This is a featured post. I’ve been following Natasha Lunn‘s bi-monthly email newsletters on Conversations on Love for a few months now, and cannot express how wonderful and insightful I find them. The newsletter below is the most recent one that popped into my inbox and I just knew I had to feature it here! (With her express permission of course!)
My mum’s cousin lost her husband recently. And around the kitchen table, a few weekends ago, I read the order of service from his funeral. It was beautiful. His life was so very full of great plans and great love and enduring curiosity. The part that made me cry was when he said that loving his wife, who he had loved almost instantly, was the easiest thing that he had ever had to do.
Is love ever easy? I think the obvious truth is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, but when it is, we must do our very best to enjoy the lightness of its calmer waters. There are times in my life when I have found love to be a very heavy task. And now, as I start to think about what marriage means to me, in some ways I am mentally plotting ways to sidestep potential blips and missteps, to avoid the sharp pang of misunderstandings or the dull ache of distance growing between you and someone you love that’s barely noticeable until it’s all you can notice. I know that one day it will be hard; another, it might be harder still. But when I read that line in Ken’s order of service I made a silent pact to do my very best to enjoy the lightness and easiness of love whenever it feels that way.
This week’s guest is someone who also once found love to be the opposite of easy. In her beautiful book, The Art Of Not Falling Apart, Christina Patterson writes about being single for most of her adult life and, at 49, feeling as if her ‘friends in relationships were the grown-ups and I was the child.’ Why is finding someone to share a life with so hard for some and so easy for others? That’s just one question Christina asks in her book, in which, after losing her beloved job at the Independent, she decides to interview people about their ‘failures’ – and how they survive them.
There are many remarkable things about Christina’s story and one of them is this: she fell in love at 51 (she writes in her epilogue: ‘I don’t like books that end in clichés, but it seems churlish not to mention that I found love.’) So we spoke about what she learned from being single, from falling in love, and from all the people she interviewed who have loved and lost and somehow carried on loving. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did…
NL: How did you approach relationships in your thirties and forties?
CP: I spent so much of my life desperate to have a relationship and apparently incapable of having one. It felt as if everyone around me had climbed Everest, and I was floundering around in some bog at the bottom. If I were to sum it up today it would be much simpler than I thought: find someone lovely and be very nice to each other. That never occurred to me; I thought it was all about finding the perfect person and the perfect chemical mix that would produce intimacy and sexual excitement and intellectual stimulus. I just don’t think generally that’s how it works. And also, if you’re thinking ‘I want to be loved,’ well, how about ‘Do you want to love?’ I have learnt that love is absolutely a two way thing. You don’t just ‘get’ loved.
NL: Where do you think your earlier negative feelings around romantic love came from?
CP: I grew up with parents who fell in love at first sight on a hill in Heidelberg. Five months after they met, my father sent my mother a telegram saying ‘marry me’ and she sent one back saying ‘yes’. I thought, okay, so that’s how it’s going to be. And of course it wasn’t. I went through a period of evangelical Christianity when I was younger, which had a huge effect on my emotional development. At University, I met someone and I thought it’d be like [my parents’ relationship], but I was dumped and it broke my heart. After that, I was too terrified to go near men for years. The result of all that was I ended up in my thirties incredibly inexperienced, anxious and insecure.
NL: And yet you were so good at friendship.
CP: Yes, I’ve always been very good at friendships, whereas romantic love felt like this peculiar and complicated art that I had never been given the instruction manual for.
NL: So what changed that allowed you to be in a loving relationship with a kind person?
CP: Well, plenty experience of the other! Then when I got breast cancer the last time, aged 46, I was devastated. I thought, oh great, I’m going to die without ever having had a long-term relationship. I felt like I just couldn’t cope. Then my acupuncturist, who I’d been seeing for a few years about pain, suggested an analyst who I went on to see for three years. That had a really profound effect on me; I realised that I had always been terrified of men and had been striding around with this very prickly vibe, scaring them away. Of course I was the one who was scared, but the feedback I kept getting was that I was very scary.
NL: And that prickliness was a form of self-protection?
NL: I have been studying relationship therapy, which has made me think more about the childhood feelings that play out in our adult lives. Do you think you also had to sort through some of that stuff in order to love as an adult?
CP: Yes I do. My father was a man of huge integrity and he was obviously kind of what I was looking for. He was very bright, very handsome and I think he was quite shy, actually, which made him emotionally distant even though he absolutely didn’t want to be. I was always a bit scared of him. So I think that emotional distance… I never had that sense of ‘oh dad thinks you’re gorgeous.’ I felt like this gawky girl who turned into a gawky young woman.
