I’ve always loved the idea of romance—receiving flowers, being serenaded at sunset, writing soppy love letters. But it’s the reality of romance that terrifies me—haunting, humiliating scenarios circle my head on repeat. And, for as long as I remember, attempting to be romantic has been . . . awkward.
Flashback to February 14, 2015, my first proper Valentine’s Day. I woke excitedly to the sound of kookaburras, camp stoves and tents unzipping to let in the floral breeze. The day before, my boyfriend and I had made the six-hour drive to an Australia-wide Christian camp meeting with a group of friends. Located next to grassy sandstone cliffs and pristine white beaches, the day would be perfect—we’d walk along the beach at sunset and, as his eyes closed and we kissed, I’d surprise him with a Valentine’s gift.
I shuffled through my bag for the gift, ready to execute my excellent plan. My hand returned empty. I panicked. Where is it? I rummaged through every pocket, every sock, every zipped, buttoned and velcroed compartment. I grabbed the car keys and anxiously searched the car, only to return defeated. My sweet would-be memories were ruined forever.
Over the years, my own human error has assaulted many attempts at romance: I’ll forget to make the reservation, it’ll rain, I’ll underestimate the travel time, the postage for a birthday gift will be delayed, the website makes the location look much nicer than it really is, the conversation will awkwardly lull, my gurgling stomach will rudely interrupt the silence . . . something always seems to go pear-shaped. Then thoughts paralyse me for weeks afterwards: Why can’t you do anything right? He’s only pretending to enjoy himself. You’re incapable of loving someone else.
I’ve often wondered whether something is wrong with me. My feeble attempts at romance are incomparable to the glamorous love stories embroidered with luscious red roses, flawless candle-lit dinners and smooth jazz, all perfectly packaged and premiered at a screen near you.
For years, I actively embraced what I knew to be a toxic combination of multi-million-dollar Hollywood budgets, Victorian romanticism and Machiavellian advertising campaigns. But I still wanted it.
That is, until I recently discovered the truth about romance.
The Oxford dictionary defines romance as “the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love”. Ooooh yes, mystery! To be swept off your feet in one suave move, to be surprised by your crush throwing pebbles at your window, to have your partner pack your bags, blindfold you and take you on a surprise trip to Paris. We all want to experience this “mystery of love”, but there’s a problem: the concept is inherently contradictory.
Experiencing romance requires mystery. In contrast, experiencing true love—the ancient Greeks called it agape—requires being fully seen, fully known and fully accepted, flaws and all. And that’s not very mysterious at all. Catch 22.
After all, if Hollywood’s biggest romcoms depicted A-list love interests negotiating household duties, waking up to no-makeup-morning-breath or discussing how childhood trauma has created attachment insecurities . . . those movies would flop. No, audiences crave witty banter, expensive outfits, electric sexual tension and, after a brief mid-movie misunderstanding, a passionate sex scene and a happily-ever-after montage on the Amalfi Coast. Zero flaws and all.
This dazzling, albeit cookie-cutter, narrative is damaging because it conveys the message that love is built on romance—that if conversation is stimulating enough, if skin is clear enough, if kissing is arousing enough, if jobs are illustrious enough and if locations are pristine enough, then maybe someone will fall in love with you.
Author and theologian, Timothy Keller, puts it this way in his book The Meaning of Marriage: “To be loved but not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.”
Yes, to be “loved but not known”—to be swept up in the mystery of romance—is comforting, but superficial. It’s validating but soaked in self-doubt. And if love is measured with the inferior yardstick of romantic prowess, an individual’s perceived worthiness to receive love will be based on temporal physical characteristics.
So then, what should we do with romance? Should we trample it to the wayside and stop chasing sparks and butterflies? Quite the opposite. Mystery and knowing are not mutually exclusive concepts. Mystery can be circumstantial—a surprise date, an unexpected gift, a new experience—or mystery can be personal—likes and dislikes, insecurities, physical defects, personality traits, a shameful past. The former mysteries are the sparks that keep love alive, but unless the latter mysteries are brought to the surface to use as firewood, the spark cannot ignite true love’s burning flames.
In other words, for romantic love to grow into true love, an individual must stand emotionally naked in front of their partner, face the fear of rejection head on and give their partner the opportunity to extend to them the grace and acceptance that true love requires. It’s not until this awkward, vulnerable, messy, but beautiful exchange takes place that lovers can move forward securely.
Yet so often, it’s easier to maintain the insecure status quo than it is to embrace vulnerability. After all, being “known but not loved”; being seen and rejected, is out greatest fear.
The Bible says in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear. . . . The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Keller again: “to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
Contrary to Hollywood’s extravagant depictions, romance isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being confident and sexy, manufacturing the perfect kiss or booking a table at an expensive restaurant. It’s not even about remembering Valentine’s Day gifts. As nice as those things are, real romance—true love—is about genuine intentions, translated into action. And even if the actions fail, it’s about knowing that you’re fully known and completely accepted; that love’s safety net will catch you when you fail.
Valentine’s Day 2015 was the first time I was faced with this reality head on. Desperate to maintain the illusion of perfect romance, I rushed to the local corner shop (the kind that sells petrol, canned beans and hot chips) and searched for a replacement gift. The best option I found was chocolate past its use-by date. I returned to the campsite devastated and empty-handed, with nothing to offer but my heart’s best intentions and an apology.
I wish I could finish this story on a redemptive note, with a gracious melody that inspires you to believe in true love. I wish I could say that my vulnerability was met with unconditional grace, but that’s not how the cookie crumbled. We were young and foolish; we didn’t understand what true love was and what it required. He was upset and his emotion-driven words pierced my weaknesses and insecurities. Terrified of being rejected, I hid my true self from him. And as hindsight could predict, the relationship eventually dissolved.
Since then, I’ve experienced the mystery and excitement of romance that is grounded in love; I’ve summoned the courage to be vulnerable, to stare rejection in the face. And I’ve experienced unconditional acceptance. But this was a long process—one that took a lot of personal reflection—and one that I’ve only been able to embrace because of God’s love. I am liberated knowing that I’m completely loved by Someone greater, and that no amount of rejection or awkwardness will change my value or how much love I deserve. I am only able to love because He first loved me (1 John 4:19).
So, if your Valentine’s Day this year isn’t a Hollywood romcom, rest assured that the disappointment doesn’t determine how much love you deserve. When God’s love fills those heart gaps, it liberates you from dependence on romantic gestures. It gives you strength to embrace your partner’s flaws and extend unconditional grace—the same grace God gives you every day. It gives them permission to fail and to try again next time.
Maryellen Fairfax recently completed a law/media degree. She lives in Sydney and writes for Signs of the Times’ sister magazine, Adventist Record.