Last week saw another Valentine’s Day come and pass in its predictable flurry of chocolates and roses and heart-shaped miscellany. Despite my usual enthusiasm for any possible celebratory day (I went hard on the pancakes), it’s not an event for which I make a great deal of effort. A nice dinner and a fancy pudding to accompany my chosen Netflix original will do just fine, thanks. But this year, Valentine’s Day was made particularly salient by the excellent pieces on love, be it romantic or platonic or familial, which filled my feeds and inbox. I’ve adored reading so many experiences and thoughts on a topic I feel is particularly dear, especially those with a focus beyond the bounds of romance.
Recently, I swooped in to Waterstones on release day to grab a copy of the fabulous Dolly Alderton’s memoir ‘Everything I Know About Love’, and devoured it in one weekend. I laughed and cried and vigorously nodded my way through each chapter, adoring Dolly’s candour in recounting her own triumphs and failures in pursuit of love. I’m fickle when it comes to books: so often I find myself a temporary cheerleader, announcing to anyone who will listen that my current read is “the best book, you absolutely have to buy it.” But as soon as I’m finished, the spell is broken and I resign the book forever to a shelf, quickly forgotten and unlikely to ever be re-read. ‘Everything I Know About Love’ joins the small handful of books that I know I’ll pick up again and again. Dolly writes as though she were the wise older sister you wish you had, with an endearing combination of frivolity and blinding insight. Each chapter is both hilarious and desperately relatable.
Above all, I adored the attention that Dolly paid to different kinds of love; to self-love, and the love of friends, and the true significance of each. With a depressing regularity, we are beaten over the head with the message that a romantic relationship will be our true saviour. You are only half a person, we are told, without that one special somebody to complete you. The human equivalent of a lone glove or a cookie sans chocolate chips, you are simply Not Enough without it. The idea that anybody might be single by choice is met with a condescending scepticism. Singledom is merely a loading screen, a constant state of searching underpinned by a low-level unhappiness. It is stasis, alleviated only by the rescue breath of romantic love. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot love ourselves whole. We must rely on a relationship to provide us with the love we need to be considered valid.
Society rewards neither self-love nor platonic love. Friendships are not celebrated in the same way we celebrate romantic relationships. Remaining friends for twenty years is not cause for well wishes and a fancy party. Ending a close friendship does not garner much in the way of sympathy or understanding – it is a sad fact of life, yes, but not a legitimate source of heartbreak. Friendships are nice, we are told, but shallow and ultimately inferior. Cohabiting with friends is a juvenile ‘standby’ state accepted only until each of you eventually finds your love and moves on. It is always okay to ditch your friend in lieu of your partner because she knows where she stands and it is firmly behind Mark/Joe/What’s-his-face. Romantic relationships are the pinnacle of love, and for this all other love must be demoted.
Whether intentionally or not, this is the narrative we’ve created – one that unfairly relegates the most important loves of all.
My greatest loves have held my hand as I cried and held back my hair after I forgot my limits. They have cooked for me and bought flowers for me and greeted me after work in a way that feels like home. Together, we have decorated houses, trained for races, and choreographed ridiculous dance routines just because. We have shared books and clothes and snuggled up under blankets on so many movie nights. Together, we have seen each other’s lows and felt each other’s hurts and celebrated each other’s triumphs as though they were our own. We have said, “fuck him” in the direction of various men, many times over, with the protectiveness of mothers and the vehemence of sisters.
It has been the incredible women in my life, not the men, who taught me how to love. The version of love I learned from them may not be romantic but is equally powerful: a love of perpetual effort, of never growing complacent or lapsing into indifference. They taught me how to be both honest and gentle, a combination requiring a particular finesse and an occasional willingness to sacrifice being right in order to be kind. They also taught me that vulnerability is not just okay but necessary, and they nurtured that vulnerability when I offered it from trembling hands. From these women I have taken sensitivity and selflessness and raw strength, and have given my heart in return.
I love with sincerity and intensity, in romance and out of it. But romantic love alone is not enough. Romantic love can be special and magical and consuming if you let it, but I don’t need it to sustain me. I do, however, need the love of my friends. Friendships are not the consolation prize. They are my most treasured possessions.