This Is Us

Why I Feel Differently About Love Now That I’m in My 40s

Culture taught me to pursue love, then sex, then marriage — but that formula has never worked for me

Photo: Zen Rial / Getty Images

I don’t remember the first time I said “I love you” to a partner. I know it was my first boyfriend, but I have no memory of saying it to him. I also have no memory of him saying it to me, though I’m sure he did.

I’m not sure I actually loved him. He pursued me and I surrendered. No one had ever taught me that it was okay to say no to something I didn’t want — not to dating and not to sex. So we dated and somehow, over time, I came to… what? Did I love him? I mean, I said it, but looking back, I’m not sure.

I was following the path of a launch sequence that I felt had been laid out for me:

  1. Meet guy
  2. Date guy
  3. Love guy
  4. Fuck guy
  5. Move in with guy
  6. Marry guy
  7. Have guy’s babies

This was the very clear formula outlined for me, a heterosexual woman, in dating — and life. I knew it by heart. I wasn’t going to screw it up.

I am quite certain I believed I loved that boyfriend, and I told him so before we had sex for the first time. Because I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with him without that—that’s how the formula works.

I kept following the launch sequence because that was the life path I thought I was supposed to be on.

My parents had raised me with fairly liberal views about sexuality, but the cultural message was that a “good” girl only has sex in a loving, monogamous relationship. I knew my relationship was heading toward sex, and I understood what I had to do. I chose love. And I kept following the launch sequence because that was the life path I thought I was supposed to be on.

I didn’t share an “I love you” with anyone for a long time after that first boyfriend. I had a string of flings and boyfriends where “love” just was not welcome. These guys were firmly in the camp that love=responsibility, love=unwanted commitment, love=the death of fun.

I can’t blame them for that. They were pretty savvy to the cultural climate and the formula I’d been conditioned to. They knew “the steps” and where those steps were leading. Unfortunately, they blamed women for that — selfish, overly emotional, grasping, desperate, clingy, manipulative women who would not stop nagging until they got a ring on their finger.

But this ridiculous formula causes women harm too. It was incredibly frustrating to be taught that the only way you can enjoy your sexuality is if you wait until you’re in love. And committed. And monogamous. Those men I dated had no idea what that cultural pressure felt like or how it can steal sexual liberty and force women to extend that pressure onto partners just so they feel free to have a little fun.

I had decided to just try what it would be like to fool around without the “L word.” To go home with someone I liked but didn’t love. To let someone take my clothes off after going on just two dates.

It was both invigorating and horrifying. Those particular men happened to be passionate about condemning love — including any of its expressions — which made me feel like a sexual plaything. Second, somewhere in the back of my mind, when I was driving home alone all those nights at 2 in the morning after a lover asked me to go home, I felt… dirty. Bad. Immoral.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was “wrong” for me to sleep with men I did not love.

In the most significant relationship I ever had, with the man I met when I was in my early thirties, I was determined not to screw anything up by using the “L word.” He was significantly younger, and I figured hearing “I love you” would be the worst buzzkill I could bring to the table.

I didn’t expect how his puppy-like enthusiasm for sex and romance would undo me. One afternoon, making out on my bed, he told me how beautiful he thought I was, how much he loved my body, how he loved to touch me. Overwhelmed with emotion, I suddenly blurted out, “I love you so much.”

I didn’t even have time to cringe or feel regret because he immediately said, “Oh my God, I love you, too.”

It was so wonderful to finally feel like I could be open with my feelings. Except that I came to discover that they still inspired the same disdain in my partner (not long after the honeymoon period ended) and it still felt like something within me had initiated some kind of launch sequence: House. Marriage. Babies.

This was the path to righteousness. And it all started with four little letters. As it turned out, it didn’t lead to righteousness at all. Or success. Or happily ever after. It led to my partner feeling burdened. Pressured. Trapped. Stuck on a track he didn’t want to be on.

And it led to me feeling burdened. Pressured. Trapped. Stuck on a track I thought I was supposed to want to be on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not off love. I want it and I want a lot of it. And I want to give a lot of it too. All the crap that once came with it, though, is not as welcome. Today, I’m learning how to abort that formulaic launch sequence.

Every time a new set of circumstances enters my life, I ask myself questions and explore all the what ifs. No, I don’t have to be in love to have sex — and that doesn’t make me an immoral person. But I let myself celebrate my need for an emotional connection with a partner so I can truly let go and enjoy myself.

Love doesn’t have to lead to monogamy — or even commitment. Love is expansive, and I don’t need to buy into the idea that it can only be expressed between two people. Love also demands growth, which means it will change us — sometimes together and sometimes apart. Actual commitments aren’t any guarantee of commitment, so why did I ever spend so much time worrying about my future with a partner?

Can I love someone and never live with them? Yeah, I think so. Can I love someone and not raise a family with them? Yes. Can I love someone just for the moment, with no knowledge of what tomorrow will bring? Yes. Can I love someone who might not want to say “I love you” to me? Yes.

Love doesn’t have to lead to monogamy — or even commitment. Love is expansive.

Can I love someone and not need them to follow my path, conform to my standards of love, make me promises, or give me what they don’t want to give me? Yes. I am learning how to live my life with the answer to that question being yes. And it feels wonderful.

A lot of people in my life seem to still believe in living by the L-word code — and maybe with good reason, as it seems to have worked for some of them. But that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. And there’s nothing flawed about the people it doesn’t work for. It’s the launch sequence that is flawed. Maybe love is just loving someone else and yourself enough to let everyone be as fully themselves as they can be.

I want to love — even in the most uncertain circumstances. And to be fair, everything in life is uncertain. And I want to be loved — even if I might lose that love tomorrow. Even if it might hurt.

I used to dread the part in relationships where I fussed over when to say “I love you,” worried that my partner would freak out upon hearing it, fretting about whether it would lead to a happy future together.

Now, I cannot wait for that opportunity. To feel love and enjoy every second of that feeling and not think about whether to say it and not worry about whether a partner will say it back and not need it to have anything to do with sex or promises or where we are going.

And one day, I’ll get to whisper those words again and it won’t need anything but it will mean everything.

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