What Love is and is not

On a daily basis, we're almost force fed a concept of love which is completely inaccurate and misleading. TV shows, movies, pop songs, celebrity marriages, magazines... they all perpetuate a concept of love which is inaccurate at best, and completely harmful to relationships at worst, and the fact that so many marriages fail is a testament to this.

Again, we're working with M. Scott Peck's definition of love in this section, as I believe it's one of the most complete definitions: The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. When we hold up behavior against this framework of love, it's much easier to see what is and isn't real love.

What love isn't:

Self-Sacrifice- if it’s harmful to yourself, it’s not growth. Have you guys heard the song by Bruno Mars titled Grenade? In the song he tells a story about this girl he "loves" who treats him terribly, hurts him multiple times and yet he still tells her that he would catch a grenade for her. The relationship is obviously harmful to both parties, but he insists

"black and blue
Beat me 'til I'm numb
Tell the devil I said "Hey" when you get back to where you're from
Mad woman, bad woman
That's just what you are
Yeah, you smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car"

He clearly has no respect for this woman, she's hurt him intensely and while he says he would die for her, he also acknowledges that she wouldn't do the same for him. But this is the message we hear every day blasting out of our radios.

When we give too much of ourselves, we actually have less with which to love others, not more. We are less capable of loving, not more capable.

Cathexis- You've probably heard about something being "cathartic"– that is, you're purging yourself of something. Perhaps you burned all your school assignments after finishing your final exam, or you got rid of all the old clothes you don't like anymore and gave them to a thrift store. Well, cathexis is the opposite. Cathexis is the process of integrating something into yourself. It's the process of investing mental or emotional energy into a person, object or idea. Oftentimes when we do this we let our ego boundaries collapse and lose ourselves in the other person and the feeling of "love." Love does require cathexis at the start, as we can only love that which has importance for us, but it is important to not mistake cathexis for love.

A Feeling- Many people who have a feeling of love act in countless ways which are not loving. The song above is probably an example of someone who feels strongly about another, but isn't actually expressing real love. Acting in response to feelings can cause us to act in all sorts of destructive ways. In high school I believed I loved a boy and it made me act in all sorts of ways which were destructive, despite the fact that I felt, quite strongly, like I loved him. In retrospect, I see that what I was feeling was just that- a feeling. If love is a feeling then we're all doomed. Feelings are so undependable and can flip 180ยบ in a moment.

Falling in love- This is a powerful misconception that is extremely pervasive. Many relationships fail because the two people fell out of love. Some frantically try to seek out this feeling again, oftentimes finding it with other people. Upon succeeding to find the feeling of "falling in love" with another person, they believe that they must've just gotten it wrong the first time, leave the person they're with (if they're still with him/her) and pursue a relationship with the new person... until they inevitably fall out of love again.

Dependency- Another huge misconception about love is that love and dependency are intertwined. This is the kind of thing that leads people to believe they simply can't live without the person they "love." In high school I dated someone who was extremely dependent. The feeling of being trapped in a relationship because the other person tells you they can't live without you is horrifying. Dependency is never love, in fact, it's quite the opposite. Creatures who need other creatures in order to survive are called parasites, and I believe that dependency in a relationship is just that– parasitic. People who are dependent, are always looking to someone else to fill them, to give them meaning and purpose. They feel incomplete without the other person. While that might sound romantic to some, in actuality it's incredibly unhealthy for both people involved.

Effortless- For some reason we tend to think that if something is "right" then it won't take any effort at all. That all the pieces will just fall into place and things will happen as they should. If only that were true. It's highly unromantic to think about love being hard work, yet real love is definitely labor-intensive. When you love someone truly, though, and are extending yourself to nurture your own, or another's, spiritual growth, it's highly fulfilling labor!

What love is:

Effortful- Love takes work. Hard work. Talk to anyone who's been in a relationship for a few decades and they'll tell you. The idea that true love should be effortless is deeply flawed.

Self-enlarging- When you love someone, you extend yourself outward in order to love them, rather than collapsing your self. Think about it in terms of the comfort/growth zones. When we truly love, we're extending ourselves into our growth zones. As we extend into our growth zone, we are permanently enlarged because of it.

Separateness- At the core of real love is acceptance of of each other's individuality and separateness. And taking joy in this separateness! No matter what we want to believe about love, two people will always be just that. Two separate individuals. While the unity of marriage or a relationship will form a strong bond between two individuals, failing to recognize separateness will almost always destroy a relationship. "Love is the free exercise of choice. Two people are only capable of truly loving each other when they are quite capable of living without each other, but choose to live with each other."

The Risk of Loss- Choosing to love, is inevitably inviting the risk of loss. There's a risk that the other person could change, or suddenly decide they don't want to be with you any more, or they will die eventually. We do a lot of things in our lives to avoid the pain of loss. Choosing love is an act of courage. "Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear, the moving out against the resistance engendered by fear into the unknown and into the future... a full life will be full of pain. But the only alternative is not to live fully or not to live at all."

The Risk of Independence- Independence is risky. When you are dependent, someone else has taken over the uncomfortable task of making decisions for you and you live a life more "safe" but less fulfilling. Real love requires you to love yourself enough to take the risk of independence. I remember when I was dating that guy in high school how "unsafe" breaking up with him felt. It took independence on my part to stand up for myself and break up with a person who wasn't healthy for me.

The Risk of Commitment- Commitment is vital to any long-term relationship. Commitment is what creates a safe place within a relationship to struggle over issues knowing that those issues aren't going to destroy the relationship. Commitment says, "I'm willing to stick it out with you, to do the work of loving and to not give up."

The Risk of Confrontation- I greatly dislike confrontation. Especially when I was younger I avoided conflict and confrontation like the plague. But true love requires healthy confrontation. If I am being mean, it is healthy for my husband to lovingly confront me about my mean behavior. "When a parent confronts a child, saying, 'You are being sneaky,' the parent is saying in effect, 'Your sneakiness is wrong and I am right...for the truly loving person the act of criticism or confrontation does not come easily; to such a person it is evident that the act has great potential for arrogance." Inherent in this loving criticism, however, is humility and a willingness to help one another grow. Growth doesn't always come without pain, and confrontation is one thing which will almost always feel painful, but which can promote much growth.