An Open Love Letter
Well, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day again, but instead of my usual post/re-post love letter to single people, I thought I’d do something a little different. I’m fortunate to have several wonderful kids in my life (the children of long-time friends and beloved cousins), and over Christmas two of them told me they had girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. I remember my first crush, RR, in kindergarten and even though I didn’t really know what the terms “crush,” “girlfriend,” or “boyfriend” meant,* I knew that they had something to do with another term: love. I’ve only recently come to a place where I feel like I understand fully what that word means, and it’s not what I thought it meant at 6 years old. Or, I should say, it’s not as narrow as I thought back then. As a non-parent grown-up friend, I wanted to write a letter to my younger friends that I wish a grown-up had written to me when I was younger. SO Cora, Jane, Eli, Bridget, Nathan, Braden, Matt, Johanna, Eve, Aubrey, Tesla, Alivia, Daniel, Makinley, Roark, and Mallory: Here’s what I’d like you (and any future kids I have) to know about love.
When I was little, I thought that I would get married at 22 and start having babies shortly thereafter. My parents were 21 and 22 when they said “I do,” as were several of their friends and siblings, and pretty much all the adults in my life, at least in my earliest memories of them, were married. It seemed logical when I was six: you meet someone in your late teens or early 20s, date for a couple of years, and get married right after you graduate college. I have friends who similarly thought that’s what you did, because the only examples we had––our parents––all pretty much followed that path. But as I got a little older, I started re-thinking this plan.
I didn’t date much in high school (or college, for that matter) and the people I did date weren’t right for me. Or at least we’d be wrong for each other as the people we’ve become now. And, to be quite honest, sometime during college I came to the realization that I didn’t want to be married at 22. I wanted to move to New York City and have lots of adventures, dating and otherwise. Marriage, while wonderful, would have made that much more difficult. More importantly, I never believed that finding a romantic partner would fix everything; I’d rather learn how to do basic maintenance on my car or home myself than rely on finding someone who is good at these things.
I hope it’s changed by the time you’re in your twenties, but I’m afraid it probably won’t be much different: your friends will likely start getting married shortly after high school or college. Marriage is contagious, and in the Midwest it almost feels like “grab a partner, tie the knot”** when you hit your mid-twenties, because if you aren’t married (or close to marriage) by 25 or at the very latest 30, there’s clearly something wrong with you.*** When I moved to New York, though, I found out that this wasn’t true. On the coasts, people look at you weird if you are married before 30; no one is in a rush. So, as one by one of my Midwestern friends paired off, my New York friends and I did other things. I really feel like this time to explore and discover who I am was invaluable to my growth, and I wouldn’t have wanted to commit to someone else without fully knowing who I am independent of a spouse.
This isn’t to say that the people who ended up with someone in their twenties are incompatible or poorly-matched (although some might be); my parents are very much in love and have been happily married for nearly 40 years. Nor am I suggesting that waiting until you’re older to get married is better across the board. The sad fact is there is no formula. I’m just trying to point out that you can find a lot of examples of people getting married in their twenties, and less and less who got married later (or remained happily single), but that doesn’t mean one scenario is better or more right than the other. I’ve encountered numerous twenty-somethings who already have a divorce or two to their names and I can tell you I never once envied them.
If you are someone who figures out who you are early AND you’re lucky enough to find a compatible partner AND you decide to get married young (AND I’m invited to the wedding), I will hug you both, toast your happiness, and take over the dance floor, just as I do at every wedding I attend. Please, please don’t be a snob*** about it, though, and please know that isn’t the only option. You don’t have to do what your parents did; there are infinite paths to happiness. And the person you think you love at 18 (or even 28) might not be the one you love forever.
I also hope that you realize you are loved no matter what your relationship status is. Romantic love is amazing–truly–and there’s a reason why people write so many songs, books, poems, movie scripts, and journal scratchings about romantic love. Nothing quite compares. But love itself has many forms and I hope you don’t fall into the trap that I did in my mid-to-late-twenties of focusing on only one kind of love and, when I didn’t find it, feeling like a failure. After my most recent experience with romantic love didn’t pan out and I moped about being unloved, my wise friend RN reminded me, “You’re plenty loved.” I am. And you are, too. Because there are lots of ways to experience love: as a sibling, as a son or daughter, as a niece or nephew, aunt/uncle, parent, grandchild, cousin, roommate, classmate, coworker, teacher, student, friend.***** I’ve loved people I’ve barely known because of some experience we’ve shared, and I’ve loved people in a moment, even if it’s just for that moment.
Whatever you do, above all, love yourself. You are lovable, you deserve love, and love will find you if you keep yourself open to it coming in a different form than you expect. And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love you make.******
*I’m still not completely sure what these words mean to me, and it changes with each relationship, but I have a much better idea now.
**Incidentally, “Grab a partner, tie the knot” is one of the most famous square-dancing songs. Grab a partner / tie the knot / iron your shirts / the press is hot, / sashay to the left / then doe-si-doe / storm’s a comin’ / so away we go…Actually, that’s not true. I made that up.
***Someone made a comment to me a few years ago about a guy who was “still single,” giving that as a reason that there was something terribly wrong with him. I pointed out that I’m still single and don’t have any more flaws than the average person, but I didn’t point out that I had no interest in the type of marriage the person I was talking to was in, nor did I think she is a better person than I am because someone wanted to marry her when they were in their twenties. I may be “still single,” but at least I have manners.****
****And a blog to anonymously call that person out in a mildly snarky way. Well, no one’s perfect.
*****To be called a friend is perhaps the greatest compliment, because of all those relationships, this is the one that is mutually chosen. Look for a romantic partner who is also a friend; if you can stand to be stuck in an elevator for an entire day with that person and not get bored, you’ve got it made. Oh, and please don’t marry anyone, at any age, because you think you’re “supposed to.” That is probably the worst reason to enter any relationship.*******
******The Beatles may have been young (Paul was 27 when he wrote that), but they knew what they were talking about.
*******It’s also the worst reason to have kids, but that’s another post for another day.