The Truth About Love (and my thoughts on Instagram)

Love is one of the great enlargers of the person because it requires us to ‘take in’ the stranger and to understand him, and to exercise restraint and tolerance as well as imagination to make the relationship work.”

– May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

I recently decided to join Instagram. With my new book slated for spring publication, my publisher is expecting me to join more social media platforms. While there’s a part of me that bucks in the face of this expectation, there’s another part that understands that this is a primary way that people share information these days. As I poked around Instagram I could quickly see that, like all social media platforms and our devices, it can be used in a way that depletes us or it can be used in a way that supports consciousness, creativity, and connection. In other words, the problem isn’t the platforms and devices; the problem is how we use them. As I say to my sons repeatedly, “Use the computer wisely. It can be used as a tool for creativity and learning or it can be used as a colossal distraction from your life.” Our devices don’t cause us to check out from life any more than a glass of alcohol causes us to become an addict. The deciding factor is how we use them.

It’s my deepest intention to use Instagram as a way to dispense doses of wisdom and inspiration, both mine and others. The simple, visual platform lends itself well to bite-sized pieces of soul, and, as we all can benefit from reminders of words and images that connect us to the deeper wellsprings of our being, it seems like a potentially positive place to share wisdom. What Instagram doesn’t offer is a place to expound upon this wisdom and explore the vicissitudes of a quote or passage. That’s what we do here.

So now let’s flesh out the above quote, which I shared on Instagram last week. May Sarton has been one of my touchstone authors since my twenties. I love all of her novels and her poetry, but it’s her personal journal that landed deeply in my soul twenty years ago and which I re-read every few years. Here she lets us into her inner world: her depression, her despair, her profound awareness of the life-and-death cycles, her creative process, her need for solitude, her deep friendships, and her reflections on her intimate relationship. I’ve read the above quote countless times, and every time it makes me smile as it confirms and encapsulates everything I write about love in one sentence. Let’s take is phrase by phase:

“Love is one of the great enlargers of the person.” Through loving we grow. She’s not saying that love makes us whole or alive or ecstatic. She’s saying love enlarges us, which means that through the challenges and joys of love, we become more of ourselves.

“It requires us to ‘take in’ the stranger and to understand him (Or her). Love asks us to truly know another, who in the beginning is a stranger. This flies in the face of the cultural expectation that says that when you meet our true love you’ll know it because you’ll finish each other’s sentences, as if you’ve known each other for lifetimes. Even decades into marriage, on some level our partner is still a stranger, just as we are to them, and the work of love is to extend ourselves to the strangeness of another so that we can seek to understand each other. As another brilliant mind wrote:

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.
 This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.” – Rilke

That each protects the solitude of the other. Yes! Love isn’t about merging into one glom of an undifferentiated human. It’s about two formed people coming together to guard each other’s solitude, which, on one level, means that we not only remain strangers to some degree but that we seek to preserve this element of separateness that defines the stranger. We are not meant to dissolve into each other. We’re meant both to know one another and not know one another, and through accepting this paradox of love we enlarge our capacity for loving.

To exercise restraint and tolerance”  Again, this flies in the face of everything our culture teaches us about love. Where do we learn that love is about exercising restraint and tolerance? We’re conditioned to believe that love is about full-force, no holds-bar state of abandon where we fling ourselves into the arm of a passionate other and merge into a cosmic pool of bliss. This may be adolescent love but it’s not mature love. Mature love is about holding our tongues (restraint) instead of nagging and complaining. It’s about knowing that our partners are just as quirky, human, and flawed as we are, which means we learn to develop tolerance for the things that irritate us. And what I’ve learned in my marriage – and it took me a very, very long time – is that by growing the muscle of restraint and becoming tolerant, the things that used to irritate me have now become the source of our deepest joy and humor. The irritation was one of my fear-walls, and as those came down I found that irrepressible laughter was on the other side.

