We think we know what love is, and that we will instantly recognize it when it shows up on our doorstep. We grow up watching romantic movies, seeing friends get married, observing how grandparents and family members take care of each other. We have religion telling us what love looks and acts like. All of these examples form our definition of love.
I thought I knew what love was. It looked a lot like the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It included words like: respect, honesty, compromise, patience, forgiveness. Sounds pretty par for the course. After 2 marriages and 2 divorces, I realized I needed to rethink my definition.
Sometimes we think we know something so well, that we don’t even question it anymore. Kinda like when I was 25, my dentist sat me down and demonstrated how to brush teeth properly with a toothbrush and a plastic model of a mouth. At that time, I thought, “I know how to brush my teeth! I’ve been doing it for decades already.” (and I must say that I haven’t had a tooth filled since I was a teenager!) But no…I was going through similar brushing motions and was getting some parts right, but there was room for improvement. Complacency results in cavities…or gingivitis.
Who wants to have the equivalent of gingivitis within their relationships?
Can you imagine:
A: Wow. your breath stinks.
B: So does yours!
A: We have the same problems.
B: This is why we understand each other.
A: Marry me?
Love isn’t about trying out different people until you find someone who can tolerate your flaws. We tell ourselves that we can’t be perfect and that people should love us, warts and all. This is true but you shouldn’t, in the name of love, make someone suffer because of your flaws. Love is about wanting to be the best version of yourself. You also want to actively help your partner be their best self.
People grow and change daily. In all of our relationships we need to figure out how to understand each other during the changes. A parent loves their child all throughout their lives, and we are very different today than we were on Day 1. How do they tolerate us big babies? (big shout out to all the parents in the world!)
Instead of a match made in heaven, a more common scenario ends up like this:
(B figures out how to get fresh breath and tries to get A on board, but to no avail.)
A: You have complaints about me?
B: Yeah, cuz your breath stunk…still stinks…and will always stink if you don’t care enough to do anything about it.
A: But you said you loved me! Now you’re trying to manipulate and change me for your own benefit.
B: (Feels guilty and confused. I only wanted to help A be better. Why did I complain to begin with? It’s not like A is abusive. In fact, at least A takes showers. I should drop this and focus on gratitude.)
Poor A and B. The two of them are both sure that their definitions of love are correct. What exactly is love? Here are some ways I’ve come to view love while actively failing and sometimes succeeding at loving myself and others:
Love is a choice.
You can make the choice conditional, or unconditional. Either way, it is a choice. Sometimes we think that love will hit us, and we think it will be this feeling like a guiding light, something we have no control over. There is no such thing. Like every other action we do, it is a choice. We choose to get on the rollercoaster. We choose to get off the rollercoaster. Our partner is having a bad day and says hurtful things. We make a choice to storm out, or a choice to sit down and talk about it. Over a relationship, lots of ugly things can happen. The relationship lasts only for as long as you decide to choose love.
Love is an investment.
I cringe at that word. An ex of mine once said that he was NOT going to break things off with me because he had invested time, and he demanded a return on that investment. The problem was he was making demands for himself, which is how we often see investments. You put something in to reap the benefits later. Investing in love is different. Love is an investment in another person’s success and well-being. You put credits into their account and you celebrate their successes! You don’t do it with expectations that they will repay you…with interest. If we go back and take parenting as an example, it’s clear that they invest their love in their children, all for the child’s benefit. Joy comes from knowing that you are contributing to a person’s growth.
Love is steady, and Romance is its wild unreliable best friend.
Don’t trust romance. Enjoy it when swings through town, but don’t expect it to stay forever. Remember to invite romance back often though!
Love is being supportive.
This is essentially caring. You care enough. They care enough, to help and offer strength when needed. Love shouldn’t drain you. It should fill you up.
Love is not an exchange.
If you are keeping tabs on all the things you do, and are only willing to put in as much as you get out, you are in a business exchange. Maybe it’s the business of running a household, or the business of raising a family. Is it 50/50? Or maybe one partner gets 51% of the shares. Whatever the arrangement, this is not love. This is convenience. It may make life run smoother if all parties are in agreement, but don’t confuse it with love. Once you stop making contributions, the other side will too, and the only thing you have left is a sign posted saying, “Thank you. It has been a pleasure serving you for X years.”
Love is understanding.
You want to know and understand a person. If you need to talk things out, you don’t want to be steered away from conversation with gifts or diversions. Being told that you should be grateful for dinner/the roof over your head/that the bills are paid, and to stop talking is not the best way to grow an understanding relationship. Taking the time to understand another person is the real gift, because being understood is a cure for loneliness.
Love is self-acceptance.
If you’re holding onto someone because they like you while you don’t even like yourself, it isn’t going to end well. Same if it flips the other way. If you insist on loving someone while they hate on themselves, it will be a long haul for you. When you know how to accept who you are, you are able to offer your whole self to another person to love. You will be able to tell them how to love you, instead of silently hoping they will “fix” you.
Love is not a competition.
People like to win. Winning feels good. With a partner though, winning means the other person is losing. Do you really want to turn your partner into a loser? Does it make you happy to know that you are better than your partner? Stop making it all a competition.
Love is being open to criticism.
If someone lives with you, they are the person who sees best where you can improve. You have to be open to that. If they are invested in your well-being and happiness, they should have the right to tell you where you can be better. This should be done tactfully and with love. You also have the right to tell them! Of course you both should love each other as you are, but if we refer back to our example of the stinky-breathed lovers up above, do you really want to be complacent and allow gingivitis to seep into your lives? This is one way to grow together.
Love is being grateful.
Be grateful that someone is willing to put up with you. It’s a tall order, because a lot of the time, cohabitation can be hell!