“Love is like riding or speaking French. If you don’t learn it young, it’s hard to get the trick of it later.”
Profound, ain’t it, Guvnor? I’ve been thinking about this Downton Abbey quote a lot over the last couple of days, as a possible apology and reprieve for the characters in my own romantic saga, namely: The Bastardly Dicktard, The Space Cadet, The Beloved and The Heart Crusher. Why does someone do the things they do? What would cause someone to act callously without any reason?
I mean, we are—most of us—born with a heart, but we are not born learning how to use it. Babies don’t care about kindness or affection or sex; they want warmth, food, familiar smells and faces, they don't want cold pants full of poo. The affection babies are given is something they learn to enjoy and crave. What we pick up from our parental example, is what we see and absorb: how to act; how to treat people. And I realized, as I thought about this quote, that knowing how to love someone, or expecting that they know how to love you, how to act towards you, how to be kind, is not a guarantee.
I mean, like swimming or riding or speaking French, we are born with the tools to do these things, but being able to utilize those tools or that muscle is something that is not just caught, but taught and developed by regular exercise and example.
So maybe on those online dating profiles, or at speed dating, or during those first few dates in between those awkward silences, we should really ask: “Are your parents happy and affectionate? If not with one another, at least with someone?” I think it’s a pretty interesting question.
Thing is, we are kind of screwed either way, aren’t we?
Take Papa Smurf and Bridget Jones, they are awesome. They are my parental unit. I am not just saying they are awesome because I know Mum will read this and therefore I might get a better birthday gift or a random, feathery hair accoutrement dans la poste; I say it because they are. They not only taught me from the earliest memory the age-old parental mantra of “honesty being the best policy,” but they showed me by their own actions how to be receptive and open to people, how to listen, how to act with kindness and courage; and between them how to be a team taking on the world together.
They rather set the bar for me. They set it high, and that’s a wee bit of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, because, not everyone has been taught or shown or expects the same. They follow the innate instincts to fuck like bunnies, but actually having a mature relationship? That goes against innate instincts because most men should want to cop off with as many fertile women as possible; and women should instinctually want to have spawn with as many different fathers as possible! It makes biological sense! She would have more chaps looking after her and her brood, and less chance of the competing fathers killing her offspring, because one or more could be his; but also because the greater the diversity, the greater her chances of her genes surviving to the next generation. But we HAVE learned this monogamist behavior, some apparently more than others.
Now, I’m no psychologist; I don’t watch Dr. Phil—although I am sure he is great--so these are just my own musings, but here it is, let’s investigate four upbringing styles as experienced by men who may or may not--don't sue me--acted dickishly.
He had high-powered, status-is-all, don’t-interfere-or-make-a-peep-you-annoying-little-shit-son Parents. Now, I wasn’t there when he grew up. He was sent away fairly early and what love he was exposed to in a school full of competitive boys, goodness knows, and—thankfully—our time was short so I never got to find out, but he was rough and rude, and whilst he had all the shows of being a gentleman, he had none of the substance that put the ‘gentle’ in man; because a real gentleman will not put his ego first, a real gentleman does not have to be humorous by making fun of others. This was all learned behavior to protect and inflate his ego. He treated people, all people, with a kind of disdain. When I had outgrown my usefulness to him, I was disposed of by Blackberry Messenger. My quirky reply, never read. Dickish.
The Shuttlecocked Child was the product of parents who never really had any place being together. His conception was a bit of surprise, to him especially. He saw no love or affection between these two he calls Mom and Dad and it obviously confused him at an early age. When they split up, divorced and moved apart he was a shuttlecock between the two. The mother remarried, the father did not, but lives fairly reclusively, sheltered from the world. That is the example, for the Shuttlecock. So is it any wonder that he launches off to his own safe haven? He shuts himself away, makes himself inaccessible, his heart impenetrable, because that way no one can get to him. He can call the plays, make the shots, but he is closeted away from the action and he can never get hurt.
Thing is, sometimes you just have to open yourself up to the possibility of getting hurt, because if you don’t take that risk, if you spend the rest of your life shuttered away against the potential for hurt, you are sure to miss the things that would also bring you joy. When you entrust someone with your time, your energy, your body, you have to take it in trust that they are a good person who wants the best for you. The Shuttlecock may occupy himself with trivial things, but he will never know that heart-soaring wonder of looking into a set of eyes that see only him, that safe vulnerability of someone holding his face in her hands and wanting to give him the world.
Beloved had good pragmatic parents. Parents that loved him beyond imagining, because he was the shining light, the all-star, the Great White Hope. They would have flapped their arms to the moon if he asked them too, and vice versa; he became a loving man who would do anything they asked of him. But whilst giving him tsunami’s of love, they did not show it towards each other. So that is what he learned. That couples were a team for the family, but not for each other. I know Beloved will make a fabulous father, because he has learned that. But couples who don’t watch TV in the same room; who don’t go out together, but with their friends; for whom a show of affection is giving an extra helping of meatballs and sauce, not a hand hold or a kiss, let alone a wild night of rampant, button-popping, knicker-tearing sex, are teaching their children that affection is a ‘Hollywood thing’ and has no place in a practical marriage. I don’t want a practical marriage. I want a heart-leaping, breath-stopping, knicker-ripping union. I want to live with passion!
You know what I mean here, the old-school style of parenting, where the father generally treats the mother like slave while he is lord of the manor. He probably has affairs. He might get frisky with his fists. He has a booming temper and his children are frightened shitless of him. Maybe there is a slipper, or a belt, or a ruler, but there is something hard that is brought down on tender young skin and that’s just the way it is done in this family. I’m the product of a good, hard slap, but it was rarely unwarranted and I harbor no ill will, but my parents—argue thought they did—would have never dreamed of laying a finger or the other. So I learned that was unacceptable behavior. But if you were a little boy or girl in a household with a tyrannical father, or mother, who lashed out at their partner, that would be the norm, wouldn’t it?
So, here’s my point—there are a few: maybe the Dicktard wasn’t really a Dicktard after all. Maybe he was just a boy whose parents never gave him the attention he needed; maybe his mother never took two minutes to turn around and hug him tight and tell him that she was proud of him. Perhaps the Shuttlecocked Space Cadet did not mean to be heartless, he has just never seen or experienced what a real partnership is, and he retreats from the unfamiliar. Maybe Beloved will find someone who is happy just to be practical; or perhaps he will find someone who will teach him that the impractical can be make the practical even better! And maybe the man brought up to be the domineering alpha will just find someone who adores him so very much he will forget what has gone before, and he will transform his mistrust of the world to the passion and love that he is capable of.
How we treat each other as partners, as equals, is how we are teaching our offspring to behave. For love is not something we prove by vows, or cards, or hearts or flowers; it’s our everyday actions.
I played Viola, from Twelfth Night, when I was 15 years old. I remember this speech and can recite the whole monologue as clear and as heartfelt now as then, but here’s the crux:
“We men may say more, swear more; but, indeed,
Our shows are more than will; for still be prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.”
May you prove much in your love and practice it like French or riding! Happy Valentine’s, mes chers lecteurs.