10 Things I’ve Learned About Love in the Last 10 Years
From a therapist
Posted Sep 19, 2017
People think therapists have perfect relationships. That’s not true. Yes, we have studied theories and acquired tools, but we are also human, which means we have our own stories. Just because we coach people with relationships doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with them ourselves.
In the last decade, I’ve been in two long-term relationships, and a few short-term relationships. I've done lots of dating, had a long stretch of no dating, and then more dating. I’ve been in fulfilling relationships and not-so-fulfilling relationships. I've been catfished, rejected, confused, pleasantly surprised, present, in my head, open, narrow, and conflicted. And throughout the journey, I’ve had some revelations.
1. Love is not a battlefield. Your head is.
Yes, love can feel like tiptoeing through a forest of explosives; that’s probably what Pat Benatar was feeling when she recorded the song. But ultimately it’s everything in between our ears that gives us that experience. It's our thinking, wiring, definitions, triggers, insecurities, and beliefs about ourselves — all formed from our story, which includes previous love experiences. The destruction is real, but where it comes from is not love itself. It comes from us. Toxicity doesn’t come from love. It comes from a lack of self-awareness and tools, as well as from the dynamic of the relationship. Jealousy doesn’t come from love; it comes from our own insecurities. Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions based on feelings instead of facts doesn’t come from love; that comes from our cognitive distortions. Love is not a battlefield; your head is — and if not your head, then their head. Or both. But it’s what’s happening in our head that creates the feeling that we’re in a war zone. Be aware of your thought patterns and question what’s truth, what’s distortion, and what’s residue from your past.
2. There is no such thing as perfect.
We all want the perfect partner. But if that’s your endgame, you’re going to be playing the game forever. No one is perfect, and you should know this. But we keep searching for perfect, and it makes us judge and dismiss people, and miss out on a lot of what-ifs. I’ve learned to toss all my definitions, labels, and what I think “perfect” looks like. It will give you your ocean back. Or you can continue fishing in a small plastic swimming pool.
Yes, we have certain types that we gravitate toward. But it’s important to be open. Chasing “perfect” will only give you the same experiences, because our definition of perfect hasn’t changed. It’s the same one we’ve been clenching since college. It’s time to toss it. There is no growth or evolution in the same experiences. Give yourself a new experience by deleting “perfect” from your vocabulary. You are looking for something you haven’t been attracted to before, something new, fresh, or different. Because in that window, there is learning and revelation and discovery. That’s what love is about: The new, not the repeated.
3. Dating can be fun.
I agree: Overall, dating sucks. But it can be fun. Really, it’s possible; I’ve been there. It happened to me — not for long, but I felt it. Dating can be fun with the right mindset. The greatest mistake people make with the dating process is having expectations. We meet/swipe/DM/Skype/FaceTime someone, and suddenly we’re filling in a lot of blanks and imagining what they’re like, and what they would be like in a relationship, in bed, or around our friends, and we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Expectations create giant cliffs that you will fall from if they are not met, because chances are, they will not be. So instead of expecting, focus solely on the excitement of meeting a new person, hearing a new story, trying a new restaurant, seeing a new museum, movie, or whatever. If there’s chemistry and attraction, that’s extra. But if not, just having a good time. Be grateful that someone wants to get to know you and spend time with you. Dating is not about finding a soulmate. Dating is about hearing new stories and having new experiences. Detach everything else.
4. If someone is unsure about you, it’s never worth the investment.
Relationships are hard enough. If you have to convince someone to be with you, what do you think that would look like? When someone is unsure about us, we naturally want to convince them to want us, because that would mean we are worthy. We are wanted. We have value. But we’re not thinking about what the relationship would look like. I’ll tell you: It will be short lived. I’ve learned to stop chasing people because it never works out. One person is constantly seeking approval and validation, while the other gets bored. It burns out like a candle. I’ll meet you halfway until we build something, then I’ll swim the ocean for you. But I won’t build something on ambivalence. You shouldn’t either.
