By Lucy Cavendish
This time a year ago, I had no idea what was about to happen in my life. I was a single parent with four kids and dating a man I’d met three years previously through mutual friends. The first time we went out on a date, he took me to one of my most secret yet favourite spots in the entire of England for a picnic. I knew then that he was special. We walked and talked and ate hard-boiled eggs and then went in to Oxford for some slightly stale coffee and walnut cake and a cup of tea.
He drove me home that day and, for reasons I can’t remember now, he ended up making fish pie for my children. I saw him in the garden, hoofing a ball around with my youngest son and I thought, “Ok, maybe this could work.”
Two weeks later, I went to Devon to spend the weekend with him. In truth it was because I had nowhere else to go. My former partner – and father of three of my four children – was, at that point, spending every other weekend in my house. We’d decided it was important to keep the children steady in their family home so I agreed to move out every other weekend.
But, by this point (two years on), I had run out of places to go so when this new man asked me if I’d like to meet up again, I basically invited myself to stay. It seems madness now but that was where I was in my life – sort of half-crazy, knitting everything together, struggling to survive, putting on a brave face. I think back on it and wonder what on earth I thought I was doing. I barely knew this man (although I can see now that something in him chimed immediately with something in me). I remember quite clearly calling him when I was close by for directions and he told me he’d meet me at the nearest village. I thought, “well, if this doesn’t go well, I can always drive home or find a local bnb.” I rounded the corner and there he was – smiling, handsome, dark haired, tanned and I noticed how kind he looked.
This will be OK, I thought.
And it was. We got together and were happily rolling along dating each other when, last Christmas, we spent our first Christmas together without my children. I was so preoccupied at the thought of being without them for the first time ever, that I couldn’t really concentrate on what being with him really meant. I didn’t see, at the time, that is was a commitment – me, him, my family, togetherness. I had gone from being Me and the kids to being Me, Him and the kids. People sent Christmas cards to the two of us and I’d open them up, puzzling over the names as if it hadn’t really occurred to me that we were, officially, together. Up until then, our relationship had been rather fluid. We had been together but also spent time apart.
Over the last three years, I have come to realise that this is how love is; complicated, tricky, difficult, painful, honest…horribly, horribly honest. Over the years with him, I began to learn lessons about love from him. Every time we wobbled somehow we would find it in ourselves to dig deeper. I gradually grew to believe that in order to love someone fully, it is important to face up to the pain of it. If there’s no pain – at our age with our Louis Vuitton – then it’s not very honest. We have both had to accept that we are too old not to be set in patterns and changing is difficult.
But, last Christmas. something did change. We sat round the big family table in London together and, once I’d stopped blubbing about my children, my future husband held my hand and we had a great day. For me, it felt like a statement of togetherness as a couple.
So, at some point this year, we decided to cement our relationship and get married. This Christmas, we will be there together saying our vows in front of family and friends and I couldn’t be happier or more moved. I almost can’t believe I am doing it and yet I want to do it more than I have ever wanted to in my entire life.
Yet I was never sure we’d get here. In fact, in the first couple of years after the break-up with the father of some of my children, I was never sure I’d really get anywhere in terms of love and relationships. I dated. I said yes to every man who ever asked me out. I dressed up, got my hair done, put my best foot forwards but somehow, none of it felt right. Some men were obviously still obsessed with their ex-wives/girlfriends, some men were just plain depressed, others didn’t even seem to grasp the basic point that, in order to get a second date, it was pretty essential to look interested in the woman sitting opposite them. There were times when after a disastrous first date listening to all these problems, I felt I should actually just set myself up in a confessional box and let them get on with it. They’d look shocked when, on asking me to go on a date again, I’d politely but firmly turn them down.
There were times when I became depressed. I lay awake at night thinking I was never going to meet anyone. It wasn’t that I particularly needed to meet someone. I had no problem defining myself as a single women. It was just that, somehow along the line, I had assumed I would end up being part of a two. I felt a desperate desire to fall in love again and to be loved and yet no one came up to scratch. I began to think I was being too picky – did it matter that one man called the police ‘the boys in blue” (odd, weird, childish, infantalising) or that another really lovely man told me his favourite holiday destination was Dubai (fake sand, fake everything, not much culture). I tried not to judge people on this but I couldn’t help it. I was never going to fall in love with a man who said, after telling me he’d taken his daughter out shopping, that ‘Billy Barclay’s taken a bit of a bashing.”
So, I knew what love wasn’t but it became very hard for me to define what love was/is. I begun to question whether or not I truly understood it anyway. I knew I loved my children but that’s different. Maternal love is hot-wired, protective, volcanic, all-consuming and passionate but it is about those to whom you have given birth. I wasn’t sure, when I really sat and thought about it, that I had really experienced adult love in all its true forms. I think I’d run away from it in a way. I was kidding myself. I wanted to love and be loved but I didn’t really know what it was.
Yet love is so much part of our lives, our growing up. It’s in our DNA. We expect to be loved, we yearn for it. It never occurs to most of us – when we are young – that we may not find it. Not even that…we may not actually understand what love is at all.
I’d love to be able to define it here on this page now. I’d love to tell you that I know what it means, that I have the formula. I once spent an evening with my friend’s teenage daughter. She was studying the sciences, dead set to give an answer to everything. We talked of love and she told me in the way only an imperious convinced-she-is-right teenager could, that love was nothing more than a scientific fact. She told it was based on pheromones and a law of attraction which scientists could actually track. Then she gave me a formula for it.
I was pretty impressed but it also terrified me. Do young people really think it comes down to a formula?
For I know it doesn’t. Love is like a madness. It turns you inside out. It makes the world more colourful, more fun, more extreme, more painful. It makes you feel in a way that sometimes you don’t want to feel. It is uplifting but it can cast you down in a second.
I have often seen the transformative power of love works its magic. People who have felt they have nothing left, who are depressed beyond all words, whose lives seem hopeless and lost can turn from absolute abject miserableness in to seemingly joyous beings in a matter of weeks. It’s all down to love. My friend, who is a psychotherapist, told me about one client who went from being deeply depressed to hopefully, sweetly optimistic within a month of meeting someone.
“It was incredible,” my friend said. “I really didn’t know how to help her. She was dressing in a dowdy way and could barely look at me until, one session, she came in and she looked utterly different. She was smiling broadly and even her clothes looked different on her.”
My friend – an experienced therapist – could only, in the end, put it down to the fact that her client had met a man. Not just any old man, a good man who cared for her and treated her properly – before this her pattern had been of briefly dating slightly abusive men feeling she deserved no better.
Then she met X and everything changed almost instantaneously. ”It made me look at love through an entirely different lens,” she said. In many ways, love, or the feeling of being loved, embarking on a love affair, seemed more curative than weeks in the chair.
Of course, no one knows how long love will last and we all fear the worst, knowing the terrible scorching pain that happens when it goes wrong, especially if we are the ones who are invested in staying with someone when they have ostensibly fallen out of love with us.
But this is why love is worth it in a way. It’s a gamble and, in many ways, it’s the ultimate gamble. How excruciating is it to expose yourself in such as raw and naked way only to end up being rejected. The question is, can we risk it?
So, this time around, I have. I have never been so emotionally close to anyone. My future husband has somehow exposed in me every flaw, every mess-up, yet also every ounce of joy, happiness and love I possess. So this is how it is. He knows me. And I know him. It has taken time but it is important.
So this is why I am marrying him, not because I want to possess him or be his possession. It’s because I love him and I want to make a commitment to him and I want everyone to know this; that love is amazing, love makes my heart race and it can also seem to make it stop. Love is simply worth it every single time. It just is.