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The Times, Valentine's Day 2007


Cruising along the M4 at night, the moon low in the east like the end of a lit cigar, Ray LaMontagne's breathy agony filling the car, I wonder idly if all the words from all the centuries' sorrowful poems and songs of love, placed end to end, would reach to that indifferent, orange moon. We'd just seen 'Treats' at the Theatre Royal Bath, Billie Piper starring in Christopher Hampton's bitter comedy about the eternal triangle, in which the good man is ditched for the bastard (as so often they are) and you know it must end in tears. More tears. 'Life is long, my love is gone away from me,' moans Ray – and for sure he will be listened to by a million lost souls who know what it's like.

I know what it's like. Do you? And not all today's heart-bedecked cards and fripperies stacked end to end will ever form a bridge to complete understanding of what makes the world go round, and stops it too – for a while, at least. 'Tell me the truth about love' Auden implored, and naturally most of those who write to me here are asking (in different ways) for the same thing. 'Why won't he marry me?', 'Why won't she make love any more?', 'How could he treat me like that after so many years?', 'How do you rekindle the spark?' – and so on: strangers who know me through these pages believing, at that moment of writing, that I may have answers to impossible questions. Oh, I try. But you know, and I know, and I know you know (since the knowledge is in the collective unconscious) that there are no answers, only 'hints half understood' in Eliot's phrase. Neither the joy, nor the pain can be fully deconstructed, although I believe in seeking 'the talking cure' whenever you can, because it can help. Have you ever pored over an anthology like Sally Emerson's excellent new one, 'Be Mine' (Little,Brown) finding love poems and quotations which express your feelings? Have you ever lain next to somebody, hearing that breath in the darkness, and asked yourself, 'How did I get to be so lucky?' Or have you ever woken at 4am with a pain so heavy you think for a second that only great handfuls of Temazapam could make it go away? Yes – and it's all about love.'

Many letters I receive move me, sometimes to tears. But this one made me smile for its sheer sweetness. It encapsulates the experience of young love, in all its glorious, puzzled delight, yet also raises a question generations have failed to answer: the mystery, the 'what if?' - the hypotheticals of the heart.

Dear Bel,

I'm afraid this isn't going to be too well written as its 11 o'clock at night and I'm very tired. I'm 18 and I'm in love, though I'm not quite sure what's wrong. I just want to hear people's opinions on young love. We plan on getting married and having children. We want to live together as soon as possible - though we are only 10 months into the relationship (having known each other for a year previous to those 10 months).

My question is should I be fooled into thinking what we feel now is what we will feel in five, ten, twenty years? I don't doubt how I feel now but I'm worried about a change in myself, since I never want to love anyone but him, and I never have (he is also my first boyfriend). I know society generally believes adolescent relationships to be short and sweet with no meaning behind them, and since I've never been in any other relationship this is all I know.

Should I be with other people and have more experiences, even though I already know that this man is all I want and need? Is there a point? I feel like I'm talking jarble and I'm pretty sure I won't get a reply, but thanks anyway if you've read it.


I read every single letter, Mindy. And your wonderful word 'jarble' beautifully expresses the universal confusion of the human soul, as tumultuous over breakfast as late at night. It isn't nonsensical at all.

But to the issue - so many questions there, yet they all boil down to one thing, 'How do know if I will be this much in love, this happy, for ever?' The soundtrack to my youth was full of songs about young love, from the defiant ballad 'They try to tell us we're too young' to 'Young love, first love' and 'She was only sixteen.' I can just see Mindy and her boyfriend walking hand in hand, sitting and making their plans, staring into each others' eyes because there is simply nowhere else to be. And it is real, this love. Not to be patronised, or laughed at, or dismissed, it may well represent the pinnacle of emotion for those two – never to be matched for the rest of their lives. Even if it does not last. We should celebrate the utter perfection of a moment, knowing that, like a sublime sunset, it cannot be sustained. So the delirium of first love is none the less valid for being grounded in inexperience. We should all read of it showering our blessings, for it adds to the struggling joy of the universe.

