This is when you first dip your toe in the waters of romantic love. They seem murky and you’re not sure what creatures lurk at the bottom, but the softly lapping waves and enveloping warmth are so seductive you can’t help but want to swim. Your first major love will be a pop star. You won’t quite understand why you feel a bit funny in your lower stomach when you watch their videos. School crushes evolve from chaste hand-holding to kisses behind the bike sheds. You tell your friends every single detail: they giggle and shriek and promise not to tell your mum. You’ll probably lose your virginity shortly after your sixteenth birthday; you’ve just about managed to wait until it’s legal. You are convinced that you will marry your boyfriend, and when he dumps you for that cow in lower sixth you are so shocked you actually throw up. But in the end you decide it’s better to be single when you go off to uni (although you still bring a photo of him to blue-tack to your wall).
What you find romantic: snogging, chain restaurants in shopping centres, cute snapchats, plastic jewellery from funfairs.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘My parents are out tonight.’
Present you most want to be given: A lovebite. Or Beats by Dre headphones.
God, you love sex. Can’t get enough of it. Sometimes, though, it seems to be a bit about him. Don’t misunderstand: you love sex. But is it normal to not come every time? Or, really, ever? And for it to hurt a bit when he does that thing you’re not that keen on but you let him do because you don’t want to seem prudish? After a bit, you ditch him: he wasn’t really interested in getting to know the real you. You maybe shag someone with poor grammar who you meet at a Christmas drinks party. Then, eventually, you allow yourself to be set up with the dorky-looking guy your friends say you’ll love. And guess what? You do. He’s kind and doesn’t get annoyed when you get drunk and cry, and he supports your career. You discover foreign film together and move in. He proposes on your 29th birthday – having, of course, asked your dad first.
What you find romantic: lacy underwear, Paris, vinyl records, brunch.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘I love you.’
Present you most want to be given: a rare edition of your favourite childhood novel.
You’re most likely recently or soon to be married. You love being so grown-up, having dinner parties and renting a villa in Corfu with a few other couples. Sure, the flat is a bit cramped and you’re not sure why your husband still hasn’t got that promotion he keeps going on about, and until he does there’s no way you can start thinking about having a baby. But you have such a lovely time together, he makes you laugh and your parents and friends love him. You’re calm and a little bit secretive: he still hasn’t seen you bleach your moustache, and you might have slightly underestimated how often you talk to your mum. When you have children you discover a whole new love for your partner; this waxes and wanes depending on how often they get up in the night when the baby cries.
What you find romantic: minibreaks, sharing the bath, having a Sunday night routine, wallpaper samples.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘I think we should redecorate, and you can choose.’
Present you most want to be given: A live-in nanny. Or a new car.
Just for now, it’s all about the kids. One day you’ll have a conversation again, but for the time being Amelia has to be driven to her Sanskrit class and Oliver needs boots fitting, because he can start the Wall game next term. Most of the conversations you have with your husband these days are about who’ll take the dog out while you watch Olivia in her nativity play, or whether one pint of milk is enough for five breakfasts (you, correctly, say no: cue screaming row). You still love him, you suppose, when you stop to think about it. But you never really do.
What you find romantic: nights off, secret sex, muddy walks, an unexpected kiss.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘I’ve booked the babysitter.’
Present you most want to be given: A week alone in a cottage in Devon.
So, the children leave. Off they bugger, never to be seen again – except when they’re short of cash. You are left alone. Oh, wait, not quit alone: there’s still that man in your house, the one you vaguely remember saying some formal words to while you wore a white dress, many years ago… One of two things will happen now. You will either stay together, or not. If you do, this will be a period of re-acquaintance. You’ll have both changed over the last twenty years, but this is the first time you sit down and think about it. If you split, you’ll be going back to the frightening world of dating, only this time around with the added complications of apps, HRT and the babysitting rota for the grandchildren.
What you find romantic: photograph albums, ruined abbeys, your grandchildren being excited by fireworks, holding hands while you walk down the road.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘Shall we just read tonight?’
Present you most want to be given: a massive, congratulatory diamond. Or the number of a very good divorce lawyer.
You’ve accepted you’re in it for the long haul now. You used to think that life was too short to bother about petty annoyances: now you realise it’s too long. The things that keep you going and together are good manners, quick forgiveness and small intimacies. You even feel odd, long-forgotten stirrings of passion. You discover new things to do together that give you both pleasure, and find yourself asking his opinion and really wanting to know the answer. You think you know what to expect from him, but sometimes he surprises you with a story you’ve never heard or an insight into something you thought had passed him by.
What you find romantic: music recitals, art galleries, gardening, tenderness.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘You look so lovely.’
Present you most want to be given: National Trust membership.
You are the sage. Your frazzled daughter asks you how on earth you did it: fifty years of marriage. You’re not really sure yourself. What you do know is that you never feel lonely when you’re with him. You look at him and see all the changes that time has wrought on his still-handsome face, and you feel full of compassion and love. You are grateful for his goodness.
What you find romantic: almost everything.
Sentence you most want to hear: ‘Let’s go out for supper tonight.’
Present you most want to be given: Roberts Radio.