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Questions and consequences of 'love'

"What is love?" Everyone wonders that at some point, and the answers we find can have profound effects on our lives.

What does 'love' mean to you? When you think about that question, is it accompanied by smiles and warm feelings, a sense of peace or exhilaration, or perhaps by feelings of loss, regret and anxiety?

In a sense, it is as Bob Dylan wrote, 'love is just a four letter word'. But it is a word we use to describe a complex and powerful set of experiences and emotions. It is also a word which people tie many judgements and beliefs to. So in order to avoid getting tangled up in a way of thinking about love that doesn't serve us or anyone else well, the subject is worth delving into in more detail.

Let's now explore 'love' from two diverging paths, one centred around the direct experience of the relationship and how that relates to personal needs, the other based around the associated beliefs, expectations and judgements. We'll call it an 'experiential path' and a 'proscriptive path'.

The experiential path of love

Whatever this experience is or isn't, however it fits with certain standards or ideals, whatever it looks like to others, all that is a distant second to my living and feeling of that experience. It is the experience itself that matters to me.

When we connect, I sense the warmth from you, the quality of your touch and voice, your actions and gestures lead me to feel a blissful desire to be close to you, and know you more, to be known, and to bring you happiness.

I cannot be certain of your thoughts or feelings about me, or of your intentions, but by accepting that I am free. Intimacy will always be connected to vulnerability. To the extent that I value my own needs as equal to your own I am safe.

To me, the measure of our love is how well we are able to value each other's needs equally and take joy in contributing to each other's well-being the growth. When you help me in this freely given way, I feel it directly, and vice-versa. I have no need for other yardsticks.

This experiential path is less about being 'swept away' by love, and more about making sure you're really there when love happens.

The proscriptive path of love

There is a certain way that love must be for it to be 'love'. If you do not say certain things, or offer to do certain things for me, then it is not love. If I do not sacrifice certain things for you, then it is not love.

If we really love each other then we must be willing to make commitments with or vows to each other. True love has no room for doubt or uncertainty.

If a love is going to work, certain conditions must be fulfilled. For some people that includes financial security and social standing. For others the condition is simply that love is seen as being more important than any other considerations. For others it is that love is seen only as a incidental, passing phase of a relationship and that other factors, for instance mutual support and reliability, are more important and must be given priority. In any case, if the conditions are not met, then there will be little happiness.

A crossing of paths

For practical and inherent reasons the two paths will cross. A certain amount of contentment in the moment and free expression without need for evaluation, mixed in with seeking a certain amount of signs, conformity and pre-conditions.

It's natural to want to fit in with the norms of a social group at the same time as have a loving partner relationship, to seek clear indications of feelings, and to have ideas about how you'd enjoy love being expressed in your relationship. Where these natural tendencies can become obstacles for you is where they grow rigid, and therefore grind against the unpredictable and ever developing nature of life.

Without flexibility, opportunities for deep and lasting happiness can be lost. And without some pursuing some kind of structure and solid foundation in our relationships it's easy to drift into places we don't want to be.

The idea of flexibility is summed up in the experiential path to love. If there's one thing that helps you get there, it's effective, non-judgemental communication skills which allow you to develop empathy (with yourself as well as your partner) in difficult times, or ambiguous situations. That, and, by having an open mind, keeping your expectations in check.

But what about that structure and solid foundation? Part of that will be determined by your character and lifestyle choices, but perhaps there are some elements which are universally helpful.

Compassion and Joy

Compassion is a word sometimes associated with pity for those who are suffering. But compassion is really a broader concept, to do with having a deep concern for another's well-being that comes from a sense of connection and empathy. We can think and act in the interests of someone's well-being when they are happy as well as when they are sad. Looking at compassion this way, what kind of love would not have it as a bedrock?

Joy, that irrepressible full-body smile, that urge to dance or sing, that sense of lightness and warmth, which can have so many different flavours, from excitement, to gratitude, to desire, to wonder, understanding and more. Joy is what we get when our needs are met in abundance. Joy is what we often want to give when we love someone, and when two people give joy to each other, love often follows. Indeed, what meaning would love have, if there was little joy in the relationship?

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