Once, of course, Mindy would never have expressed those doubts. She'd have married the boy from the village she fell in love with at 13, and nobody would have been surprised. They might have lived happily ever after, or she may have dwindled into an unhappy wife, wondering where passion went. The choices were fewer, the angst surely less. Mindy asks all those questions partly because of what she sees in the world around her - romantic love called into question day after day. From the divorce statistics, through the fragility of 'public' marriages, to the kind of common fantasies laid out so starkly in the psychotherapist Brett Kahr's book 'Sex and the Psyche (serialised in last week's Times 2), each day fresh evidence slams home the message that love is likely not to last, its parameters drawn by human frailty. It seems to be assumed that a girl must try men on like so many dresses in a Zara changing room, and send them to the charity shop when the fashion changes. That having flings goes with the territory of being a bloke. In the face of that onslaught I do believe it is harder to believe in lasting love than perhaps at any time in history, rather as the new scientific knowledge of the Victorian age called God into question.

The young woman's anguished 'What if?' centres upon the idea of change – just one aspect of the romantic agony. And of course the single most important thing to understand is that her feelings for her boyfriend WILL change. They must. None of us feel exactly the same as we do now – no, not in five, ten, twenty years. Love can remain, yet it must alter with the passing days, hopefully growing deeper through experience, not in spite of it. When Mindy says she wants' to hear people's opinions on young love', she can't mean it. They will all give sensible advice about waiting a while, not rushing into marriage, and so on, and she doesn't want to hear that – probably because it simply confirms her own niggling fear of 'what if?' All I can say to her is keep the faith, change together, expect bad times, but trust enough in your love – and, more significantly, your friendship and mutual respect - to know they can be overcome. With luck. If I didn't believe that I could not write a thing.

Since Valentine's Day is about romance, and love and romance are often in conflict, Mindy's questions take us beyond young love. Who hasn't wondered, even if briefly – how do I know this is The One? What if there's someone out there who might make me happier? What if we'd have the best sex since the earth first moved? What if s/he is the love of my life – the face seen on a train, the man in the next office? Or – horror - what if I had married my first love, and never known the contentment I share with my current partner? Let's jump forward an age group to a letter from a woman twenty years older than Mindy, who actually shouted the subject for her email in important capital letters, I KEEP ASKING MYSELF WHAT IF?

Dear Bel,

I am a very attractive (I am told!) 38-year-old levelheaded, fit professional woman working in the city centre. I have been married for seven years and with my partner for a total of nine. We have no children. We are not close anymore and rarely if ever make love; the last encounter after thirteen months of no lovemaking. My husband and I have talked and I have even suggested splitting up, but he says he is happy with the way things are even though he knows things between us aren't right.

Anyhow, in July of last year I noticed an attractive man giving me the eye in the car park. This looking at each other went on for weeks and weeks; I'd even see him walking up the road turning around as if looking for someone. The tension between us when we did see each other was quite unbearable, and obviously when you are attracted to someone you get nervous when you see them. In October, after a month of him walking deliberately slowly if he knew I was not too far behind and staring at me from behind the wheel of his car, I went on holiday and I knew that when I got back I would have a chance to speak to him. It came on 24th October, the week before the hour changed, and it was still light when we both got to the car park that evening.

He arrived not long after me and went to the boot of his car, opened it, pretending to study the contents and all the while he was looking pointedly in my direction. However, I was so nervous at the sight of him I just reversed out, and as I turned to look over at him he was still staring so obviously at my car and me, and then he turned. I, like a fool, drove away. Now I'm filled with absolute remorse that I did not stop and speak to him, and the fact that when I was reversing out he may have been mouthing hello or waving and I just drove off. I saw him a couple of times after that and the following week it was more or less the same scenario but again I did not do anything. The following day he was on the opposite side of the car park. After some gentle digging with the car park attendants I found out that he worked for a big construction company on a major project in the city, which has now ended, and he has gone. I am just filled with regret for what might have been and keep hoping that he will return to the car park to look or wait for me, but its been two months since I've seen him now. I do not even know his name, only the company he supposedly works for and his car and reg number. Please tell me, what, if anything, should I do?