“as well as imagination to make the relationship work.” This is my favorite part of the quote: she’s telling us that love requires imagination to make the relationship work. What does this mean? It means that the stories we tell ourselves largely determine how we view our relationship. We can tell ourselves fear-stories, as those prone to anxiety are want to do, or we can learn to change the channel in our brains and tell love stories. One of my favorite exercises in my Open Your Heart program is asking people to tell their love story through the lens of real romance (not the Hollywood version). It’s an invitation for members to see into the essence of their partner and tell the true story of goodness of character that they find there. Reading those stories is pure delight, and such a needed antidote to the false stories we read in the media.

Imagination isn’t only about the stories we tell ourselves. It’s also the realm of soul: of dreams, poetry, art, creativity in all forms. In order for love to thrive, we need to feed our souls with imagery – imagination – and not expect our partners to do this for us. When we’re filled up on our own soul-dwelling and we meet our partners in that place from time to time, the pool of love remains well nourished.

From one brilliant sentence we extract a world of meaning and a solid blueprint for how to navigate love. Thank you, May Sarton.

***

You can follow me on Instagram here.

25 comments to The Truth About Love (and my thoughts on Instagram)

  • Ayu

    Thank you for this. I’m recognizing that during my 7 year relationship, I had a lot of anxiety and fear around the words and actions of my partner. I created stories that didn’t always feature him in the best light. I made assumptions instead of asking questions sometimes. Maybe I projected my fears into him. And then, when he broke up with me recently, he said to me, “ just remember all the bad times.” and listed a number of things I’d done and why he thought I’d done them. Many were not accurate. It seems such a waste to both be creating negative stories about each other when all along there was love under the fear. I can see that but he can’t or doesn’t want to. How do couples find their way to both see each other in the light?

    • I’m sorry you’re going through this painful time. As far as your question, couples do it by working very hard on addressing their own blind spots and fear-based, illusory stories. It’s not easy.

  • Heidi

    How funny that you posted this on the very day I decided to disable my Instagram! Luckily I can still visit your page, but yes, I realized I needed to quit Instagram for the same reason I quit Facebook: it is primarily used by people as a platform to show the very best snippets of their lives, creating an illusion of “the best life ever.” I have learned that I’m too fragile to ward off the insecurities triggered by visiting Instagram. More to the point of the main message of your post, this all flows beautifully with my focus on the last few lessons in Break Free.

    • Good for you for trusting yourself and getting off of social media! As you know, I recommend a media fast quite frequently to my clients and course members, especially for those in the earlier stages of breaking free from relationship anxiety and growing self-trust. There are so many more nourishing ways to spend our time.

  • Kayleen

    This is beautiful. I also had to get off of Instagram. As a highly sensitive person I felt over stimulated and all of the quotes I read that people posted were affecting me. It was in turn affecting me spiritually as people would say that God would use something on Instagram or Facebook to talk to you and I became paranoid wondering if every quote or video was god talking to me about my partner. It drove.

  • Kayleen

    me away instead of toward my bowl of oatmeal❤ who I am now married too. But in turn has helped me realize there is an underlying fear emotion being provoked that i need to tap into. Now I try to sit with these feelings instead of allowing them to make decisions for me. It’s more peaceful though it’s not easy. Thank you for your work and truth on love sheryl

  • immie

    I always have to stop and reflect when I read your words about creating stories in our heads about our partner, because it’s so true. I come from a family and a friend group who are all about biting wit and politically charged conversations; everything’s a debate and a lot of the humour can be edging into ‘mean’. For a while I’ve been ruminating about the fact that my partner isn’t the same as these other people in my life. We share political views, but he isn’t interested in talking about them for hours on end, we have a lot of laughter but it’s generally sweet and goofy, rather than sharp and cutting. For a while – after the highs of infatuation fell away – I felt that our relationship lacking these specific dynamics meant that it was wrong for me, and I found myself judging him for not being political enough, or sharp witted enough. I’m working my way towards better self awareness now, and I’m coming to see that actually, I’ve been completely blind to the fact that the differences between this relationship and the others in my life is kind of a blessing.

