If you’ve grown up in Western culture, you’ve been inundated from the time you were born with images and beliefs about love. Most, if not all, of these images are predicated on the archaic paradigm of Romantic Love. Romantic love is not real love. Romantic love is, most simply put, infatuation. It’s based on the model of longing for someone that you can never completely have, and it’s this longing that then becomes mistaken for real love. Being in a state of longing is a dramatic and fully alive experience. It creates butterflies in your belly and light-headedness in your mind. If not understood properly, the one in the longing position can easily believe that she or he is “in love.”
If the object of the longing, often called “the beloved”, does reciprocate, “the lover” often runs the other way. And so begins an all-too familiar game of chase with each participant alternating between the pursuer or distancer roles. The game is emotionally intense but ultimately unsatisfying. The bottom line is that real intimacy never occurs. It’s dramatic but safe. It’s temporarily painful but there’s no long-term risk involved. And it certainly isn’t a healthy model on which to base a marriage!
Real love, on the other hand, requires that both people show up for each other in the same place at the same time. There is no game-playing, which creates more consistent stability in terms of the intensity of emotion; gone are the ecstatic highs and despairing lows that defined the unhealthy relationships of the past. As such, real love requires that both people risk their hearts to form a bond of true intimacy.
One of my clients recently asked me to define real love. I rattled off a list and later thought it might benefit others to write about it here. So here is my list of the beliefs, attributes, and precepts that define real love (with the caveat that I’m not sure that anyone understands love in its totality!):
1. Real love is a conscious choice that often employs the rational part of our brains. Some couples have a “free ride” in the early stages of their relationship where they experience the intense feelings characterized by romantic love, but not everyone. And these feelings certainly aren’t necessary for real love to emerge as the relationship grows, as evidenced by the success rate of arranged marriages in other parts of the world. It’s when the infatuation feelings diminish that the couple has to learn that love is a choice, not a feeling, as M. Scott Peck says in “The Road Less Traveled.”
2. Real love accepts that your partner is a fallible, imperfect human, just as you are. Unlike romantic life, which ascends the object of desire to the realm of a god, part of the jolt down to earth that many of clients experience during their engagement is the realization that their partner is not perfect – that he isn’t as smart or witty or fun or good-looking as she thought the person she would marry would be. The romantic bubble of marrying Prince Charming is burst. Most of my clients focus on one missing area – sometimes to the point of obsession – and it’s often an attribute that never bothered her before they were engaged. As time passes, the real fears are addressed, and love is redefined, the obsession mellows and she learns to accept and fully love her partner exactly as he is.
3. Real love ebbs and flows in terms of interest, ease, and feelings. In other words, in any healthy relationship there will be times when things effortlessly work, where the spark is alive and the couple is interested in one another and life. And there will be times of, for lack of a better word, boredom. Part of accepting real love is understanding that the boredom is normal and not a symptom that something is wrong with the relationship or that you don’t love your partner enough.
4. Real love is based on shared values and a solid friendship. You genuinely like each other (even though you might not like everything about your partner).
5. Real love is action. Real love asks that you give even when you don’t feel like giving (in a healthy way, not a codependent way). Real love is more concerned with how you can give to your partner than what you can get from him or her.
6. Real love is a spiritual practice in that your focus is not how you can change your partner to alleviate your anger, pain, or annoyance but how you can assume full responsibility for those feelings and find healthy and constructive ways to attend to them. When you change in positive ways, the relationship will positively change as well.
7. Real love is a lifelong practice. You’re not expected to know how to give and receive real love at the onset of marriage, but are expected to work at it so that over the course of your life together your capacity to love grows. See my article “Marriage is a Work-in-Progress” for more on this point.
So the next time you watch a romantic comedy and find yourself doubting if you love your wonderful, supportive, honest, loving partner enough, read over this list and see if your anxiety finds containment as you redefine what love really is.