Love is a word with a broader range of meanings than almost any other verb / noun in the English language. Which is why it can sometimes be a confusing term. We can love our parents, our mate, our children, a job, our pet, ice cream, sex, football, God, Latin America, Mozart, Scrabble, etc., etc. Each of these loves is slightly different, but all fall under the love umbrella. Today I want to focus on romantic love. In preparing for today’s post, I did some research on the definitions of romantic love, ranging from its meaning in ancient Greek, Persian, Latin, Chinese, Turkish, and Japanese to the Top 150 Definitions of Love . It wasn’t until I got to definition #25 on this list (“an unexplainably good powerful internal feeling”) that I found something akin to what I am writing about today: the concept that love arises when some one or some thing reflects back at us and amplifies something about ourselves that we love (interestingly, Wikipedia reports that in NONE of the foreign languages surveyed did this kind of definition of romantic love appear).
This way of looking at love makes a lot of sense when we think about things that we love to do; we often love to do them because they create a good feeling inside of us as a result of our being able to enjoy them (ice cream) or do them well (playing Scrabble). When it comes to enjoying (and ultimately loving) others, it’s in good part because they allow us to see a favorable aspect, or an undiscovered positive dimension, of ourselves.*
This way of conceptualizing love arises from my fundamental belief that, at least on some level, everything that we experience is a function of the meaning (and the resulting feeling) that we make of it, and that outside phenomena are, at their core, neutral. For example, losing a job or a marriage, declaring bankruptcy, or even being diagnosed with a terminal illness aren’t necessarily unqualified disasters. Each may offer the opportunity to head down a different path to a potentially better future, or at least offer the chance to look at life in a new way (the best-selling book “Tuesdays with Morrie” delves into this subject in a remarkably engaging and provocative way).
So if it’s less the outside phenomenon, and more the meaning and related experience that the phenomenon engenders, how do we explain romantic love, which in popular culture is defined as being pretty much entirely about the other (Shania Twain: “The Woman in Me Needs the Man in You”; Black Eyed Peas: “You’re So Amazing, You’re So Hot and So Blazing”; Michael Jackson: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”; Bette Midler: “You are the Wind Beneath My Wings”, Keyshia Cole: “You Love Me, You Complete Me”; ad infinitum). My explanation rests in the repeated experience and observation that when I (or another) fall in love we feel incredible. It’s an intoxicating, even addictive, feeling, flowing from the discovery that we’re special in a way previously un- or underappreciated. Relatedly, notice how often the evaporation of love relates less to what your beloved does independently (i.e. that doesn’t reflect on you – he drinks, she procrastinates, he’s indecisive, she’s inconsiderate of her family), and more to the way that the beloved gradually undermines the specialness you felt in his / her presence. Often the undermining comes about through criticism or behavior that strikes at your self-esteem.
To keep love strong, remember how special you make your partner feel, and when you feel a need to criticize or correct (which I hope is a need you feel very rarely), do it in a way that mitigates or sidesteps an attack on that specialness. If you’ve truly made your girlfriend feel beautiful, critique her appearance in a way that makes her feel you find her beautiful no matter what. If you’ve truly made your boyfriend feel smart, point out an error in a way that makes him feel perhaps temporarily misled rather than fundamentally clueless. And remember that, sometimes, love IS having to say you’re sorry, so as to restore that special sense of specialness that lies at the heart of romantic love.
* Even a deeply implanted, evolutionary-dictated biological love, (such as the bond between mother and newborn, enhanced by the hormone oxytocin) ultimately boils down to the good feeling the mother gets when gazing or interacting with the infant. She experiences a fuller, more expansive version of herself in those circumstances.