    I have these intense passionate and witty relationships with my friends, and they’re great, but they also turn every interaction into a competition, a need to outsmart each other, and an ever amplifying wall of political anger as we vent and reinforce one another’s righteous outrage. My relationship offers me the chance to learn to experience political anger and to not let it affect me so much. It is opening the door to find laughter in ways that aren’t competitive or mean. For so long I was telling myself stories about how the relationship wasn’t meeting my expectations, and completely missing all the great things that I didn’t know I needed! At the same time I think that he is seeing things about me that can open doors for him too. We’ve made a little two person non-fiction book club between us now, finding places where our hunger for knowledge overlaps and diving into that experience together. My curiosity propels us forward and his ‘chill’ keeps us from being overwhelmed.

    All of this rambling to say that you’re so right, and that nobody should try and ‘reinterpret’ abuse or disdain, (and nobody should be the sole person doing this work in a relationship, I feel it gets lumped on the woman in a hetero couple a lot it should be journey for two) but that sometimes what look like shortcomings of a relationship are actually offerings for growth. It just takes some work to pick apart the story formed from negativity bias, and find the new, helpful story that gives you space and peace.

  • Alizah

    Thank you for this and all your other insightful posts! What bothers me the most about social media is that my OWN account posts (Facebook) will actually spike me. When I take pictures of my fiancé and I to post I will take so many just to get it right because I want us to appear like the perfect couple. And then when I look at the pictures I just posted, I start the projections and ruminations – I think that I look so happy in the picture and start questioning “shouldn’t I feel like how this looks? It must not be right if I don’t” and I’ll look at him in the pictures and think “shouldn’t I be attracted when looking at these pictures? I’m not, and that’s a problem.” Etc etc (we all know these thoughts). So in the end, social media spikes me in these unhealthy ways. Not sure if that makes sense.

  • lisa

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. So timely and soul nourishing.
    side note, I’ve been off FB for almost 6 months now, and haven’t felt this great in years. My anxiety went down noticeably in the first few weeks away. And I wasn’t even a big user, just a reader. I’m toying with reconnecting as so many groups I belong to post announcements there.. kids school, swim club, soccer pics, etc… but I truly don’t want to. The peace and clarity Ive gained in staying in myself is so precious I wont give it away easily. Sure, I dont hear about a lot of local events, but I’m always right where I need to be anyway. I think social media is particularly iffy for sensitive and ADD types. Definitely not a good habit for me!

    • I hear you, Lisa! I think it’s very hard to participate in social media without getting triggered. What I have found in my few weeks on Instagram is that if I log on to share my post then quickly log off it can be a place to share inspiration and creativity. I’ve also decided to follow only a few close friends and a few people who offer inspiration. If someone’s posts trigger me in any way (usually because I sense that the posts are coming from ego instead of higher self), I unfollow.

  • Susanne McCormick

    This take on love is also important to consider.

    Care and affection are not love, or so argues author and cultural critic Bell Hooks in her book “All About Love: New Visions”:
    “Many of us chose relationships of affection and care that will never become loving because they feel safer. The demands are not as intense as loving requires. The risk is not as great. So many of us long for love but lack the courage to wait and take risks. Even though we are obsessed with the idea of love, the truth is that most of us live relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives even if we feel that love is lacking … Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks — with terrible alienation.”

    Unfortunately, she doesn’t sound much different than my middle-aged friends who have “relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives” while staying in loveless and sexless marriages.

    • Obviously I hold a vastly different view, as do many who are on the front lines of exploring the frontier of real, vulnerable loving and know that when we do the real work of love, we create highly loving and alive relationships. Safe love is actually the greatest risk of all as it requires us to show up fully – in body, heart, mind, and soul – with our partner. For more along these lines, please read Sue Johnson’s brilliant book, “Hold Me Tight” as well as Charlie and Linda Bloom’s books.

