People have wondered about love for thousands of years. The question “what is love” pops up as the most popular Google search year after year. We all want to be loved and to have a romantic partner that loves us no matter what. So why is it that something so desirable is so difficult to define?
Part of the difficulty we have understanding love is that there are so many different kinds of love. The love we have for our children, our parents, our grandparents, and our spouse are all different. We can love our city, state, or our country. We can love clothes, food, our house, a song, a movie…this list goes on and on. And if you think about it, all of these types of love are different.
As a Marriage Counselor, I am most concerned with the love within our families, specifically the love between spouses. And when we consider adult romantic relationships, we have to look to our own childhoods when our earliest concepts of love are formed even before we can talk. But before I explain what love is, I’d like to address the other side of the coin: what love isn’t.
Misconceptions about Love
Love is selfless
Long term relationships require sacrifice, compromise, and commitment. Relationships are often hard work and there are times when it is important to put your partner first and your own needs second. But to give up your own needs and put your partner first all the time doesn’t usually work in the long run. While it might be nice to imagine being selfless and putting others needs first all of the time, it can create frustration and resentment that are toxic to a relationship. We all have relational needs and it is important that these needs get met over time.
It is very human to want to give and give and hope our partner will spontaneously know what we want without us asking for it. Often in the early stages of relationships people do try hard to meet the other person’s needs and often these needs do get met spontaneously. But as relationships develop and change, needs emerge and it is important to let your partner know what you want or need. It is often hard to let go of the wish that our partner will “just know” what you want and give it to us. It is risky to ask our partners for something since there is no guarantee that they will be interested in meeting that need – rejection and hurt feelings are often on the other side of being reluctant to ask for what we want.
We all are left with wants, wishes, and fantasies left over from our childhoods. As babies we didn’t have to ask for what we wanted. We were fed, changed, and held seemingly by magic. If we were unhappy, all we had to do was cry, and someone would come and take care of us. Even though we are adults and our childhoods are a distant memory, we are left with remnants and imprints from that period. The bliss of a new adult relationship unconsciously replicates the merging we experienced with our mothers in the womb and as infants. But our adult partners are not our mothers and we are called to do things differently if we want to have satisfying relationships as adults. And one of the things that means is to take risks and let our partners know what we want.
Love means never having to say you are sorry
If you are in a relationship long enough you will hurt your partners feelings and they will hurt you. It is only a matter of time before this happens and it happens more often than we would like. It would be nice if our partners could know that we mean well, take our perspective, understand our intentions, and not feel hurt. But hurt feelings tend to leave lasting wounds unless they are healed. Often early childhood memories and hurts are retriggered unconsciously as adults, giving the hurt a disproportionate amount of pain. That happens for everyone since we all come to adult relationships with our childhood experiences.
More than just saying you are sorry, the hurt, insult, or disrespect needs to be talked about and processed. This can be tricky since hurt often leads to anger. But left unprocessed, anger turns to resentment which is toxic for a relationship. While you can’t erase the event that led to the hurt, there is a healing that can happen when you and your partner take responsibility for each of your role. And often an apology is part of that repair process and, if done skillfully can actually bring you closer together as a couple.
The only real love is long-term committed love
Stable, long-term married love is idealized in our culture. Long-term relationships and marriage contribute to the stability of our society and in many ways, define our society. Just try to imagine our culture without marriage and long-term relationships – it’s hard to do. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are pair bonders. Whether gay or straight, most of us want to find a partner that we can spend our lives with once we get to a certain stage in life.
But long-term committed love isn’t any more real, superior, or deeper than the love that you experience in the earlier stages of a relationship. The love you experience after two years, or five years, or ten years is not any less valid that the love that you might experience after 20 or more years together. Different, yes, but not better or any more real.
The romantic and sexual attraction that happens in the first couple of years of a relationship lays the essential groundwork for a deeper long-term attachment. Many people get hooked on the intoxicating cocktail of hormones and novelty that accompany a new relationship and jump from one relationship to the next looking for “the one” that keeps romantic passion burning brightly forever. But alas, we are not wired that way. What was once new and exciting eventually becomes the norm and long-term happiness usually requires the ability to bridge the treacherous gap from infatuation to long-term attachment skillfully. This is easier said than done for many people.
Unconditional love is essential in a marriage
We all would like to be loved unconditionally and accepted completely for who we are. I believe that parents have this obligation to their children. That doesn’t mean accepting everything our children do. In fact, children need well-defined boundaries and they need to know when they are crossing these boundaries as part of healthy development. But all parents make mistakes and leave children with unresolved emotional issues to work out in adulthood. Often adults seek to replicate the unconditional love they did get as children or try to find the love they didn’t get.
