“Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have thirty words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of thirty words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.” – Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, p. 6
There are so many ways to experience love.
The “I love you” I say to my older son, like sweet summer light, is different than the “I love you” that I whisper into my husband’s ear, like a steady river, and different still from the “I love you” I tell my younger son, a redwood grove. The “I love you” that I’ve said to my various cat-friends that have graced my life over the years is different than the “I love you” that I say to my best friends. The “I love you” I say to my brother is different than the “I love you” I say to my mother. This might sound obvious, but it’s important to note that we generally accept and normalize these different shades of love.
Yet when it comes to our intimate partners, we expect to feel one kind of love in one measurement: namely, “madly in love” without a a hint of doubt or uncertainty clouding the pure, ecstatic experience. We exert immense and unrealistic levels of pressure on ourselves – especially during the early stages and during an engagement – to feel an exact amount and sentiment of love for our intimate partners. We believe that we can measure love, that there’s a right way to love or an adequate quantity of love that signals that you’ve met the “right” partner and now you’re legitimized to marry.
Just as our culture propagates one image of physical beauty and one measure of success, so do we absorb one definition of romantic love: namely, a heart-fluttering, ecstatic feeling accompanied by 100% certainty that we’ve found “the one.”
Sadly, and all too often, we hear that an engagement or marriage ends because one person “fell out of love.” What does this mean? I can only assume it means that the butterflies escaped and the “in love” feeling dimmed, causing the one who “fell out of love” to arrive at the conclusion that the relationship must be fundamentally flawed and inevitably over. It’s a false conclusion that too many people jump to and causes them to walk away from a healthy, loving relationship that may need a little fine-tuning – or, most likely, an adjustment in the way they’re thinking about love.
Just as there are many ways to have a healthy, fulfilling marriage, so there are many ways to love. In order to widen our perspective on romantic love, it’s helpful to break down the phrase “I love you” so that we start to see its variance. And when you break it down, you see that there are so many ways to love your partner.
There’s the appreciation you feel when he does something thoughtful and kind, like brush the snow off your car in 20 degree weather or buy your favorite kind of bread.
There’s the comfort you feel when you come home at the end of a hard day at work and she’s there, waiting for you with a plate of hot food and your favorite TV show cued up.
There’s the gratitude you feel when she attends the twelfth family gathering of the year.
There’s the warmth you feel when you see him across the room and know that he’s your guy.
There are the tingles you feel when she kisses you, maybe not every time, but enough to know that a spark still burns between you.
There’s the trust you feel when you walk through a difficult conflict together and emerge stronger than ever on the other side.
There’s the awe you feel when you remember to remember how rare it is to find someone who “gets” you and who you “get.”
There’s the softness you feel when you focus on one physical quality in your partner that melts your heart and brings a smile to your face.
There’s the joy you feel when you listen to your favorite song together or have a blast on the dance floor.
There’s the contentment you feel when you read together but separately before going to bed.
There’s the feeling of stability that grows when you nurture the garden of your marriage year after year, enduring challenges and celebrating joys, and always knowing that you support your own and each other’s growth and happiness.
We live on an abundant planet. There isn’t just one fruit to be enjoyed in summer, not merely a single sweet plum to delight in as the first juice runs over your fingers; but cherries, blackberries, strawberries, melons, grapes, nectarines, peaches. Such miracles!
Likewise, there are so many ways to love. When we attune our awareness and widen our consciousness to include these variations on our narrow cultural definition, we know that romantic love is multi-colored and multi-dimensional. It’s infinitely richer than the images presented on the big screen, infinitely more nuanced and alive than the one-dimensional feeling of butterflies that sometimes initiates a relationship. It’s appreciation, comfort, gratitude, warmth, tingles, trust, awe, softness, joy, contentment, and stability (to name just a few words for love). It’s real and honest, and when we commit to loving one person with whom we can learn about, it becomes one of the most fulfilling and meaningful paths we can embark upon.