What is love?

My last post raised some good questions, and because I think the topic — “Love Hurts?” — is so important, I’ll elaborate a bit. This idea that love cannot be painful runs so counter to what we’ve been told, what we’ve sung along to, and, most importantly, what we believe we’ve lived, it can be hard to take in.

We’ve felt the pain, dammit! And we want to believe we’ve loved, deeply. Hell, I’ve been there. Some people have had their hearts broken so badly, they give up on love.

Gang of Four: Is It Love?Is it love? The truth is, we feel pain and hurt in the context of situations we call being “in love,” or, more accurately, wanting or trying to be in love or no longer being in love. My argument is with the definition: that “being in love” as we know it, as we’ve all been taught it over the years listening to pop music, television, movies, and whatever else is echoing around out there, is not really love in the true, adult sense. This is good news!

What is love? Best definition I’ve heard: selflessly, unconditionally wanting the other person to be happy. The dictionary will tell you it’s some other things, too, including attachment. I think it’s important to distinguish between the different definitions we bring to the word “love.”

I describe attachment as a kind of self-cherishing grasping, “loving” the other person for what they can give you. (In Buddhist terms, attachment is a delusion, an agitated state of mind.) Attachment can also have positive connotations, as in connection, helping, relying on, and supporting one another — I do believe we are all connected and need each other; that’s what gives life meaning, and I’m all for it. But the difference is in how we do it, whether we do it for ourselves or for each other.

Wings of DesireWe can want to hold space for those we love in our lives, or we can want to hold in a grasping way. To share a great analogy Mark Epstein uses in Open to Desire, we can compare our ways of loving to how we hold something — say, a precious stone — in our hand, either on our open, upturned palm or in a tight fist. One is real love, one is attachment.

I don’t mean to say this stuff is easy. It’s hard to throw off a lifetime of conditioning. In some sense, we are all trying to get back to the loving, nurturing, dependent experience of childhood. Wasn’t that nice? We want to feel safe. We want to feel supported, like someone will catch us if we fall. Those are all good things to wish for, and in a good relationship, we do those things for each other. But, as adults, we also know we can stand on our own. We might not prefer it, but we can.

For those whose childhoods were not nurturing, the problem can be much harder as we try to connect as adults; we might be more likely to attach in a childlike way to receive the safety of unconditional love we never got. A book that really opened my eyes about all of this is How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.

This stuff gets hard-wired into our brains and can be incredibly difficult to break through, even if we are aware of it and trying…but I do believe, in almost all cases, we can. I read a fascinating book about how our brains work, physically, when it comes to the emotional, which comes to the same conclusion. That book is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I highly recommend it and his blog.

I hope this helps shatter your delusions of love, to paraphrase Stevie Nicks. Don’t give up. Learn to love better.


7 thoughts on “What is love?

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