The couple holding hands seemed more youthful than their years suggest. Perhaps there’s something about basking in the glow of mutual affection that can turn back the hands of time. I pondered the bonds that must have kept them together for so long. Raising children, the ups and downs of long marriage, and a lifetime of intimacy and exasperation surely belonged to them, Yet, on this evening the looked at each other adoringly like smitten teenagers. What was their secret, I wondered? But then I already knew the answer. These people were my parents and in a thousand different ways, they have taught me so much about true love.
Partners are not perfect, but love is
This year, my parents will mark their 54th wedding anniversary. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid the word “celebrate” in reference to this occasion since my folks usually take a low-key approach to this annual event. It’s not that they don’t love and care for one another — they clearly do — it’s just that one can sense the wounds they’ve inflicted on one another, and they go hand in hand with the pleasures.
At times, my mom and dad have mixed about as well as oil and water. For example, when traveling, my dad was the kind of person who always wanted to go for a long hike or an extended jog. My mom, on the other hand, preferred gardens and museums.
My parents have very different temperaments too, which extends to their ways of handling money. In truth, my dad — though a gifted and successful entrepreneur — probably could not have survived without my mom’s expert bookkeeping and housekeeping skills. After all, my dad wanted to spend money before it came in and my mom wanted to save it for the proverbial rainy day. That’s a recipe for strife, but somehow my folks managed to make their arrangement work.
In so many ways, my parents seemed perfectly mismatched, but their individual shortcomings added up to a collective strength. I’m sure there was a lot of friction in their relationship, but they balanced each other too. Interestingly, my siblings and I all enjoy athletic activities (like my dad) and museums (like my mom). So, here’s lesson #1 my parents taught me about love: there’s a reason opposites attract. Enduring couples complement and counterbalance one another. The collective strength can manifest in the relationship itself as well as the next generation.
Conflict is an opportunity
Seeing my parent’s marriage unfold over five decades has been a real blessing and learning experience. I’ve witnessed first-hand tensions and conflict that seemed unresolvable. But I’ve also seen how patience, respect and tenacity can buy a couple time to get to a better place.
Many people assume that love is a blissful state, but there can be a lot of friction in long-term relationships too. The dynamics between my parents — which involved alternating feelings of affection and anger — reminds me a great deal of a process from the physical sciences called “annealing.”
Basically, “annealing” is a method of recrystallizing metal so that it comes stronger and more durable. This is accomplished by repeatedly heating and then cooling steel to toughen it up.
In a way, I believe the cycle of friction and affection I’ve seen in my parents over decades has crystallized their relationship and made it incredibly strong. So, here’s lesson #2 that my parents taught me about love: Friction is not something to be avoided. Instead, it’s a process to be navigated. Put simply, you have to stick out tough times in order to get to better times. The more times you go through this process, the stronger your relationship becomes.
Empathy matters more than ego
Years ago, when I was about seven or eight, my mom took my brother and me on a trip to Ireland. We were strolling the streets in Dublin when an elderly woman — probably homeless — collapsed in front of us.
Nobody stopped to help her, except my mom. I remember her instructions to me very vividly — ”look after your younger brother” — as she brought the woman a cold drink and tried to provide some small degree of comfort and relief. I’ll never forget the look of gratitude on the old woman’s face.
It would have been far easier to bypass the elderly woman. Indeed, that’s what most of the street crowd seemed to do. But that single act of kindness stands out as a bright lesson in my life. Caring for one another not be the easy thing to do, but it is meaningful.
Extending empathy to spouses and loved ones is not always easy either. I’d describe both my parents as caring and empathetic, but very often they stumbled trouble trying to understand each other.
But my parents have persevered in so many ways. Perhaps they are still a mystery to each other. But they are not averse to treading the difficult path of trying to empathize with someone who can seem both so familiar, but also so different. That brings me to lesson #3 that my parents taught me about love: Setting your ego aside is not easy, but when you do both understanding and love can blossom.
True love is very, very hard
It is not the stuff of fairy tales and happily ever afters. It requires struggle, sacrifice and immeasurable patience.
However, as the artist, Vincent Van Gogh noted, “What is done in love is done well.” That’s true of paintings, symphonies and relationships. When we put love into works of art, our families and our life partners, it can spark goodness and warmth that is reflected back to us in ways that illuminate the world a thousand fold.
I believe learning to love is one of the hardest but most rewarding tasks we face in life. It’s hard to really love another person because it means putting our egos and self-interests aside, which can leave us vulnerable. But creating a deep and loving bond with others can enrich our lives beyond measure. Those are lessons I learned from my parents. Thanks, mom and dad.
— Scott O’Reilly