Every Tuesday, I meet my sister and her kids for a quick supper right at 6:15pm. She’s usually between dance and tae kwon do classes for the kiddos; I’m on my way to the gym. It’s a nice way to see my family and catch up quickly, and chat with my sister. Last week I was telling her about celebrating my sweetheart’s birthday with dinner with his parents over the weekend. My five-year-old nephew was listening in on the conversation, and he cocked his head when he heard this and said, “Wow, you must really love him!” his eyes all huge and amazed.
I laughed, of course, because it was a funny thing to say, like Oh my god, such a hard thing to do for someone, having dinner with their parents! (It’s not, really: I like my sweetheart’s parents a lot.) But it was also startling, because I realized that my nieces and nephews are watching my grown-up life in their way, observing and learning and maybe even taking notes for when they’re older. I’m of course deeply interested in my own experience of my relationship, as well as my sweetheart’s experience of it — that we’re both happy and content and growing together. But I had never really considered before what my niece and nephews are picking up from me. It’s a strange shift in perspective to consider, to look at my love life through the eyes of my favorite little monsters.
It made me think back to when I was a kid, and what I learned about love and relationships when I was young, and how I learned it. Of course, we all learn about love and relationships from our parents — for most of us, our relationship with our parents is our primary source of ideas and instincts early on when it comes to how we show and receive love. They’re picked up so early that they’re embedded deep in our psychology and work like automatic programming. We sort of just grow up in an atmosphere of relatedness (or not), internalizing its underlying assumptions, habits and practices well before we even know what an assumption is. If people have difficulty or stumbling blocks with their romantic lives, you often hear they need to dig deep into their relationship with their families and particularly parents to uncover the unspoken programming driving their compulsions, needs and anxieties — that’s how powerful this subconscious stuff is.
My parents were very private in their relationship with one another. They celebrated their anniversary pretty much alone and on the sly when I was a kid — my sisters and I didn’t even know their anniversary for years. They were not affectionate people, nor did they exchange loving words or affirmations of affection — with one another, and with us kids. Sometimes as a small child I was convinced they really didn’t love each other because they didn’t seem all lovey-dovey like people do in movies. But they did spend what people call “quality time” with each other, and they did things for one another all the time: “acts of services,” as it’s called in The Five Love Languages. They also were very conscientious about keeping their promises to one another. But these finer points didn’t really occur to me until I began to consciously look at my family relationships and how they’ve repeated themselves in my adult life, and learned a bit more about relationships in general. But for the most part, my parents’ love for one another was very much a mystery to me. What did I learn? You don’t keep loved ones waiting; you always keep your word; you have to invest time and attnetion. Those are nice lessons, but not nearly enough. My sentimental education was woefully incomplete if I just relied on knowledge gleaned from my family.
So I lapped up any clues about love and relationships whenever and wherever I could. I remember being totally fascinated when a neighbor’s oldest sister got a boyfriend, and how he’d come pick her up in his big fancy car, and how she’d walk out of the house with platform shoes and makeup and hair piled high and smelling of drugstore perfume. I remember how sad she was when he didn’t come around anymore, and then there was another guy in another car, which brought the original guy back around, drunk and shouting in the middle of the night.
I remember trying to find out more when my aunt and uncle separated — only my parents didn’t call it a separation, but a “long vacation” that one of them was taking without the other. They got back together, but I never found out why they separated in the first place.
As a young teenager, I was part of some weird leadership program in high school and had to stay a weekend over at my mentor’s apartment, who was a mathematics grad student at Northwestern — and just hanging on every word as she told me about her long-distance boyfriend who was in grad school in Maine, and every night they called each other at 10am Eastern time and talked for an hour. I remember when he called the night I stayed over, and the happy, affectionate, contented way she lolled in the bed as she talked, and how they talked about everything and nothing, and how she told him she loved him and missed him before they hung up. Those were revelations to me, especially from coming from my repressed Asian family. That’s just what you have to do to make it work, she said to me. Her voice echoed in my head during my own long-distance relationships when I was younger, and echoed my disappointment whenever my boyfriend at the time missed a call.
For the most part, though, I honestly felt like there weren’t many examples of functioning, successful, happy, passionate grown-up love relationships in my life when I was young. Sometimes I wonder how my path would be different if I had seen examples of it operating in my life. You’d think our stories in film, music and movies offer a model, but for the most part, there is such a paucity of real, complex, rich love stories — so many are concerned with how to get a girl or guy, but there’s not many that deal with the hard, difficult work of sustaining and enriching that initial spark. I thought for a bit that maybe Celine and Jesse from Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight could be an interesting one, but I actually haven’t seen the last film in that trilogy yet, so I can’t speak to its usefulness as a model. (And a few weeks ago I watched a bunch of “Sex and the City” episodes and it sort of made me sad to see these grown women acting so childish at times about love and relationships…though admittedly it got richer when the secondary characters’ stories ramped up in complexity.)
My friends and I used to dissect our relationships all the time, but often it was blind leading the blind…and besides, how often do you ever listen to someone’s advice about love? You’re going to do what you’re going to do anyway, especially if you haven’t unraveled the internal programming that drives you subconsciously. C’est la vie, I guess. And of course, for most people, relationships and their happiness is a bit like alchemy, a mysterious ether that exists between two people that they themselves can’t explain…they just happily exist under its spell.
I don’t know what else my nieces and nephews have observed from me in terms of love and relationships. As the “weird auntie,” I often see myself as the family member that offers a slightly different, perhaps wider window on how to live your life and have adventures as a human being. I really hope they see someone who who did her best to make relationships a conscious, evolving, and riotously fun experience, who kept her hope and optimism up and triumphed in the end. Someone who loved in a way where laughter, adventure, romance and passion weren’t mutually exclusive with stability and a deep contentment. I’d like to hope we’ll have the type of rapport where they can ask me about the love stories of my own life — and that the stories themselves are worthy of telling, and the endings, of course, are happy and wise.
There’s a more personal companion to this entry coming out in my newsletter this weekend. Sign up if you want to read more…xo