I’m a marital therapist
And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.
While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.
On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.
In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.
Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.
Recently, Nicholas Sparks, the prolific and beloved romance writer, announced he and his wife of 25 years are getting divorced, and the public reaction speaks volumes about how we’ve come to view romance. The Twitter-sphere lit up with disbelief, as Sparks’ readers declared love to be dead. One dismayed young woman wrote, “If Nicholas Sparks is divorcing his wife there’s no hope for any of us.” Clearly, we’ve invested a lot of faith in romance-with-a-small-r. We believe in storybook romance, with brief moments of heartache thrown in to crank up the tension, followed by happy endings replete with euphoric togetherness, easy intimacy, and eternal guarantees.
Romance-with-a-small-r keeps us waiting on and striving for perfection.
Recently, in an interview, philosopher Peter Rollins had this to say about Romance:
The more I say my marriage will be perfect and great, the more it will be problematic and difficult…[The reality is] this probably will fail because most relationships do…If you can embrace all that and still say, “If I was sensible I’d walk away from you right now and never see you again,” and then you say, “Will you marry me, will you spend the rest of your life with me?” that’s romantic. We’ve taken the most romantic thing out of it. The most romantic thing about a proposal is the madness of it. If I could bring a DVD back from the future of the very moment when you and your partner break up and it all goes awful and you use the kids against each other and stuff like that and then you just snap the DVD and say, “I don’t care, I’m going for it anyway,” that’s romantic.
Recently, a DVD from the past reminded me about Romance-with-a-capital-R.
Ordinary, Imperfect, and Real
I was sifting through old home videos, and I came upon a scene in which my wife’s belly was round with our first child beneath her old pajamas. (We were in graduate school and about to have a kid. We were broke back then, and everything we wore was old.) From behind the camera, I was making stupid comments about how beautiful she looked. I was trying to make her laugh and she was, for some reason, actually laughing.
As I watched the scene, I noticed the date stamp.
February 14, 2003.
As I watched the video, I recalled the first Valentine’s Day of our married life. It had been a disaster. I had tried to make it perfect and when it failed to meet my expectations, we ended up in a fight about something ridiculous. But the second Valentine’s Day of our marriage was beautiful. Not because we tried but because we didn’t.
It was ordinary and imperfect.
It was real.
In other words, it was Romantic-with-a-capital-R.
Across the nation this weekend, some couples will enjoy elaborately orchestrated Valentine’s dates. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sometimes, such a date is a very real acknowledgement that, “Hey, we’ve been through a lot and we need a port in the storm.” Sometimes, it’s a way of saying, “We’re really firing on all cylinders; let’s go celebrate that.” But for many, the perfect Valentine’s date will be sophisticated storybook denial.
It will be romance-with-a-small-r.
This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, which means I won’t be spending my evening in my therapy office with couples getting real and Romantic-with-a-capital-R. However, though I won’t be with them, they will be with me. I will think of the beautiful people who have had the courage to get real in my office, and they will remind me how real Romance and true Love really work:
Love doesn’t seek a perfect moment; it seeks a real moment.
Love knows we have to embrace reality before we can truly embrace each other.
Love knows we can’t be perfect, but we can abide in the midst of imperfection.
Love knows the only way this lasts forever is if we’re broken together.
Love knows how to turn romance into Romance.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.