What is love? Building healthy relationships

I’m writing this piece because I’d like to share my thoughts and feelings on my newfound understanding of love and relationships, with the intention of paying it forward and helping others who may be interested in improving their relationships. Before I begin, I feel it’s important to state that I have not yet applied the ideas contained here, but am working on doing so.

I find that there is so much confusion and false myths about love in our culture. A common idea is that love is an amazing feeling that you have in a romantic relationship. Everywhere in pop culture, online, books, music, and movies we are taught that love is the strong emotions that develop when you meet someone you find attractive and desirable. We grow up with the fairy tale that the other person will complete us and that everything will be perfect once we meet our match. And if things turn sour, it means that she or he wasn’t actually the right one for us, that we had bad luck or poor judgment, and we try again with the next person that we meet who gives us the good feelings we associate with love. Outside of romantic relationships, a common idea about love is that it means feeling strongly for one’s family and friends, and caring about and providing for family.

I’ve come to the understanding that strong positive emotions for someone you desire can be part of love, but it is not love. The same is true for caring, providing for, and feeling emotionally invested in someone. These things alone don’t mean that we are loving. The blissful feel-good state between lovers fades after a few months, guaranteed. Lots of people who care about, provide for, and have strong emotional attachments to their lovers, family and friends, act in ways that are harmful to those they claim to love. For example, parents may give their child a good education, food on the table and care about their general well-being but discourage them from becoming independent adults. A friend may put their bestie down behind their back, even in subtle ways, to make themselves look better and cover up their own failures. Even when there are more serious forms of harm, such as the dad or mom who beats their children, it’s common that the abuser provides for the victims and claims that they care for them, and they may even say that they beat them because they care for them and love them, “for their own good”.

The idea that love is a feeling or an emotional investment, sometimes coupled with care and giving material things, is not helpful and in my opinion, can actually be harmful to relationships. If we believe that we are in loving relationships just because a strong feeling for the other person is present, we could do all kinds of things that would hurt the other person, and/or have them done unto us. It would be possible to lie, cheat and steal in such a relationship and still call it love. Many people who experience such things turn around and say that love is misery, when love in fact had nothing to do with it.

Lots of people would say that love is one of the most important things in life, and many “search” for it their whole lives because they feel a deep sense of lovelessness inside themselves. But how can we say that love is the most important thing in life if we aren’t sure what it is? Indeed, how can we truly love and be loved if our understanding of love allows it to co-exist with abuse?

Adding to the confusion about love, it is promoted as a grand mystery that defies definition. This makes it even harder for us to navigate relationships and to know love, because if love is a mysterious phenomenon that regular humans can never know, what would be the point of trying to understand it? If we buy in to these notions about love and believe that it cannot be understood, there is a danger that we may get stuck in dysfunctional relationships.

The understanding I’ve come to that I hope will help others, is that love is seeking the best for the other person in a relationship and helping them grow spiritually. In the book The Road Less Traveled, M Scott Peck defines Love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. With this definition, I find that a lot of things about relationships become a lot clearer.

Love means helping another person reach their highest potential and bring out their best, as well as working to reach your own highest potential and bringing out the best within yourself. It means doing the work of honest communication, listening, dedication, self-discipline, responsibility, and commitment. If we take this definition to heart, it’s clear that romance is not love at all, as the good feelings of being in love are only temporary.  Indeed, Peck says that when the romance ends, the work of love can start. Also, using this definition, there’s no room in love for abuse, neglect, or having any negative intention whatsoever. Such is not possible if we claim the definition of love as helping one another grow, as any kind of violence and negativity is the opposite of nurturing growth.

If we embrace the definition of love as nurturing another’s growth, millions of people will likely realize that their lives are devoid of love. Indeed, it is a harsh reality, but only when we realize this can we begin to change it and bring love into our lives. I would like to emphasize that I have in no way applied love as nurturing spiritual growth in my own life yet, but it is my goal to be a practitioner of it.

Love is important to all people, and to humanity as a whole. I believe that deep down, everyone wants to know love – to give and receive it. If we’re to do this, debunking the myth of romance is a must. Peck says that “the myth of romance is a dreadful lie… Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.” Toni Morrison says that the idea of romantic love is one of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought, because it implies that we love with no will and no capacity to choose. The myth of romance implies that we fall in love and have no control of being loving… it just happens and it takes no effort.

The truth is, love is a choice and it takes work. Once we’re in love, if we expect our partner and everything around us to be perfect, we’re in for a major disappointment. Our partner will most definitely not be perfect, any more than we are perfect ourselves. The point is to help them be a better person – not to mould them into being as we want them to be. For example, a lot of people want their partner to be more stylish and more socially presentable so that it will reflect well on themselves. But love is not something that will make you look good – it is the work of helping someone become more of who they truly are in a positive direction.