Seeking and maintaining love as adults is one of the great growth and maturational experiences of life. With enough perseverance and generosity we can find safe nurturing love. But as adults we are not entitled to the unconditional love we might have gotten as children. Our partners have needs that often conflict with ours and most people have limits to what they can tolerate. Our partners may get angry, disapproving, or be disappointed in us and our behavior. We all have our breaking points and limits on what we are willing to tolerate. Hearing our partners dissatisfaction with us or the relationship feels anything like unconditional love.
It’s normal to have wishes and fantasies of the perfect love and perfect partner. But what we are left with at the end of the day is a real partner with real needs, emotions, and flaws. Reconciling the wish for the perfect partner with the actual partner we have is one of the essential challenges of marriage. Essential yes, easy to accomplish, not so much.
The opposite of love is hate
This one is interesting because it is a common misconception and in many relationships it is true. But maintaining a long-term relationship requires that you be able to tolerate loving and hateful feelings towards your partner. Let me explain.
It would be nice if we only had to feel positive and loving feelings towards our partners. And in the early stages of a relationship, we usually focus on how we are similar to our partner and how good we feel we feel towards them and when we are with them. But sooner or later our partner does something we don’t like, irritates us, or makes us downright angry. At that point, we have to deal with our negative feelings towards our partner. Hate is a strong word, but when we get really angry, it is normal to feel some amount of hatred towards our partner. The key is to be able to tolerate and express those negative feelings so we can discharge them before they become toxic. There is a big difference between feeling hateful towards our partner for a few minutes and a long-term attitude of disgust, resentment, and hate that can permeate a relationship. The opposite of love is indifference or apathy which indicate the absence of any feelings and usually spell the end of a relationship if left unattended to for long.
This idea that hate can be healthy if expressed and discharged in constructive way is not well-accepted in our culture and most people don’t know how to deal with hateful feelings skillfully. It is essential to know how to express negative feelings constructively in marriage and this is a skill that can be learned.
Loving and being in love are the same thing
There are fewer things more wonderful in life than meeting someone new and falling in love. There is the anticipation of seeing the beloved, the pleasurable thoughts and fantasies about the object of your love, and the gleeful anticipation of a future together. Things seem so natural and your love just blossoms on its own. But sooner or later, usually after a year or two, these wonderful loving feelings start to subside. Nothing stays new and exciting forever. At that point, our loving feelings aren’t so automatic and easy. Then love becomes a choice and it takes effort.
There will be times your partner disappoints you and you might not feel very loved by them. Often these moments are a recreation of your childhood disappointments and carry a weight greater that the issue at hand. Often hurt and disappointment can lead to anger or withdrawal sometimes lasting days or weeks. It is in these moments where love becomes a choice. You can remain angry, hurt, or withdrawn or you can choose to try to reconnect with your partner. Or if your partner might have withdrawn from you, perhaps into work or focusing too much on the kids. At this point it might be up to you to schedule a date night or offer to rub their shoulders. It doesn’t take much, but the more often you move towards your partner, the more likely you are to get love in return.
It is impossible to rekindle love once the spark has gone out
All relationships have their highs and lows and sometimes the lows can last for a long time. Work, bills, chores, children, in-laws and the day-to-day grind can extinguish even the most passionate love. Love can turn to resentment and eventually to indifference and apathy. Many people see the end of love as the end of a relationship. But this is not necessarily so. With the kind of work you can do in Marriage Counseling, you can understand how you got to this point, clear away the resentment and really see if the relationship can return towards friendship and love. It is possible, it just takes a while – if you loved someone one you can love them again.
Truths about Love
Love is an emotion
One way to think of love is to see it as an emotion. Usually there is a warmth or openness in your chest near your heart when you are experiencing loving feelings. You tend to feel close towards your partner when you are experiencing loving feelings. Often you will want to touch them to add physical intimacy to your emotional closeness. Or you may feel loving feelings while you are touching them since emotional and physical intimacy tend to accompany each other.
Love is a choice
In the early stages of a relationship, loving feelings arise spontaneously, just by being in the presence or anticipating the presence of your lover. Over time, love becomes more of a choice and less of something that happens automatically. At this point, you get to choose love. And research has shown it’s more important to give to give rather than give to get. In other words, if you give love you will get love, but things don’t turn out very will if you give love with the expectation of getting love in return.
Love changes over time
Relationships evolve and change. In the beginning, it is about discovering each other and new love, then people move towards commitment going from dating to exclusive , and often to engagement and marriage. At some point, kids might enter the picture and two becomes three or more and family life often dominates the couple. If all goes well, the kids leave home and it’s back to being a couple again but this time you have decades of time together and are older and more mature. Perhaps this is a second or third marriage and you may notice similarities and differences in your relationships.
Love changes and evolves and there is no simple way to define love because it is so complex. Love’s definition is as elusive as as love itself. It’s up to each of us to learn to love and to be loved as fully and as completely as we want.
You may need help getting loving feelings back in your marriage. Call me to find out more or to set up an initial consultation.