An ode to everlasting love by the author of Jojo Rabbit

Love is the most beautiful, poetic reality of life, one at its very essence, giving the deepest meaning to existence. You can’t fake it. In my new novel In Amber’s Wake, I make a brief allusion to the two French DGSE agents involved in the Rainbow Warrior bombing, Captain Dominique Prieur and Major Alain Mafart, who masqueraded as a honeymooning Swiss couple. Housekeepers at a hotel where they stayed noticed discrepancies between what they would have expected of a room occupied by newlyweds and what their room actually looked like, in all its telling details, which they later reported to police.

I challenge anyone or anything – fortune-teller, behavioural scientist, Tinder, even the most sophisticated form of  artificial intelligence – to predict love with accuracy. Because who or what can foresee that fleeting, subtle look of vulnerability in someone else’s eyes? Nor that pinch in one’s heart when the other person, trying to be funny, witty, or just fill the suddenly awkward silence, says something – anything – silly, downright stupid, no matter – and that is exactly as love should be.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”  It’s vital to keep it that way. Most love stories – including Wilde’s own De Profundis describing his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas – are about ill-fated love. Obsessional love. Tragic love. Unrequited love. There are many loves, but what about love of the lasting sort? Is it, let’s be frank, more settled, that marathon of contentment and bliss, and therefore not quite as gripping and intoxicating? If anyone would put enduring love to opera -which no one to my knowledge has – would it result in nothing more dramatic and passionate than a long, mild harmony with the occasional note that falls flat?

Forever lasting love seems like something not many people believe in these days. The stuff of fairy tales. Whatever happened to happily ever after? Although Health is taught in secondary schools, people are on their own when it comes to figuring out whom to invest their heart in, in the long-term.

Mark Manson, in his book Love is not Enough, argues that people need to understand more about love, not necessarily to find it, but in order to keep it. “Love is great. Love is necessary. Love is beautiful,” he writes. “But love is not enough.” He cautions against being too idealistic about love and offers insight into its harsh truths:  “Love does not equal compatibility”’, “love does not solve your relationship problems”, and “love is not always worth sacrificing yourself for”. So before love even evolves into enduring love, love needs to be healthy in the first place, love that works, love that makes us happy. Otherwise it’s better to be alone than with the wrong person.

But once those boxes of a healthy and mutually happy love are ticked by both parties, what then in this vast landscape of love’s timelessness? 50 Tips from Couples Who’ve Been Married for 50 Years by Julia Malacoff, a specialist in health and wellness, offers examples: small acts of kindness, focusing on the friendship aspect of the relationship, having a sense of humour about yourself and your relationship, living in the present, making everything a date, listening to and being physically affectionate with each other, not feeling afraid to give each other space, realising that you will fight sometimes and that patience is a virtue, having the same financial priorities, knowing that you’re a team, saying ‘yes’ to new experiences, showing gratitude, learning to compromise…

Maybe the experience of my husband and I being nearly halfway there left me nodding once and again as I scrolled down, down and down half a century of wisdom of what works on an emotional level between two people long together. All these fundamental attitudes to ongoing love boil down to valuing and nurturing the relationship, caring for and tending to it regularly, even – especially – over time.  A daily awareness and willingness to love the other as if each day could be the last. Love, left in its passive state, is a feeling only you know about. It has to enter its active state to be felt by the other, through small acts and big, sometimes all that necessitates is being there and caring.

We all have weaknesses, we all have pains, regrets, doubts, fears. One starts to truly love another with a more enduring love when one can see these facets of the other’s being. One doesn’t love another like that despite all of these faults and foibles, one loves another for life precisely because of them.

My husband and I are about to go on another date to the grocery store, holding hands on the way there, listening to each other. He’ll gallantly take the trolley as we venture in, ready to compromise on whether he’ll get meat or I’ll get fish, whichever of the two will be “promotion” or “value pack” as our financial priorities right now are helping our sons get through university. At some stage we’ll lose sight of each other in the store as I give him space to  go look for some new socks. Meanwhile, I’ll get the 3L bottles of milk and tubs of yogurt (we still have a teenage son at home), realising he accidently took the trolley with him. “Why thank you for the weight-bearing exercise,” I’ll limp up to him with a touch of commedia dell’arte. Whose turn to cook dinner tonight? Living in the present, we’ll get to that later… For now, let’s just cherish the moment of being together.

In Amber’s Wake by Christine Leunens (Bateman, $35) is published today, Valentine’s Day, to signify the romantic drama told in this love story set in New Zealand during the 1980s. It is available in bookstores nationwide.                                                                                                             

Nelson author Christine Leunens is the author of five novels, including Caging Skies, adapted into the Academy Award-winning movie Jojo Rabbit directed by Taika Waititi. A film of her latest novel In Amber'...

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