5 Ways We Mischaracterize LOVE (and how it harms our relationships)
As Valentine’s Day has been approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and how we talk about it.
When I was 10, I really wanted to write songs and be in a band. Despite the artistic leanings of my youth, 10-year-old me caved to commercialism, put down the Stretch Armstrong and Tori Amos CD’s, and listened to loads of mainstream pop music instead. This 1- or 2-year foray into my less interesting self led me to think that all popular songs (and by extension all popular topics) were about one of two things: clubbing (stupid) or love (of course).
I remember sort of agonizing over the issue of how I could possibly be a child pop star while not being able to straight-faced sing about “love” like everyone else did (never mind the fact that I can’t hold a note). It was a pickle for sure.
I mean, certainly there were examples of it being done by kids, but something about Hanson’s “Lucy,” and Lil Bow Wow’s “Puppy Love” just wasn’t real encouraging for me.
The whole thing got me thinking a lot about “love,” and I started paying close attention not just to how it was descried in pop culture, but also how it was described by those around me, and how that compared to the way it was actually expressed in real relationships.
In the process, I realized there are a few ways we characterize “love” that could use a little more analysis before we go to bed with them.
*Falling* in Love (Watch That First Step; It’s a Doozy)
This one irks me probably more than it should. But it’s because I think it trips so many people up. It plunges so many people into an assumption that “love” is an accidental thing that happens to a person. Which is, in my opinion, a ridiculous lie. Attraction happens to a person. Love does not. Love is decided. Love is built. Love it effected. Love requires action, not inaction.
By 13, I had heard several peers talk about how they had finally experienced this miraculous thing, this “love” thing. “It’s finally happened,” they would say, “I’ve finally fallen in love.” I rolled my eyes at the melodrama. I wasn’t buying it. For them, or for the adults.
Yet, if you listen to a lot of mainstream pop music, you’ve probably realized how often the idea of love is touted as something with a mind of its own. Something that *BOOM* just randomly hits some people upside the head. Something that *WHAM* just suddenly turns these sentient, conscious, grown-up human beings into crazed maniacs acting under “love’s” total will and authority. And something that *ZOOM* just suddenly leaves these same crazed maniacs without a moment’s notice.
And therein lies the problem. If you can fall into love then you can fall right back out without any accountability. No questions asked. No responsibility for any collateral damage. No intensive self reflection.
Now that’s not to say that people never stop loving someon; clearly, that happens. But how tragic to say it happens as easily as slipping on ice.
Romantic love is a two-way street, so it’s not all up to one person to put forth the effort, but it does require effort. It isn’t accidental. We love the people we care for (in the active sense of the word, ‘care’). We love the people we sympathize with. We love the people we make time for and listen to and build up. We don’t just trip onto those things.
And we don’t just trip back off of them either. When we say that we fall in and out of love, it makes it too easy to cheat and break up (a couple, a family even) and hurt and tear down while doing little more than pointing a finger at the terrain that happened to trip us up. “It wasn’t you; it just happened.” Let’s stop tripping over ourselves to make this excuse.
One Word to Rule them All (I Love Chocolate; I Love You)
To be clear, when I say “love” I mean the way someone describes their feelings about another person who they care deeply about. I have to clarify that, because — as is the premise of this section— we often talk about “love” in so many ways that it can be hard to know what we’re even saying.
Most of us intuitively realize that there are different degrees of caring. And, of course, there are those cumbersome, categorical qualifiers: platonic and romantic. But it’s not like we actually use these a lot in everyday speech. I mean, when was the last time you got off the phone with your mother like:
You: So glad we got to talk, Mom. I miss you.
Mom: Miss you too, Emily. I platonically love you.
You: Platonically love you too, Mom.
Totally weird, right? And yet…there’s something to be said for differentiating between levels and flavors of love.
I mean, it’s also super awkward that we say “I love you” to a human person and then in the same breath say “I love chocolate” to a completely inanimate mixture of cocoa beans and sugar.
And it’s not a huge deal, I know, because we can explain our differing levels of love when we really need to. But that’s sort of the point: maybe we need to.
Maybe we have cheapened “love” just a bit by applying it all over the place. And if we have, does it then end up a bit more empty when we say it to our closest companions?
