Originally published on The Huffington Post
One of my favorite authors, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, says that good love is like a bowl of oatmeal. A bowl of oatmeal? How unromantic, you may say. How prosaic, you think. Love should be an ice cream sundae with cherries and sprinkles on top. Love should be a decadent Italian dessert. Oatmeal? How depressing.
In our romance-addicted culture, this concept rubs many people the wrong way and often elicits questions like: Where’s the passion, the drama, the excitement? Isn’t love supposed to make me feel alive? Isn’t it supposed to fulfill my every need, even needs that I didn’t know I had?
What Johnson means is that love is not the cure-all that we set people up to believe it is. When love is true and real, it feels warm and sweet in your soul the way oatmeal feel warms and nourishing in your belly. It just feel good. It’s not over-the-top, heart-stopping romance – the stuff Hollywood is made of. It just works. It’s nice. It’s good. And it might not work all the time, but for the most part, the two of you connect and click in a special way. And, because this doesn’t happen every day, this is something to appreciate and celebrate.
Many of the problems that people encounter during their engagement and early years of marriage is that the reality of their relationship falls terribly short of their expectations. Because of a culturally-induced brainwashing that creates a set of unrealistic and fantasy-based expectations, many people expect love to look and feel a certain way and are painfully plagued by a mental list of shoulds: I should feel in love all the time. I should want sex all the time (or at least 2-3 times a week). I should look as happy as all my friends look on Facebook. I should feel sparkly like the sprinkles on top of my ice-cream sundae. But ask any couple married over twenty years and they’ll tell you that the sprinkles are not what you base a marriage on. They may shimmer in your daily life as a result of a sweet kiss or a satisfying conversation, but they’re not the foundation of a marriage.
So what is healthy love?
Let’s start with what love isn’t.
Love is not…
… infatuation. A relationship may start as a feeling in a burst of excitement and passion, butterflies and fireworks, but this isn’t real love (and it may not start this way, which doesn’t render the relationship any less worthy or viable). Eventually the flames die down and then the process of learning about real loving begins.
… an answer to your problems or the missing piece of your puzzle. The only person who can rescue you from your challenges is you. The only person who can create your sense of aliveness and wholeness is you.
… fitting into an image from a Meg Ryan rom-com or People magazine.
… unwavering certainty that you’ve met “the One.”
… scintillating conversation every time you see each other.
Now let’s explore what love is.
… action. When you truly love someone, you learn what their love language is and make efforts as often as possible to express your love in the language that your partner can receive. For example, if your partner’s love language is physical touch, you can say “I love you” all day long, but nothing will communicate your love as effectively as giving your partner a hug, a shoulder massage, or a kiss.
… a choice. We choose to take the risk of loving. We choose to practice opening our whole heart to our committed partner. We choose to break down the fear-barriers that try to convince us to run. We choose to challenge the false beliefs and unrealistic expectations propagated by popular culture that says that you must be 100% certain that you’re with the “right” person, “the one”, your soulmate. We choose to commit, and through the commitment we allow ourselves to unfold into a lifetime of learning about love.
… work. Real love may ask you to extend yourself for your partner in ways that stretch you beyond your comfort zone. I can already hear the outcries, “Love is work?! That’s crazy! Love shouldn’t have to be work.” And I can hear the comments from the long-term married couples who will say that love isn’t work. But if we understand work simply as effort, perhaps the outcries will quiet into understanding. Can a long-term marriage truly sustain and thrive without effort, without each person working to put themselves into their partner’s shoes and practice empathy and compromise? I don’t think so.
… an opportunity to grow and learn about yourself. Love asks you to extend yourself for the sake of the other. Love invites you to open your heart even when your habitual response is to shut down or withdraw from fear. Love pushes you to your edge, and on the projection screen of your partner’s face, where every fear, insecurity, and old wound will be reflected, you will be asked to take full responsibility for your pain, and through the willingness to feel this pain your heart will open to the joy of loving.
… a risk. Love says, “Risk everything that you are. Risk everything that you’ve known. Risk the safety and familiarity of your safe, single life.” Because when you choose to say yes to love, you render your heart vulnerable to the risk of being hurt. Most of us construct elaborate defenses as a way to avoid taking this risk, even going so far as convincing ourselves that we must walk away from a loving, wonderful, honest relationship when the truth is that we’re too scared to take the risk of loving.
… why we’re here.