A few years ago, when I began writing a book about love (appropriately titled Real Love), one publisher told me, "The love market is saturated." I thought about the aisles at major bookstores devoted to self-help books about how to get a relationship, fix a relationship, stay in a relationship. I knew what I wanted to write would be different
If you look in a dictionary, you will find love defined as "intense affection," "romance," "adoration," "strong attachment," and "personal attraction." A day like Valentine's Day encourages us to keep these definitions of love at the foreground of our understanding, but thinking of love exclusively in terms of pop cultural definitions keeps us from experiencing it more directly, more organically.
Above all, we often don't realize that we can redefine love—by ourselves and for ourselves. We can choose to recognize that pop songs and romantic comedies give us a version of love we are used to and perpetuate myths about what love is and is not. But despite these myths, we can explore an infinite world of possibilities and experience love in a more essential way—for ourselves, for friends, family members, and romantic partners and even for life itself.
Below are some of the most common myths about love I encountered over the past few years of research and writing, in talking to hundreds of students about what love meant to them. While recognizing that these are, in fact, myths (and not universal truths) may not bring immediate comfort, there is great power in identifying false beliefs. Only by recognizing them as such can we then choose to write our own stories about love.
1. Love is an object outside of us to be attained.
Of course, most of us are familiar at least with the idea of loving ourselves whether or not we prioritize practicing it in our own lives. But often lurking within each of us is the idea that love is something to be found elsewhere, a shiny object that we have to search for—and then cling to—once we find it.
In reality, love is so many things—and it is always dynamic and experiential. It is the feeling we get when we see pink clouds emerge after a rainstorm. It is the feeling of laughing with friends on the subway. It is the surprise we feel when we suddenly learn that someone we've known for years has a hidden talent for singing that we never knew about. Love is being curious, love is listening, love is knowing how and when to expand our perspective. The bottom line is that love is a verb, not a noun, and it is something we can cultivate by being more connected to our experiences in our lives, moment to moment.
2. The best love is romantic love.
We all know the clichés that go along with romantic love: At the beginning is the chase; then comes the "honeymoon phase," laden with ecstasy; after the honeymoon phase wears off, we may experience flatness, or worse, torment. We wait for the waves of torment and ecstasy to swap, or call upon Cupid for a new arrow. We tell flowers to give us the answer about who loves us or loves us not.
This is not to say that there isn't great joy to be found in romantic partnerships. But there is no inherent value that keeps romantic love higher on the totem pole than other kinds of love. That is part of our cultural baggage, and it keeps us from feeling more directly connected to the other kinds of love that we can feel, very powerfully, each day. Think about those pink clouds again. Or laughter with friends. When we choose to prioritize certain forms of love over others, we lose sight of what may be right in front of us.
3. Love will fix us and complete us.
Nothing can fix us or complete us—and the idea that any one thing could strips us of power and reinforces the belief that we need fixing or that we are not whole.
Of course, this isn't something any one of us made up. We are often reminded that meeting a "soul mate" is the process of finding your "other half," someone to "complete" you. We tend to think of love as the process of seeking and assume the act of finding is the greatest moment of all. But once again, this myth keeps us separate from the potential for authentic connection that's available to us in every moment.
Rather than seeing the positive charge of love by fixating on the frenetic instability of seeking, looking, finding, clinging, we can be with ourselves in each moment and see what's right in front of us. The present moment—and whatever we are feeling in it—is as complete and OK as it ever will be.
4. We have to love ourselves before we can love another.
Many people love this one, as it certainly stands out among the other myths about romantic love as the Holy Grail. However, I have known plenty of people who are incredibly loving and supportive of others though they don't give themselves enough attention and care.
This doesn't mean that we cannot love others before we love ourselves; it just means that we may be offering love from a place of hunger rather than abundance. We may be trying to fill a hole by giving others love, or we may simply have trouble receiving the love that others want to give back to us. In either case, this myth can be damaging as it puts a certain amount of pressure on self-love.
The process of loving oneself is similarly difficult, and, like all forms of love, a dynamic process of expanding our perspective to allow more direct connection with our experience, each and every moment. When we think of self-love as the key to another kind of love, we don't recognize the practice of self-love as ongoing, continuous, and inextricably linked to our ability to connect to our experiences and relationships in all facets of life.
Recognizing real love, and feeling it in our own lives, doesn't mean we erase these myths from our consciousness. They are around and, for better or for worse, we tell ourselves the stories we hear. But we can notice ourselves doing it, and, next time we see the sun shine after a gray weekend, we can feel the relief, excitement, and curiosity that emerges and recognize it as real love. Among so many other things.