Maybe we can spruce it up a bit and repackage it by branching out in our language: “I am inspired by you,” “I get so much out of being around you,” “You are my happy place,” “You calm me,” “You enliven me,” “Thank you for being you.”
By being more expressive with our word choice, by including the reasons for our love, by examining and explaining the things that bring us closer to others, we become fierce warriors battling the spirits of the Norse and Anglo Saxons who failed to give us good enough vocabulary to distinguish between the most sincere passions of the heart…and tacos (unless those two are one in the same, of course).
True love. That Dream Within a Dream.
If you didn’t catch that Princess Bride reference there, then I feel sad for your soul. And also you should go watch that movie right now (well, finish reading this first).
When you watch it, you’ll probably laugh at the scene where Billy Crystal interprets a mostly-dead man’s exhaled words of “true love,” to be instead “to blave” (which is mostly-dead-man speak for “to bluff”). But had it been true love, Billy Crystal says, “true love is the greatest thing in the world.”
It’s a wonderful little scene. It’s also a great place for true love to stay and never leave, confined to a fantasy story that everyone knows is satire.
Unfortunately, that is not where it stays. It steps right out of fantasy and satire land into our everyday lives. And while it’s here, it likes to tell us that it’s a real, actual thing, one of a kind, unique and rare, yet universally applicable. Everyone has a “true love,” it says. You just have to find it.
“True love” makes us think that we have to search the globe, discarding perfectly appropriate and amazing relationships left and right along the way, because they might not be “the one.”
“True love” might be an appealing idea; so is a free lunch. But neither of them is actually a real thing. The idea of “true love” is appealing because it’s easy and magical and perfect. If we just keep our eyes and hearts open and go out into the world, perfect love will fall into our laps at the right time, whenever it’s “meant” to be.
But real love isn’t easy or magical or perfect. Real love is difficult and authentic and messy. Real love is Type B, scattered, malleable, amorphous. It is one part the clay we have available to us and two parts what we make of that clay. That’s why some arranged marriages are actually happy and safe and full of life. The clay was good and the couple made something beautiful out of it. They didn’t have to search the globe for “the one.” They just made it work with what they had.
Real love is amazing and rewarding and full of meaning, but only when it is safe + when you dedicate yourself to it. There is no easy, magical answer to love. If you think there is, you just might be wandering about looking for a lie whilst missing all the great truths around you.
When it comes to love, to make it “true,” you just have to be smart and safe about who you give it to, and then you give them your all.
They say that every parent loves their children unconditionally. We adults understand the euphemistic quality of this sentiment (at least I think we do). And yet, we seem to not mind spitting the sentiment out at children without further explanation.
We hear a child (our own or someone else’s) complain about their parents (read: open up about their concerns) and we might say “Well, you know they only want what’s best for you. They love you no matter what,” and then we don’t give it another thought.
But do they? Do they always only want what’s best for their children? Do they love their children no matter what?
Having prosecuted specifically child abuse and sex crimes for a good portion of my career, I can guarantee you that some parents simply do not only want what’s best for their children. They do not unconditionally love them. And that’s true of parents with far less serious issues than criminal child abuse charges. There are many levels of love between none and unconditional.
Depending on the age of the child, it’s so important for them to understand this. It’s so important for them to realize that whatever they’re experiencing at home — be it a mother with a personality disorder or a step-father who abuses them every night — whatever it is that they experience, someone is out there who will validate how they feel about it. Someone is out there who won’t just say, “well you know your parents love you.” Someone is out there who will say that sometimes parents really do suck, and really don’t care about their kids, and that it doesn’t mean the kids deserve it.
From the child’s perspective, too much talk of “unconditional” love — as though it were a given in every parent-child relationship— is dangerous to their having a healthy worldview and self-concept.
And to the lax parent, too much talk of “unconditional” love makes it just too easy to be endlessly passive aggressive. How many times have parents started out unnecessary (and sometimes unwarranted) discipline with “I love you, but…”? As though the love is just a given, a prerequisite that they passed the test for a long time ago, so now they don’t have to do the work anymore. “I love you, but…” has got to be one of the most cheapening ways to express love. It essentially says, “I can now say whatever I want to you — helpful or harmful — because I already paid lip service to my automatically-endowed love for you.”
So many harmful words have followed that phrase, in part because we think parents get a pass on actually working at love, because we say that parents are just automatically endowed with unconditional love for their kids when we know they aren’t.
