Contrary to popular opinion, love is neither a feeling, an instinctive or hormonal response, nor even primarily a joy. In fact, a moment's reflection will convince you that we expect love to abide as feelings like these come and go. Rather than an emotion or temporary attraction, love is a constant practice—a discipline that requires learning, development, commitment, and sacrifice, but when consummated, leads to transformation of the universal human experience of feeling alone and unknown.
Let me say further what love is not. It is not physical care, compassion, idealization, admiration, praise, desire, romance, infatuation, emotional care, or concern. Nor is it appreciation, shared interests, intellectual engagement, passion, sex, pleasure, attachment, affection, enmeshment, financial support, or moral support.
In a pair relationship, even a successful one, you can express regularly all or any of these attitudes, emotions, or kinds of support without the other person feeling loved. Think about it. Your parent or grown sibling may have given you physical and emotional care, affection, moral support, and compassion and still not have been vitally interested in you and your experience of life and wanted to be a witness to it.
My mother, whom I respected throughout our long life together, certainly offered all kinds of emotional and physical care and affection. But as I developed into an adult and a separate individual, she never wanted to know my thoughts or point of view—from my taste in clothes to my opinions on child-rearing or my thoughts on religion. Her communication with me always carefully avoided my personal views on matters small and large.
In fact, I regularly had the impression she was consciously managing our conversations so that she would not have to know certain things about me that might distress or anguish her. She never showed any interest in what my daily life consisted of, or what I studied or cared about. She often would say, "I love you because you are my daughter," and I secretly pictured my mother holding her nose. I don't think she got much pleasure from who I was or the choices I made about life and living.
But even those who have a more open relationship with their parents are not always loved in the sense I have in mind. As children, we can be very much confused about love—by praise, idealization, physical and emotional care, and plain old attachment bonds. Until we develop a unique sense of our own identity, we take almost any form of closeness, physical or emotional, to be love. This is why young children can be so easily and often so tragically manipulated by an adult who offers warmth and closeness, no matter how false or self-serving it is.
Early in life, we all form an emotional attachment with our caregivers; we need these to protect ourselves and survive in an environment we cannot master and don't yet understand. Not surprisingly, then, many people grow up in families with very strong attachment but never feel truly loved by anyone in the family, parents or siblings.
Similarly, as adults, we can be in a passionate erotic relationship, even one where we and our partner share many other interests, and still not feel loved. When someone desires us physically or idealizes us but we seem to be simply holding down a role or filling a slot in his or her life, we don't feel loved. The very nature of such relationships can make us feel like a prisoner to someone else's idea of who we are, even when they treat us well and meet many of our needs.
People often express support and affection in physical, financial and intellectual ways, all of which ride under the name of "love." Those kinds of behaviors may be effective and highly valued by those who receive them. And yet, when the ingredient of being known specifically as an individual—kept in mind, accepted, reflected, understood and forgiven—is absent, there is something fundamentally missing.
Remarkably, as adults, we get pretty good at knowing whether we are truly loved. Most of us develop a substantial love-detecting radar (although it is by no means always perfect at any given moment). And it has little to do with whether we were actually loved in our original families. Why is this? Because, I believe, human identity, complex and individual as it is, forms in a bath of shared language, emotions, ideas, and experience. The constant endeavor to define ourselves in distinction to, but also as a sharer in, the commonalities of everyday life seems to make us highly sensitive to being known specifically as individuals. And being known as an individual, by ourselves and others, is what love, true love, is all about.
I get very jazzed knowing we are the final arbiters of the love we receive. If you say you love me and I don't feel you know me—are interested in me, hold me in mind, or engage with me—I get to decide and say whether or not your love is valid. There is no other judge or jury. And if you really love me and I'm just not perceiving it for some reason, then you need to communicate your love to me again. If it's genuine, then I'll likely feel it.
Let me tell you a story of true love. While I have changed the names and some of the events in the interest of confidentiality, the essentials of the story are true, and it taps into the truth of what we need to know about learning how to love and how to live with love.
Alice, one of my clients, is a 49-year-old woman who has had a very rough adult life—not in the sense that she had to do without basic kinds of financial and physical support, but in the sense that she has neither been able to fulfill what seemed a promising career in studio art nor her desire to have a family. For this sad outcome, Alice had always blamed her father. Her father had not been abusive in any obvious way. In childhood, like so many intelligent girls of her generation, Alice had, in fact, styled herself on her father and tried to see the world from his point of view, admiring his success as a college professor. She had come to see her mother as weak and silly and decided, even by the age of 10, that she was more like her dad.
Ultimately, that early identification as "dad's girl" led to perfectionism, to placing constant pressure on herself to achieve aggressive ideals of spiritual and physical perfection, and finally to a dark and threatening eating disorder. By the time I saw Alice in psychotherapy, much of her adult life had been overshadowed by her failed attempts to do something extraordinary and by the resulting alienation and feelings of rejection.
Although Alice had made some significant strides through 12 Step programs, co-counseling, and her own professional success, she had never forgiven her father. And at one point after we had recognized that the persistent negative and demanding voice in her head was the emotional remnant of her father's voice, I asked her if she could reach deep into herself and find an interest in getting to know her father again, now that he was in his 80s and frail and going to die soon. Because she wanted to heal completely from her hatred and distress, Alice agreed to try and began to visit him weekly.
At first, Alice said she just wanted "the facts" about his likes and dislikes, and she would let her feelings wash through her. Over time, however, she has been able to ask how he feels about various topics and allow him to range around freely in his own way of seeing things. Gradually, Alice has come to accept her father as a person different from herself, and even forgive him for the mistakes he made in advising her. As this happened, she has also found it easier to allow the "father voice" inside her head to drop away. And then to drop away again.
In my way of seeing things, Alice is finding "true love"—her own true interest in learning about a person who is emotionally significant to her. Just as I come to cherish the people I see over time in psychotherapy, Alice has come to cherish her father, even if her interest sometimes feels like a one-way street.
Alice's love is not a romantic one, and it probably won't lead to her father reciprocating and loving her in the same way she now loves him, but it illustrates in a clear way how attuned witnessing can promote love. It's not that getting to know another deeply always means that we come to love them, but when we already have a relationship, attraction, need or desire, this warmly attuned witnessing seems to add the essential ingredient.
When I describe true love in this way, stressing the importance of our knowledge of our beloved, people are frequently confused. They feel that I have left something out of the picture, something that would just naturally mean comfort, pleasure, and affection. And yes, these are often present when love is flourishing, but it takes something more disciplined, serious, or sober to keep our love true.
Human love of the sort I am describing—whether for child, lover, parent, sibling, or friend—has a very specific characteristic. It is grounded in warmly attuned witnessing and the kinds of engagements (such as care-giving, help, conversation, love-making, and so on) that express and refine witnessing in ways appropriate to the specific relationship. To love well, we must develop and cultivate a specific skill and capability: a friendly and engaged interest in another person, a kind of life force (prana, libido, chi) that links us to another being whom we come to value as much as we value ourselves.
Happily, love is often accompanied by any number of the qualities or attitudes that are not love—respect, appreciation, generosity, and support that are the by-products of loving another. And yet, love itself is distinct, because no amount of the most compassionate or virtuous qualities can stand in for love's most compelling influence: a mindful, engaged witnessing and acceptance of the beloved.