NL: What’s so interesting about that is while on the surface you thought you wanted to meet someone like your dad, actually that sort of emotionally distant man probably wasn’t what you needed.
CP: No it wasn’t, that’s absolutely right, because I was too insecure. All of us are a mix and I’m confident in some areas of my life – I’m socially confident – but I didn’t know how to have a relationship and I was terrified of rejection, always anticipating it, and largely running away before anything could get to that point. Or being so prickly and difficult that within five minutes of meeting someone there would be some slight I would perceive as rejection and then I’d go marching off.
NL: You seem to have done a brilliant job of maintaining your friendships with people who are coupled up or have kids…
CP: Well there was plenty of heartbreak along the way and there have been times in my life when I have felt squeezed into the gaps of people’s lives. If I think about it, as my friends coupled up, I would always meet new people who were not in couples. That wasn’t a conscious or cynical strategy, but I guess sometimes you want to be with people who understand the situation you are in. For me, some of the time, it was a source of enormous heartbreak and pain that I was on my own and that my friends had this thing – a relationship – that I just couldn’t seem to manage.
NL: I think it’s also about, as you said in the book, understanding that just because friends have a partner or kids, it doesn’t mean that they are happy or have an easy life.
CP: Exactly. The friends I have now are people I admire, care about, want to be with and am loyal to, and I’m clear that that has to be an equal and reciprocal thing. If people always put their family above their friendships and are not prepared to put themselves out for you, particularly if you are going through a crisis, then in my view that’s not a friend, actually. I absolutely accept the practical constraints – obviously if you’re working and you have a family, it’s hard to maintain friendships, but I still think it’s necessary. Firstly, it’s unwise to put all your eggs in one basket. And life is not just about you and your little unit. We have a wider responsibility as human beings to other human beings, especially because lots of the traditional structures of communities have gone. Lots of us don’t have faith communities, many of us don’t even have the traditional workplace anymore, and if you’re not a mother, you don’t have the school gates. So we create our communities, and I think it’s important that we feel a responsibility to nurture and support other humans.
NL: Going back to falling in love in your fifties, to me the epilogue to your story is an example of the hard nature of life, in that you find this great romantic love you had been looking for for most of your life, but not long after you lose one of your greatest loves: your mother. It reminded me of that Freida Hughes line, “We can’t love something without having loss at some point.” What did that feel like?
CP: Well I feel very, very lucky actually, because I was so close to my mother that it would’ve been a million times worse losing her if I hadn’t met someone. My brother is on his own and also doesn’t have children, and it’s much, much tougher for him. So I feel very blessed on that front and also very pleased that my mother finally got one of the things she wanted in her life – she didn’t get grandchildren, but she did see that I’d met a lovely man and I think that meant a lot to her. In the Winter’s Tale there is a wonderful line: ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.’ And I think that’s the nature of life, really.
NL: As you say in the book, I think one of the hardest parts of love is understanding that nothing is forever.
CP: I think that’s right, and one of the things I really wanted to convey was, as the wonderful novelist Elizabeth Strout says, there are lots of different ways to live a life. And they can all be good or complex, sometimes lovely or sometimes ghastly – that’s this mess that is human existence.
NL: Thinking about falling in love later in life: while I used to fetishize the childhood sweetheart version of love, I think I’ve learnt, even meeting someone in my thirties, that there is something wonderful about falling in love as adults who really know themselves. And for all the things I felt I was missing out on in my twenties, I’m so grateful in some ways that I didn’t fall in love then.
CP: I completely agree. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be in a relationship, but I do think that when you’ve had a lot of time on your own, very often you’ve developed resources and a richness in your life that many people who have never been on their own don’t have. Of course some people can get very entrenched in the way they live their life, and habits are hard to break, so it’s not automatically a good thing to either be single or to be in a relationship. But I think if you use being single to explore a wider range of things and have a wider range of friendships, then how can that not ensure that you bring more to a relationship when you actually meet someone?
NL: Finally, what do you wish you’d known about love?
CP: I wish I’d known that love wasn’t like climbing Everest. I wish I’d been more relaxed about the whole thing. I wish I’d known that it is something that you have to learn to do, and that you have to renew it, and keep on renewing it, every day.
This interview was conducted and written by Natasha Lunn. Her mission is to inpire people to understand, recognise and respect all the different forms of love in their lives.
For more insights investigating love, one conversation at a time, subscribe to her newsletter here. You can also view all the previous newsletters via that link by clicking on ‘View Letter Archive’.
You can follow the Facebook Page here.
You can read a sample and purchase The Art of Not Falling Apart by Christina Patterson here. It’s next on my reading list!