Love At First Sight
Part of mainstream pop culture’s message, it seems to me, has been to romanticize romantic love so much that it feels like something completely, magically different and more special than what most people feel on a daily basis for someone they care about.
I think of Cinderella, walking into the ballroom late, catching the attention of the prince who stops mid-sentence and rushes over to her. Then — zap — a few dances later and “so this is love.” A happily ever after (plus one small shoe incident) all because of love at first sight.
Now, if we stop and think about this logically, does it actually make sense that two people might create a longstanding relationship, one that is real and deep and of substance, based on a glimpse of appearance?
It’s interesting that so many friendships become strong despite the lack of butterflies, the absence of giddiness, the complete nonexistence of twitterpation, not even a single minute of the “honeymoon phase.”
It’s interesting that many mentors love their students even without having to monitor for physical appearance or request a full body shot first, and even though these mentors see their students, by default, through their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses, the things that need practice and patience.
Doctors often love their patients, therapists often love their clients, justice system employees often love their victims or defendants.
What is so different about these relationships? Is there really such a huge chasm between this kind of platonic love and romantic love?
Interest factoid: I’m in love and have been for the last 17 years. And it’s not magic. There was no fairy godmother. There was no ballroom, no sentence-stopping entrance. There was interest and attraction and raging curiosity. But not magic. In fact, it actually feels a lot like platonic love + sexual attraction. That is, the only real difference between platonic love and romantic love in this longstanding relationship is our physical intimacy and our level of emotional intimacy (based on fierce dedication to one another). It’s not magic, but it sure is beautiful.
And it’s one of the reasons I just get baffled about people believing in “love” at first sight. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe in chemistry, in personalities that click ridiculously well, in physical attraction, but I’ve felt these things (maybe minus the physical attraction?) in friendships just as I have in my previous and current love interests. It’s certainly something at first sight, but to call it “love” makes it difficult to differentiate from real love, which is much more amazing, much more beautiful, and much more substantive than attraction.
And here again we find another thing making it all too easy to break up a dedicated relationship.
So you’re in a longstanding relationship. You’ve shared each other’s most vulnerable moments, you’ve made promises, maybe you’ve even brought children into the world by no choice of their own. And then things get stale. You didn’t realize that love doesn’t always feel magical.
Then comes the problem: someone else walks into the ballroom and catches your eye. Do you stop your longstanding relationship mid-sentence and waltz away with this someone else?
The problem of “love at first sight” is that it gives license to those who choose to waltz. It makes it easier — lessens the guilt — if you can say that you just don’t “love” your longstanding partner anymore and now you finally “love” someone again. Not your fault. Sorry kids.
But it’s not love. It’s twitterpation. It’s attraction.
Too much emphasis on random association, spontaneous physical attraction, and unreliable twitterpation is dangerous to the kind of love that is much more meaningful in the long run — the kind of love that feels a lot more like a very good friendship. But with sex.
It might do us good to rephrase this “love at first sight” to attraction. Why not? Why can’t we just call it what it is?
If we want to have real, lasting love, a love that won’t cheat on us (because someone else waltzed in), a love that will stay with us through thick and thin, a love that cares about the most important and intimate things we have to say, then we have to realize that it’s not always going to feel like love at first sight. We have to realize that marathons don’t feel like sprints: our heart rate will go up and down at different legs of the race. And that’s exactly as it should be.
So while our hearts might race upon seeing a certain someone in a ballroom, that doesn’t mean that a fairy godmother will suddenly show up and endow the situation with lasting love.
We don’t just fall into it.
It doesn’t just become longstanding love because we call it love.
It isn’t one-of-a-kind — something true as though everything else is false.
It won’t be immediately unconditional no matter the circumstances.
And it won’t spontaneously become substantive at first sight.
If we want real, lasting love, we need to realize that it’s not so different than in any other relationship. We have to work at it. We have to run the race. We have to go the distance.
So to anyone looking for love, searching for something uniquely different than any other feeling, not understanding why that magical feeling always tends to flit away after awhile, just realize this: there was never any fairy godmother; you have held the wand in your own hand the whole time.
If you liked (or learned from) this post:
Please consider clicking the 👏 👏 👏, below or sharing with anyone who’d enjoy it. Thanks for reading!