So few people can truly qualify love, never mind distinguish between the kind of love that builds someone up or that breaks someone down. Everywhere we look, whether in our families, within our group of friends or on social media, love is misrepresented and ill defined.
So this begs the question: What is love? And what are the mechanisms by which we can sustain long-lasting, enriching relationships?
1. Love is not an adjective
By that, I mean it’s not meant to qualify who we are. Adjectives by nature define and describe; they give character and description to another word. But love does more than this. Our relationships need only ever be a part of us, not all. We are composed of so many things; we are made up of our passions, hobbies, ideas, histories, ambitions, and experiences. We are not limited to being someone’s partner; we are individuals first.
And love doesn’t determine our self-worth or personal value. Just because we have someone to love us, doesn’t mean that we’re more worthy for it. Along the same line, just because we don’t have someone to love us, doesn’t mean we’re less valuable. In fact, the quality of our relationships with others is largely measured by how much we respect and care for ourselves. Suffice it to say that we need to have high enough self-worth from the get-go in order to seek out a relationship worthy of our time and attention.
2. Love is not (even) a noun
Nouns, by definition, are words that identify something. Nouns are words composed of that which we can possess, whether material or non-material. But love is something different; it’s not something we have, get or own.
They say we don’t know what love is until we experience it for ourselves. And yet, what we often define as “true love” ends up looking a lot like a lack thereof from the rearview mirror. That’s because our concept of love is meant to evolve over time. What we identify as love when we’re teenagers won’t likely be the same type of love that we seek as adults. And that’s the whole point.
It’s also not a destination at which we arrive. Just because we’re in love, doesn’t mean the journey is over. In fact, the moment that we enter into a relationship, a whole new journey begins. We get to learn more about who this person is, while discovering more about ourselves. We learn how to be vulnerable and develop a shared sense of intimacy. And each new day, month and year begets a new challenge, whether that looks like going on dates, taking a trip, buying a house, or starting a family. Love, like life in general, is a series of new experiences and opportunities for growth.
And being in love doesn’t mean we’re exempt from self-growth. Great relationships aren’t the end-goal of the personal growth movement; they’re a side effect. Because nothing, not even love, is a guarantee in this life. And if we can’t grow with our partners, they’ll likely outgrow us. But besides this, working on ourselves is more than just being good enough for someone else. It’s an endeavor to constantly discover more about who we are in relation to every facet of our lives and environments.
3. Love is a verb
It’s something we actively do. It’s a series of choices we make every day. The choice to lean in, the choice to clean up, the decision to do what’s often least comfortable but always most worthwhile. It’s taking the responsibility for ourselves and for nourishing our partnerships. It’s recognizing that perfection doesn’t exist, and real relationships are oftentimes messy. It’s about developing a plan for how to deal with issues and how to communicate through the hard times.
As author Cheryl Strayed puts it, “The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light.” And so it’s a habit we work to hone. No matter how many years we’ve been together, there’s always more to learn about each other and ourselves. We can cultivate a habit of kindness, exploration and connection with our partners, or we can push them away and stagnate our bond.
It’s never black and white; the moment one thing gets resolved, another situation or new challenge arises. But if we can work through our biggest struggles, what we’re often left with is the source of our most meaningful and intimate experiences.
To conclude, the topic of love is one that’s no doubt elusive. And to be honest, love can mean one thing to someone and one thing completely different to someone else. There are many ways to love someone, and we can love different people in different ways. But the type of love that’s long lasting, the type of love that sustains over the years, that’s one in which each partner must grow together.
Perhaps we should approach our concept of love as being shades of grey. And maybe we should treat it as an action to think about and work on every day. Then we’d likely be better equipped to harness the kind of love we’re each longing for - the kind that also acts upon us in return.
This article was originally published here in Gainesville HOME Magazine, pages 16-17.