Because there are so many levels of love, it can be difficult to define what love is. When someone says, “I love you,” how do you know what that really means?
The first time someone tells you “I love you,” it probably means they are attracted to you. They feel that excitement in their belly or heart that indicates they feel something special for you. This is a great first step, but while attraction is typically the first thing that gets people together, it won’t keep people together.
After this step, you continue to explore your relationship with the other person. What are your expectations? What do you want in a loving relationship? Some people want safety; others want excitement. Some want connection; others are looking for freedom. Some people want to have similar values; others want to focus on activities they share. At the beginning of a relationship, most people are excited about finding the commonalities and the things that connect them.
Over time, you may start noticing things that don’t check your boxes. This person snores and makes it hard for you to get any rest. This person only wants to have sex in the missionary position. This person never puts their dirty clothes away. This person is gregarious while the other is nervous around other people. This person wants children but the other doesn’t know if they will ever be ready.
When the differences begin to surface, it can become challenging to remember all the similarities. Sometimes, people will end the relationship and move on to the next person who gives them that excited physiology, which is based on pheromones and hormones. Other people will double down, deciding they’ve put too much time into the relationship to start all over again with someone new. Then there are those who will continue the relationship with one foot in and one foot out. And there will be some who opt to spend the rest of the relationship in fiery conflict or hopeless sadness. There are many possibilities.
When anyone is in a loving relationship, whether they are aware of it or not, they have a solid image of what and how they want their partner to be. This idea guides their choices. Some people have a particular body type or personality characteristics they are searching for, or values they hold that dictate certain behaviors they expect from their partner. What people really want in a partner is a person they can feel good with, who makes them a better version of themselves. Someone who sees them as they are and says, “Not only are you good enough, but you are the person I choose. You are perfect for me.” Of course, what they mean is that you are almost perfect for them because consistent perfection in relationships is unattainable.
When you love someone but they aren’t matching the perfect lover in your imagination, you may tend to complain, blame and criticize, hoping to help them “improve” themselves so they can become the person you truly want them to be. I kid you not, I once had a woman in my divorce workshop, looking to divorce her husband. She said he was a really nice guy, but he wasn’t like the men in the romance novels she constantly read. She admitted to reading at least three Harlequin romance books a week. The lines between fantasy and reality had blurred for her, and she had fantastical expectations for the man in her life who was clueless about what she wanted. Even if he knew explicitly what she expected of him, it could only lead to frustration because he would never be able to measure up to her distorted expectations.
When you love someone, you shouldn’t have to give up who you are to make them happy. You should be able to be 100 percent your authentic self with them and have them see you and want you anyway. They support you in the bad times, encourage your dreams and want you to be exactly who you are while you provide the same for them.
Loving someone means you aren’t keeping score. You are taking care of yourself and your needs without expecting your partner to do that for you. When you have the inclination, you can listen to, support and encourage your partner. However, your job is to be the best version of yourself for your partner, so you need to come first.
When you enter a relationship trying to be the person your partner wants while getting away from the person you are, you both will end up miserable. When you lose yourself in a relationship, your partner will eventually lose interest, because when you let yourself become a pale reflection of what you believe your partner wants, you have sacrificed your substance. Your partner wants a whole person, and if they don’t, you will still end up unhappy in that relationship.
Another example of a loving relationship is when you feel like a better person with your partner than without them. If you find yourself in a relationship where you don’t like the person you are becoming, it’s probably past time to end the relationship.
Don’t forget the sex/romance cycle I write about in Secrets of Happy Couples. If you are feeling deprived in either of these areas, you need to ask yourself, which does your partner value most? It might be that you value sex and your partner values romance or vice versa. When you feel deprived, you can start to harbor a quiet resentment. Maybe you have been quite vocal about what you want but your partner isn’t responding to you. That’s because if you are missing sex in your relationship and your partner values romance, to get more sex, you will need to be romantic. The reverse is also true. If you value more romance in your relationship and your partner values sex, you will need to become more sexual to get the romance you crave.
This is not manipulation. It is becoming responsive to your partner’s needs so you can get what you need. It’s a healthy relationship dynamic that follows Tony Alessandra’s Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” It requires first asking what a person wants in a situation, listening to understand that desire without defensiveness and giving the person what they want instead of what you want to provide. It can be magical for your relationship. This is similar to what Gary Chapman teaches in his 5 Love Languages books.
When you love someone, you are interested in knowing what’s important to them and providing it, rather than demanding they provide what you want or turn into the person you want. If your current partner is not matching what you want, you basically have three choices: you can change it, accept it or leave it. Changing it typically means you try to control your partner into giving you what you want. This rarely results in loving relationships. Instead, it sentences you to a life of conflict. The other option is changing yourself, which may be useful. Accepting it means you are no longer frustrated, angry, depressed or resentful. When you reach acceptance, you truly feel at peace. You decide the relationship is great except for a few things, and those things are not that big of a deal in the totality of the relationship. You are willing to accept the parts that bug you to gain all the other wonderful pieces of your partner in your relationship. Finally, you can always leave it. People can leave mentally and emotionally or physically. Mentally looks like you are still together, but you are just going through the motions. Leaving physically would mean you break up, separate or divorce.
Love is complicated and there are several things to negotiate in a relationship, but in negotiating, you shouldn’t feel like you are losing. Negotiating isn’t about compromise, where both people need to give up something. Negotiating with someone you love is about talking about what you both want until you can figure out a way for you to both get what you need.
Mainly, love is about sticking around when things get complicated and doing your best to work it out. However, when love has left the relationship and you don’t recognize who you have become in that relationship, it may be time for you to consider ending it.