When I was in high school, I was a sucker for those happily-ever-after romance flicks. Cameron Crow’s classic “Say Anything” was one of my favorites. I wanted a love like that. I wanted John Cusack to stand outside my bedroom window with a boombox, proclaiming his devotion to me by way of Peter Gabriel’s golden pipes. That wasn’t too much to ask, right?

Turns out I was wrong; that was too much to ask. At least, the image of what I thought true love was supposed to be was too much to ask. Now, let me preface this by saying I have found true love, and he is everything I could ever ask for in a man, but this is true love as defined by this forty-something-year-old woman who’s been through a thing or two.

My image of love has matured over the course of the last 20+ years – it has expanded and evolved. Witty romantic comedies, seductive romance novels, and cheesy love songs, though enjoyable to take in, don’t accurately depict the real picture of love.

Here’s where fantasy and reality part ways:

Infatuation and love are not one and the same

Infatuation can precede love, but it is not love. That feeling you get when you first fall in love with someone – that is infatuation. It’s a high. It’s a feeling like no other. You’d do anything to keep that feeling, and it has tremendous power over a person.

This is what we see on the big screen. You know – boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy sweeps girl off her feet, and boy and girl live happily ever after. “Princess Bride”, one of my all time favorites, comes to mind. They ride off into the sunset, literally. It’s beautiful. It’s magical. It’s also fantasy. What happens to Westley and Buttercup when they move beyond the initial stage of their storybook romance only to hit the unpredictable waters of everyday life?

As Psychologist, J. Michelle Davis puts it: “Infatuation can even be thought of as love with only two dimensions. With love, that third dimension is reality.” Infatuation is two-dimensional. It is fleeting, and not sustainable. But that’s okay – because, for the lucky, (and those who work at it,) that exhilarating infatuation will give way to a deeper and more mature three-dimensional love.

Love isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

“All you need is love.” That’s what the Beatles tell us, anyway. Much as I enjoy hearing those beautifully melodic lyrics from arguably the world’s most beloved band, I question the sentiment behind those words – at least, as it pertains to romantic love. Love – the mere act of loving someone – isn’t all you need. No, you need communication, compassion, understanding, empathy, patience, resilience, humility, accountability, and – well the list of unsexy relationship-essential attributes goes on. This quote from Ricardo Montalban sums it up perfectly: “Love doesn’t happen right away; it’s an ever-growing process. It develops after you’ve gone through many ups and downs, when you’ve suffered together, cried together, laughed together.”

Sex is important, but it doesn’t have to be swing-from-the-chandeliers-amazing all the time

Fiction sex, in today’s sex-laden media, is always amazing between two consenting adults. Yes, it’s amazing, hot, and always perfectly timed. “Ghost” anyone? No, that one didn’t include chandeliers, but it did feature some scintillating pottery techniques, music by the Righteous Brothers, and two flawlessly sculpted bodies. While that scene was successful in conveying the depth of love between the two, that kind of intimate encounter is not really practical in any sustainable way. (What happened to all that clay they slathered all over each other? Did they shower before hitting the bed?)

Admittedly, early in the relationship, sex is not only spectacular, but it tends to happen at frequent intervals. Though time will likely douse that flame, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less important.

Sex between two people who love each other, even if it’s not mind-blowing, is an intimate and connecting experience. It is that thing that you share only with that one other person. Don’t give up on your sex life because it’s not the stupendous sex as depicted on the big screen. Rather, nurture it at every stage of the relationship – and remember the important role it plays in conveying your love for your partner.

“You complete me” is for the birds

Okay, I’ll admit, those words uttered by Jerry Maguire in his profession of love for Renee Zellweger’s Dorothy Boyd did initially make my heart skip a beat. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be told you complete someone?

Well, if I’m honest with myself the answer is: me. I don’t want to complete someone, nor do I want someone to complete me. A love that stands the test of time is one that includes two people who come to the table as already complete beings – independent of the other. Great love is one that adds flavor and color a person’s already whole life – not one that completes it.  

Experts agree: “Every good marriage is based on an awful lot of separation,” says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology who studies marriage at the University of Virginia and author of “Marriage in Men’s Lives”. He adds, “People need to have a separate life and existence to feel validated as individuals. They can’t live solely as somebody’s partner.” A more fitting (albeit less swoon-worthy) sentiment to escape Jerry’s lips would have been, “you add value to my life and I love having you in it.”

Hollywood would have us believe that when cupid’s arrow strikes, it all flawlessly falls into place from there. It doesn’t. It takes hard work to build a love that is strong and enduring. Though I still long to be captivated by a good fictional love story once in a while, I’ll take my own real-life and utterly flawed love story any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I feel fortunate to have evolved into a person who appreciates love for what it is, not for what it’s supposed to look like.