Here we have another version of the romantic agony – experienced by a woman who's fallen out of love, and so is ripe for a fantasy: 'regret for what might have been.' The man in the car park might have been more accessible in theory than (say) Brad Pitt, yet still how far from her. If Anna continued her sleuthing, tracked him down and made contact, she could discover (a) that he is happily married and just glances at attractive woman because – well – they're there or (b) that he is as much of an irresistible bastard as the character Dave in 'Treats' or (c) that he hasn't a clue who she is, those intense stares mere products of her need. On the other hand (d) she could find him, they could instantly 'click' and drive away into the sunset, never to hang around a car park again. Or (e) she could become a stalker. Or (f) see this as a wake-up call, tell her partner it isn't OK to go on as they are, but they must work out a way forward, or end it. Since there are no children that wouldn't be such a catastrophe, unless she were bitterly to regret that decision, like yet another person who just wrote to me. Although option (d) makes the best screenplay Anna could well find that (f) is the wisest course. Her partner is unlikely to have been her first love, but surely she once felt as passionately about him as Mindy does now? Her feelings have changed, as in Mindy's worst fears. But could they change again, progressing to a new plane she hasn't dreamt of?

The 'Sliding Doors' scenario – as in the film where life circumstances are suddenly entirely different – is a very common fantasy, experienced by men and women alike. This isn't about fancying somebody at the office and acting on it – in other words, not necessarily about sex - it's about wistfully wondering if 'out there' is the love of your life, whether seen or unseen. The danger comes when people get older, magnify the inevitable staleness of everyday life with their partner, and the resulting restlessness makes them ripe for an affair – should one present itself. And even without that opportunity, the dream of a happiness not hitherto experienced can become all-consuming – and souring. So Paul wrote to me, married for 20 years and bored stiff , highly critical of his hapless wife, and wondering if he would ever find 'real love':

'My question is really do I stay and try to ignore my discontent by telling myself I should be grateful for what I've got, or do I try and live - going out there to see if the grass is greener on the other side?'

It remains to ask - is it lunatic to become obsessed with what you've never had, or a stranger in a car park? Yes, but lunacy and romantic fantasies often go together, which is why the moon is held accountable. You may be protesting that Anna's state isn't love – and you'd be right. Yet the yearning is like love. The other day I had a letter ('not for publication') from a mature, highly educated man who had developed a pure, even noble passion for a young actress seen on TV. He wrote to me because he wanted to get it off his chest – that's all. Lunatic? Yes – but the feelings he described were as consuming as the blitz of a first love, and that is how Anna is feeling now. What if I met him or her? What if I were to be loved afresh? Thus the heart stutters its 'jarble' and although perhaps it leads to discontentment more often than happiness - honestly – I can't find it in my heart to condemn it.

Mindy and Anna may dwell on the 'what ifs?' and all I can do is sympathise. But for those who want an important and consoling truth about love on Valentine's Day, I've been reading a new book by the psychotherapist Janet Reibstein called 'The Best Kept Secret' (Bloomsbury). broken heartsI heartily recommend it to Mindy, and as an antidote to 'the romantic lie in the brain' as Auden called it, which afflicts so many people, like Anna. Reibstein points out that 'the stories of the Great Partnerships are not being heard above the din of reports of the failed ones', and so has interviewed over 200 couples to share the secrets of their lasting love. It's a funny, tender, wise, uplifting, and entirely human read of how love can change, be tested, endure and survive.

And there's more. Lasting love can take many forms. Tonight I shall drink champagne with my new love, my friend. But thirty-nine years ago I draw a funny Valentine for the man I married a week later - in passion, Mindy, at the age of 21, after knowing him three months. We lasted thirty-five years. And I have come to understand this miracle - that some loves discover their true greatness when they appear to be over. So a marriage may finish with sorrow mitigated by generosity, respect and unassailable devotion – the love which sustained it surviving its ending. Who would have thought it? So as Ray LaMontagne reaches the last track 'Within You' on his new CD, offering as 'the answer' the one word 'love,' repeated again and again and again, his language beaten into one melodic word, because it is all we have…….I offer my experience as part of the mystery. And to prove a point I often make on this page – that, until we die, the best 'what if?' is an endless opening of the heart to possibility.




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