The myth of romance tells us that partnership serves to fulfill each other’s needs, like security and not feeling lonely anymore. It tells us that a partner will make us socially accepted and that we can check off a societal box of what it means to be successful in life. We can look more desirable with someone on our arm. It tells us that the other person is there to complete us, to make us whole and happy, to cook for us or fix things around the house, and we start to look to our partner to serve us in these ways. Not only are these ideas totally selfish, which is the opposite of love, but they set us up for feeling like failures. After the romance fades and we don’t feel happy and complete, we realize that our partner is far from perfect, and we start to see them as a normal human with flaws, we feel that the relationship is failing. We start to wrongly believe that either we’ve done something wrong or that the person just isn’t the right match for us, that we were wrong in falling for them.

The myth of romance also tells us that our relationship will be magically harmonious and that any argument or difference of opinion is a threat to the togetherness. Always agreeing on everything is a recipe for relationship success, the thinking goes, and when you argue a lot, it means that the relationship is in trouble. But really, how healthy would it be to agree with your partner on everything and never have any differences? There is no growth in that. (And also, it would be quite boring!) Disagreement, if it involves communication and discussion, sharing of truth and honouring of one’s own and the other person’s opinion, is healthy and facilitates growth, and that is part of love.

Another aspect of romance is the idea of togetherness, even at the expense of the self. Under the myth of romance, people are supposed to be together forever, always want to be with their loved one, miss them always when they’re not with them, feel incomplete without them, act as a unit, and even die without them. But it’s extremely harmful when people lose themselves when bonding with their partner. Sure, we may not be complete to begin with, but the only thing that will make us complete and whole is ourselves, not someone else. Part of love is to become more of ourselves and as I mentioned, help the other person become more of themselves, and this can only happen by exercising autonomy and nurturing each other’s individuality.

For the reasons above, I recommend retiring the idea of romance, because it ultimately serves no one. I believe that it’s of course ok to enjoy the good feelings that happen when you meet someone and connect with them in a positive way. But it’s unproductive to hang on to the feelings and start thinking something is wrong when they inevitably dissipate and disappear. When the romantic veil lifts, you see your partner’s ugliness and the arguments start to happen – this is the true opportunity of doing the work of love.

I used to think of relationships primarily as romantic ones, with family and friendships coming second to them. But I’ve come to the understanding that all relationships present opportunities to grow, and therefore can be platforms to practise love, and they are all just as important. Romantic relationships are important because they are opportunities for us to learn intensively. We’re usually close with our partner in the sense that we often make a home with them, sometimes have kids with them, and live our lives alongside them in seeing them and interact with them every day. But the learning and relationships we have with others who we’re not romantically linked with are just as important and can and often does involve just as important and intense love and learning. Just because we have sex with someone doesn’t mean that we should love that person in a special way reserved only for them. All the great spiritual masters like Jesus and Buddha, tried to teach us to love our neighbour, meaning to love all humans – they never said that we should love only the person we sleep with. 

If you turn on the radio, it’s likely that you’ll hear a song that carries the message that loving only one’s partner and no one else is a good thing.  In fact, I believe this idea is extremely limiting. If the idea of loving others, not just one’s romantic partner and family seems strange, remember that you don’t have to like someone to love them. It’s quite possible to be appalled by someone, while loving them. For example, you may be grossed out by a friend who’s always negative and complains, but you could love her in the sense of taking every opportunity that presents itself to help her see the positive side of the coin, or by having a serious conversation sharing your perspective and calling her out on her negativity, instead of getting irritated. Or in the case of a romantic partner, it’s certainly possible to dislike your partner at times, and still love them by having the uncomfortable conversations about their specific behaviour that disgusts you. For example, in their podcast Couple’s Therapy, Casey and Candace Neistat, who have been together for about 10 years, share their feelings and thoughts about each other’s behaviour and their relationship challenges, and it’s usually not pretty. They have lots of disagreements and can’t stand each other sometimes, but they’re committed to healthy communication and it seems from the outside that they respect each other, want each other to succeed in life, and that they are doing the work of love by helping each other grow. 

I hope that this article has provided some food for thought and inspiration in a positive direction in the area of creating loving, healthy relationships, including the relationship with the self. As I mentioned, I am myself working on applying these ideas into my own life for the first time. Though I believe learning only happens though experience and not through books, I recommend M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, and bell hook’s All About Love: New Visions, for anyone interested in reading further on this topic.

Please feel free to share your comments, suggestions, thoughts and feelings – even if it’s just venting – in the comments box!

Photo: A mural on Granville Island, Vancouver BC. (Artist unknown).

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