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Why We Should Stop Treating Love Like a 'Pie'

There are ways we limit ourselves when it comes to love.

Key points

  • Being in love should be a force that expands a person’s world rather than limiting it.
  • People may assume loving someone "uses up everything we have to give,” but we often have more love to give when we are in love.
  • When a person sacrifices themselves in the service of a relationship, they are often weakening the relationship itself.

I recently read a famous short story by Amy Bloom about an adult woman at her mother’s funeral. The woman is reflecting upon her mother’s life, specifically her relationship with two men who loved her at the same time. The woman remembers confronting her mother about her feelings for the man who was not her husband, and her mother said, “Love is not a pie.” Setting aside the complicated subjects of open marriage or infidelity, what I liked about the phrase (which is also the story’s title) was that it challenged the idea that there is a finite amount of love a person has to give.

Being in love should be a force that expands a person’s world rather than limiting it. It ignites loving feelings within a person—loving feelings that naturally expand from them into the world. To be clear, this doesn’t mean anyone ought to love or be in a relationship with more than one person. However, there are some common, restricting viewpoints around love and relationships that can sometimes limit a person’s capacity for personal growth and experiencing love and fulfillment.

One such belief is the idea that any single person should become our whole world. If someone is caught in a love that is all-consuming or that claims a monopoly over their energy, chances are what they are experiencing isn’t really love. It may be a sign of co-dependence or an insecure attachment pattern in which one person is relying on the other to meet their needs in their entirety.

When a person believes they must rely on one person to take care of them, or if they feel they must devote themselves to taking care of the other person, they may be experiencing a sense of desperation or emotional hunger, both of which can look like love but are not necessarily the kind of love that can last or fulfill us in the long run. As researcher Bianca Acevedo wrote in her study on love, "Many believe that romantic love is the same as passionate love. It isn’t … Passionate or obsessive love includes feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. This kind of love helps drive the shorter relationships but not the longer ones."

Another misconception is that loving someone “uses up everything we have to give.” The truth is, we often have more love to give when we are in love. Think about the way you look at people when you first fall in love. I would argue this isn’t a case of “rose-colored glasses” or “reflected glow” of your happiness, but rather a sign that you’ve tapped into a deeper connection to your loving feelings in general. You’re seeing others with eyes that are more open and appreciating their effect on you. You’re often in a more receptive, vulnerable state that helps you feel more alive in yourself and available to others.

One of the reasons it’s helpful to challenge this idea that love should be singular and consuming is that it very often leads to couples starting to shrink their worlds. As time passes, they start to follow guidelines on what activities each person is “allowed” to do or who they’re “allowed” to see. These rules may not be outrightly stated, but they’re often expressed in unspoken ways. Couples may register dissatisfactions, punish, or provoke each other.

Although these actions may feel like they’re being done “in the name of love,” these patterns tend to diminish a person’s own loving feelings. The couple may then fall into deadening routines or place restrictions on each other as a means to ease their own insecurities. Soon enough, both people stop feeling as excited or alive as they did when they first entered the relationship when their worlds, the activities they shared, and the people they met were growing.

Part of the reason people fall into a more limited view of love is that they fear their partner will have less to give them when they love something or someone else as well. Again, I’m not talking about another romantic partner, but if, for instance, a person shows passion for a special interest or in their friends, their job, their kids, or even a hobby that lights them up, these things shouldn’t be perceived as threatening or infringing upon their feelings for their partner. We must be able to be ourselves with the people we love in order to thrive. And we must extend that freedom to our partner.

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm wrote, “There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.” When a person sacrifices themselves in the service of a relationship, offering up essential pieces of who they are, they are often weakening the relationship itself. Love is not a pie. It can change us. It can challenge us. But it cannot be restricted, contained, or controlled in the ways we often try to in order to fit into a certain mold.

Relationships are complex because people are complex. We evolve in different directions, develop new characteristics, and fall in love with all kinds of things that awaken different aspects of who we are. Staying in touch with the part of us that loves is critical to keeping ourselves and our relationships alive and well. To do this, we must be willing to examine the restrictive attitudes we place on ourselves and our partner so we can find ways to grow and explore together.