Am I the only person who thinks Valentine's Day is a crock? Not that I mind the hearts and flowers. (In fact, I insist on them.) But society's obsession with romantic love – the notion that one day you will find The Perfect One and live happily ever after – is responsible for more mischief and misery than any other myth of modern life.
All grownups ought to know this. But they don't. Our culture tells them to follow their hearts first, and not their heads. The trouble is, following their hearts makes people behave like idiots.
I should know. That's how I reached the age of 36, still unmarried. By that time it had dawned on me that I'd prefer not to spend the rest of my life alone – and that if I waited for lightning to strike, I might wait forever.
Most people have a "meet cute" story. My husband and I do not. We met in the most prosaic way, and it was not romantic. We met at a party. I hate parties. I'd forced myself to go to this one because I hadn't had a date in months. It had finally dawned on me that I was going to have to get out there and market myself. I spotted a man around my age across a crowded room, and asked someone if he was single. He was (more or less). I didn't think he was my type, but I made myself go talk to him anyway.
We had a pleasant chat, but no sparks flew. It never occurred to either of us that we had met The One. I pretended to be lively and vivacious. He pretended to be charmed. I didn't know it at the time, but he was newly unmarried and interested in going out with as many women as possible. He asked for my phone number. Then he didn't call me for weeks.
The trouble with being a single woman over 30 is that the law of supply and demand has tilted irreversibly against you, and it's only going to get worse. This is grotesquely unfair, but there's no sense squawking about it. You're just going to have to work harder. Because I clung to my belief in the romantic coup de foudre, it took a long time for me to come to terms with this.
The truth is that if you're looking for a husband in your 30s, romance shouldn't be your first consideration. That can come later. Also, brutal realism is essential. Do not overestimate your charm. Do not expect men to flock to you the way they did when you were 21. Try to see yourself as they do. This may be disconcerting.
"When I met you that night, I thought you were lively and outgoing," my husband says. "Then I found out you were really a nerdy introvert with cats."
In fact, our relationship barely survived the first date. We went to the movies. I picked a nature movie that featured graphic footage of wild animals tearing each other apart and having sex. He couldn't decide if I was weirdly interesting, or just weird.
We were never nuts about each other. But we got along. The good thing about going out with men who aren't your type is that you may be pleasantly surprised. You might even realize that the kind of men you always thought were your type are a complete disaster. I can't tell you how many girlfriends of mine have wasted the best years of their lives on men they imagined were their type, foolishly believing that these men would eventually (a) leave their wives, (b) sober up or (c) conquer their writers' block and sell their novel/screenplay. All these women were highly intelligent. But they were emotionally stupid. They allowed themselves to fall into the grip of some obsessive romantic fantasy that doomed them to unhappiness. If only their type had included men who were (a) available, (b) not addicted and (c) functional members of society.
Not that I did much better. Before I met my husband, I had a series of relationships with broody, complicated types. Some of them lived on different continents. Some were jealous of my career. Some of them asked why I was getting fat. If you are ever involved with somebody who asks you why you're getting fat, I'm telling you to run, not walk, away.
My future husband never seemed to mind if I happened to put on a few pounds. He liked me just the way I was. He was proud of my career. Eventually we moved in together to save money, and to see if we would get along. When the cat peed in his shoes, he didn't get upset. He didn't have a complicated side. For years, I thought this meant he must lack depth. But gradually, I realized it was among his finest qualities. One day, in a picturesque medieval town in France, he took me out for a fantastic meal, then fell down on one knee and proposed. I said I'd have to think about it. What an idiot!
We eventually did get married – 11 years after we met. Of course, I know now that he's just my type after all. True love isn't lightning bolts. It isn't something that just happens to you. It's something that you build together, over time. True love isn't what I used to think it was at all. It's infinitely better.