than that, it’s true. Happy Valentine’s Day:

xkcd_velentines_dayAfter a decade of marriage, if things go well, you don’t need any more proof [that he/she loves you]. What you have instead — and what I would argue is the most deeply romantic thing of all — is this palpable, reassuring sense that it’s okay to be a human being. Because until you feel absolutely sure that you won’t eventually be abandoned, it’s maybe not 100 percent clear that any other human mortal can tolerate another human mortal. The smells. The sounds. The repetitive fixations on the same dumb shit, over and over. Even as you develop a kind of a resigned glaze of oh, this again in, say, marital years one through five, you also feel faintly unnerved by your own terrible mortal humanness…

Now I’m going to tell you my most romantic story of all. I was very sick out of the blue with some form of dysentery. It hit overnight. I got up to go to the bathroom, and I fainted on the way and cracked my ribs on the side of the bathtub. My husband discovered me there, passed out, in a scene that … well, imagine what would happen if you let Todd Solondz direct an episode of Game of Thrones. Think about what that might look like…

My husband was not happy about this scene. But he handled it without complaint. That is the very definition of romantic: not only not being made to feel crappy about things that are clearly out of your control, but being quietly cared for by someone who can shut up and do what needs to be done under duress…

slide_206332_640226_free

Now let’s tackle something even darker and more unpleasant, the seeming antithesis of our modern notion of romance: Someone is dying in their own bed, and someone’s spouse is sitting at the bedside, holding the dying person’s hand, and also handling all kinds of unspeakable things that people who aren’t drowning in gigantic piles of cash sometimes have to handle all by themselves. To me, that’s romance. Romance is surviving and then not surviving anymore, without being ashamed of any of it. Because survival is ugly. Survival means sometimes smelling and sounding the wrong way…

True romance, though, is more like the movie True Romance: Two deluded, lazy people face a bewildering sea of filth and blood and gore together, but they make it through somehow, some way, without losing their minds completely…

So don’t let anyone tell you that marriage is comfortable and comforting but not romantic. Don’t let anyone tell you that living and dying together is some sad dance of codependent resignation. Our dumb culture tricks us into believing that romance is the suspense of not knowing whether someone loves you or not yet, the suspense of wanting to have sex but not being able to yet, the suspense of wanting all problems and puzzles to be solved by one person, without knowing if they have any time or affinity for your particular puzzles yet. We think romance is a mystery in which you add up clues that you will be loved. Romance must be carefully staged and art-directed, so everyone looks better than they usually do and seems sexier and better than they actually are, so the suspense can remain intact.

You are not better than you are, though, and neither is your partner. That’s romance. Laughing at how beaten-down you sometimes are, in your tireless quest to survive, is romance. It’s sexy to feel less than totally sexy and still feel like you’re sexy to one person, no matter what.