  • Sara

    This was so timely as usual! One of the things I’ve wrestled with throughout my relationship with my boyfriend (and if I’m honest its a pattern with others as well) is our differences that fear has caused me to focus on. I can always hear the fear saying, “he doesn’t think like you so he obviously doesn’t get you.” Yet as the fear drops and I see through clear eyes of love I see the sweet beauty and goodness in how wonderful it is that he isn’t like me. I grew up with many enmeshed relationships with my mom and her family and when I strayed from their norms I was made fun of or disowned in different ways. So this concept of solitude is new, but I love how you so graciously put it:

    “Love isn’t about merging into one glom of an undifferentiated human. It’s about two formed people coming together to guard each other’s solitude, which, on one level, means that we not only remain strangers to some degree but that we seek to preserve this element of separateness that defines the stranger. We are not meant to dissolve into each other. We’re meant both to know one another and not know one another, and through accepting this paradox of love we enlarge our capacity for loving.”

    Rather than try to make him into me or how I think he should be I hope to continue to protect his sweet and tender spirit and grow my own capacity for loving and receiving love in new ways. Thank you, Sheryl!

  • I’ve been following this site.I belong to that category where anxiety has been there since the beginning of the relationship(during the start and 2 months after it),with a lot of physical anxiety and intrusive & negative thoughts about my relationship,I have now been calm for last 1 to 2 months..I have learnt about true love thanks to my boyfriend and your site..Thanks for that

  • But ,when I read your blog after a long time,the comment by Susanna Mccormick has spiked me a lot…I mean..care and affection with sexual,emotional and mental intimacy should be there..right?If u care about your partner,does it mean that you dont love him?Isn’t care and affection part of loving your partner?i do get spike d by fb and instagram qoutes about love often with songs triggering me(better now)

    • Lady Ridgewater

      If I can offer some thoughts that might help here – all that Susanna’s comment shows is that love, as a concept, means different things to different people. I think bell hooks is a fantastic scholar, but she’s no more an expert on some universal concept of love than anyone else. You get to define love and what it means for yourself.

      Much of what Sheryl talks about here (as I interpret it) is finding the courage to let go of anything that looks like a “should” (outside of abusive situations) and open yourself up to the opportunity to create love as a unique experience of your own. The thing about social media and love songs that is so triggering is that they create these ‘shoulds’ about what love looks like, without allowing for the fact that individual humans have individual needs and are living individual lives. One template of what love can be isn’t going to fit everyone and actually I think a lot of what bell hooks is talking about in those ‘loveless but fairly decent lives’ comes from people who found someone they *could* love but never gave themselves the opportunity to design and create a love together that is the most nourishing form for those two individuals.

      You get to choose what your love looks like, and you get to decide who you want to design and create that love with.

      • Fantastically wise and beautiful. Thank you.

      • Thank you for offering an insight…yeah..there are times of disconnection and yes lack of “romantic”feelings towards him…but I do know that…despite everything that I have…the first person that I turn to…share all my dreams and aspirations with…one with whom I can see myself building a life with..is him…and I am learning that..it is ok to let myself feel

        • Yes..there are times when I feel attracted to him..and hve those feelings back(not as high as what it was during the infatuation phase)…I could sense a beautiful and calm sense of being connected with him…I not going to allow any song or movie to trigger me..or influence me..even if it takes time…

  • Being a young girl in 20s(21 years old),our culture and society tell us that it is too young to be committed..I sometimes have fear of not loving him enough or at all!!!(I am learning a lot..thanks to my relationship and your blog..youblog..)But,Sex and love is something we can work and nurtured…right…

  • I know that I love him..because he is my safe haven,with whom I feel most comfortable and I dont have insecured attachment with him…He is my best friend,we do have great sexual chemistry..as it is the trigger for our intimacy…But..last many months..I have been plagued by my thoughts..(still now…but I dont surrender to them now)…

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