What is Real Love?

True love is not only hard to find, it’s also hard to tolerate. Such an idea may seem counterintuitive, but if you ponder it long enough to really get it, it could change the way you think about love.
All of us have been wounded in some way, either by early love relationships or later ones. Naturally, we create defenses to avoid getting hurt again - but we also maintain defenses against love itself. Why? Because loving responses from others cause us anxiety and sadness. Love hurts, as the song goes. So unconsciously we do a little dance to avoid being truly loved. It tilts our world and creates anxiety. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the illusion. We create fantasy relationships that my have the outward signs of commitment, but which lack the joys and tensions of real love. We don’t have to worry about losing something if we don’t actually have it to begin with.

Or maybe we actually do manage to fall in love. Why is it that romance fades so quickly? Because soon after making the big commitment, we’re busy locking love into a compartment far removed from day-to-day reality. And far removed from the way we actually behave toward the one we at least started out loving. "Internal fantasies of love on the art of one’s mate, without the appropriate external behavioral manifestations, have no value for the recipient other than to disturb his or her reality testing," write Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett in Fear of Intimacy.

That is, when you’re getting the talk but not getting the behaviors that are supposed to go with it, it can be crazy-making. A discrepancy between claims of love and actual behavior is a definite red flag.

So what is love? Firestone and Catlett offer an eye-opening definition. They describe love as "those behaviors that enhance the emotional well-being, sense of self, and autonomy of both parties". Anyone who claims to love another will behave in certain ways--or else she’s not really in love. True love is about appreciating and respecting the true nature of the other person and supporting his or her personal freedom. It’s not about fixing or changing the other person. It’s not about using the other person for one’s own sense of identity or personal security. Ideally you will have those things in place before you go off and "fall" for someone.

Which brings me to the subject of sexual attraction. Sex, in and of itself, has almost nothing to do with love. You can be dying to go to bed with someone and have no more ability to really love that person than to make a moon landing. Of course, if you really do love someone, ideally you will also be sexually attracted to that person. Mature love requires an integration of emotional attachment and sexual desire. The erotic feelings are an extension of the affection partners feel for one another.

People enter therapy because of their conflicts over love. What they don’t realize, often, is that they are without the capability of truly loving another because they haven’t yet worked out their own identity issues. They’re looking for someone to "complete" them and make them feel whole. That is not the foundation of real love.

Colette Dowling, LMSW, is a writer and a psychotherapist with a practice in New York. She has written many books on psychological issues relevant to women.

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