Humans 101

Your Definition of Love Determines How You Experience It

Love is an action, not an affirmation

Couple kissing behind bouquet of flowers.
Couple kissing behind bouquet of flowers.
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

“You’ll never find anyone that loves you more than me,” my high school boyfriend told me as I broke up with him. This was after I caught him stealing my Guns N’ Roses concert tickets and a gold nugget ring my mom had given me, along with other teenage valuables. Of course, I use the term “caught” lightly. I knew he stole them. He actually wore the ring in front of me — I just never confronted him. I didn’t want to rock the boat. But when I caught him cheating on me, that infraction was too big to overlook. The relationship was over. Even if no one loved me as much as he did, which seemed like a big risk back then, so be it.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the last time I would hear those words. As my ex-husband and I were separating, he repeated them verbatim: “You’ll never find anyone that loves you more than me.” He also added, “I’ll love you even when you’re old — other men won’t.” I guess he was appealing to my vanity. Since it seemed like I had spent the last 10 years walking on eggshells, pleading for him to get his career in order, and trying to diffuse angry outbursts, not finding anyone that loved me “more” was a risk I was again willing to take.

It’s not that those words didn’t have any impact — they did. I stayed in both relationships well after noticing a discrepancy between the words “I love you” and their accompanying actions. Hearing that I was loved was such a relief that it was easy to overlook the behaviors that left me feeling otherwise. Hearing those words was my top priority. These men may have even believed they loved me. But we were working with faulty definitions.

M. Scott Peck, a best-selling author and psychiatrist, defines love this way: “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action… We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

Truthfully, this wasn’t the definition I was working off of either. In my mind, love was a feeling you had for someone that made them so all-important that if you didn’t have that person as a partner, life would be unbearable. Love was a need. Sounds more like an addiction, right?

No one else can complete us — we need to complete ourselves.

In A Course in Miracles, author Helen Schucman lays out a spiritual practice that guides people to choose love over fear and discusses the “special relationship.” A special relationship is a relationship you have with another that is all-important. It can be with anyone, but it is often with a romantic partner. A special relationship is not based on a love, as Peck would define it, but the ego’s need to be validated. In this type of relationship, we believe that we need someone else to confirm that we are worthy. We use that person as a badge to display our value.

Marianne Williamson, an author who teaches A Course in Miracles, explains in her “Intimate Relationships” talk that we don’t need a partner; we need a connection to god. If the term “god” freaks you out, you can replace the word with goddess, higher self, inner wisdom, nature, or a force greater than you. Until we have that connection, our relationships will be fraught because we’re looking for others to make us feel whole. That line from Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise says, “You complete me,” may have seemed romantic at the time, but it’s a lie — and a creepy one at that. No one else can complete us — we need to complete ourselves.

As a child, I had a tumultuous relationship with my father. It never got better — we are estranged now. As a kid, though, it was a roller coaster ride. Some days we would get along. Other days we wouldn’t. Our interactions would start playfully enough but quickly devolve. He would taunt and tease: “Did you make any friends yet?” “You’re such a little jerk — does anyone like you?” Or, “Are you passing anything in school?” I often felt frustrated, sad, and unloved.

I mislearned at an early age that to profess love is enough. A person could love you and still be unkind.

When I would protest, he would ridicule me further, claiming I couldn’t take a joke. Our relationship was more comparable to that of siblings than parent/child. And he was the older sibling prone to bullying. As a parent now, it’s hard to believe that our interactions were so fraught. It has never occurred to me to tease and taunt my children.

When I would share my distress over my father’s behavior to my mom, she would say, “Don’t be so sensitive. You know your father loves you. That’s just the way he acts.” My mom has provided me with much wisdom in my life — but this wasn’t one of those nuggets. This advice haunted me for many of my romantic relationships and has taken about 20 years to untangle. (No grudges, Mom.)

My therapist helped me realize that this experience as a child gave me a distorted view of what love meant and made me mistrust my feelings of how it should feel to be loved. I mislearned at an early age that to profess love is enough. A person could love you and still be unkind.

We can’t just say the words. We need to do the work.

I have also misused the “L” word. Shortly after my divorce, I began dating a man with many similar qualities as my ex-husband and father. All these men were smart, funny, and had a proclivity for mocking my interests and endeavors in an attempt to show their superiority. Luckily, I was becoming more observant of my patterns. Repetition compulsion is when we keep dating the same type of person hoping to get a different result or closure. Once you become aware of it, you’ll likely want to break the cycle.

Nevertheless, I stayed with this man for some time. What I considered a “summer fling” lasted a year and a half. I knew there wasn’t a long-term future between us, but I liked having someone around. He was charming, funny, and the sex was really good (yes, women stay for sex too). I told him I loved him and felt that I meant it — even though I was sure the relationship had an expiration date.

After one argument, this boyfriend completely shut down on me. He wouldn’t return my phone calls or respond to my texts. I texted every day to let him know that I loved him and wanted to work things out. I was devastated. I cried uncontrollably — and I’m not prone to crying (I usually only cry during movies about dogs). It wasn’t clear at the time if my devastation was due to losing him, or the thought that I might be dispensable. I suspected the latter. Even through my tears and attempts to rectify the situation, I could feel a twinge of relief that it was finally over.

This relief didn’t last long. We got back together about a week later, though things were never really the same. We were in a holding pattern. Several months later, I abruptly broke up with him on the phone from my office conference room — without a second thought. I no longer felt compelled to hold on to the fizzling relationship.

It makes me wonder why we put so much emphasis on the word “love.” At the very least, we should have a standard definition to make sure we’re playing by the same rules. If we go back to Peck’s definition, love is the act of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. As I’ve become older, and hopefully a little wiser, I realized that’s the type of love I want. I don’t want a badge to prove my worthiness, I want a human to share my journey.

We set the bar for how we want others to treat us.

Now, I am in what I consider to be the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life. And guess what? My boyfriend rarely tells me he loves me. He is the first to admit that verbal affirmations are not one of his strong points. For the first year of our relationship, this omission seemed ominous. Despite his consistency, I was continually waiting for the relationship to end abruptly.

I was in a constant state of anxiety. I complained to my therapist that he was “emotionally unavailable.” She explained that not being verbally communicative didn’t necessarily mean he was emotionally unavailable. She encouraged me to look at how he behaved rather than what he said. With great effort, I began to redefine love and place less importance on saying the words and more importance on showing up.

Though my boyfriend still doesn’t tell me he loves me as often as I would like, he shows me every day. He is physically affectionate. He cares for me, supports my endeavors, and tries to make my life better in a million little and big ways. And he doesn’t taunt or tease me at all. Of course, I show him that he is loved, too. If we want the type of love that is supportive and strengthening, we can’t just say the words. We need to do the work.

This applies to self-love too. In All About Love, author bell hooks writes: “Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.” Just like saying “I love you” is not always indicative of our intent, self-love is not a term we can simply affirm — we need to act on it.

We show ourselves love through our habits and behaviors. There are strengthening self-love actions like meditating, journaling, going to bed early, and exercising. And there are weakening self-love actions like staying up late, drinking too much, gossiping, or getting back together with the on-again/off-again ex. We show ourselves love by how we care for our body, mind, and spirit. We set the bar for how we want others to treat us.

Defining love

Marianna Pogosyan, PhD writes that “emotions are cultural constructs we learn from social interactions.” She explains that the meaning of emotions varies across the globe. Love is a universal word, but its meaning is unique to each culture, and, really, to each person. It’s no wonder love can seem so chaotic. Take some time to consider what love means to you.

  1. How do you define love?
  2. How do you want to receive it?
  3. How do you want to give it?
  4. How do you show yourself love?

Rather than use “love” as a word to constrict or control, or as a symbol of our worthiness, we can use it as a word to describe our actions. For me, I’ve redefined it, so it is more synonymous with the terms “support” and “encourage,” rather than “need.” We learn how to love in our childhood, but thankfully, the journey doesn’t stop there. As long as we are open and willing to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to love, we can release old patterns, support one another in our growth, and evolve together.

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