5. Love is peeling an onion, not biting an apple.
The first layer is not love, it’s infatuation. Skin. Lust. Connection. Chemistry. Butterflies. All the possibilities of what something could be. Love doesn’t happen until layers are peeled, until you see all sides of someone and accept them, embrace them, and choose to love them.
We’re all looking for the thing in the bottle, the “you just know” feeling. But feelings alone don’t build healthy, lasting, meaningful relationships. We have powerful connections with certain people, and that’s great. That means something. But there needs to be more, and more is discovered, not found. It takes more than eyes meeting across the room.
Love is about going through our layers together by experiencing the whole person, not just parts. Leaning into storms together, hands locked, learning, growing, fighting resistance, triggers, and sharpening each other along the way.
6. If someone wants to be with you, you will know.
So many people make excuses for why they can’t be in something, and those reasons may be true. But I’ve learned that if someone really wants to be with you, everything else will go out the window. I’m not referring to people making a strong healthy decision to not pursue toxic relationships. That is a good thing and happens often. I’m talking about people who say they want to be with you, but make a ton of excuses (not because they believe it’s toxic) why they can’t, like “I’m not ready for a relationship.”
Fine, even if you’re not ready for a relationship, you still won’t cut the person off if you’re truly into them, because we all want love, and we know how rare connections are. So we go in the water, even if we’re scared or “not ready,” because logic always takes a back seat when it comes to love. And yes, fear of intimacy is real, and people sabotage relationships all the time. We get afraid. We second-guess. We hesitate. But if someone’s really into you, you will know. They will make some kind of effort. They will try. They will communicate. They will not run, hide, or ghost. So the next time someone says, “I’m not ready,” know that what they’re really saying is, “I’m not that into you.”
7. No one’s ever really “ready” for a relationship.
Relationships are like having children. You’ll never be ready ready. You just do it and make things work when you feel it. I mean, what does being “ready” for a relationship look like, anyway? Self-help books, relationship articles, and seminars have created this false image of what your internal life should look like before you decide to love someone. The truth is, you don’t know when you’re going to meet someone who blows your socks off. Or maybe it's someone you already know, whom you suddenly see differently. From what I know about life, it comes when you least expect it or when you’re not “ready.” So what do you do, turn down a chance at love because you read somewhere that you need to be at a certain "place" to love? We are dynamic, always changing, evolving, learning, falling down, getting up, getting hurt, healing, letting go, moving on. There is no such thing as ready. Because you’ll never be perfect; there is no such thing. So you just love as hard as you can with what you have, like our parents did and their parents did.
Yes, the more you invest in yourself, the more you bring to the table, but that is an ongoing process that never stops. So ready doesn’t exist. Love is a carousel, and you jump on when you see the horse you want to jump on.
8. Hold love. Don’t grab it.
Someone once told me to hold love like you would sand, with two open hands. I love this metaphor and remind myself of it when I approach relationships. Many people grab love, and then it slips from their hands. Because behind grabbing is control and blueprints and definitions and judgment. People think grabbing love is what it means to love hard, but it’s the opposite. Think about love like a bird you’re trying to feed: Chase the bird, and it will always fly away. The more you try to grab it, the faster it will flee. But if you just hold the food out, the bird will come to you. And the more it trusts you, the more frequently it will come. I think love is the same. It's not something to be grabbed. Love is about holding space. And in that space, it grows. Grabbing love will always prevent growth. It sets off one’s fight or flight. It breaks trust. It makes people flee.
Hold love. Don’t grab it.
9. You can always love harder.
First, you have to define what harder looks like for you. Loving harder doesn’t necessarily mean caring about someone more. It may mean giving someone more space. It may mean looking at yourself and your unhealthy patterns. It may mean acceptance. It may mean working on yourself. It may mean letting go. Or it may mean not giving up.
Ask yourself what loving harder looks like for you. A good place to start is, are you giving or taking? Many believe they are giving when they are actually taking. If you are using love to make yourself feel better, then you are taking. If you are using love to control someone, you are taking. If you are using love to fill holes in yourself, you are taking. Giving is sharing yourself with someone. Giving is coming in as a whole person, always looking inward first, and accepting someone for who they are and championing their story.
10. Don’t stop believing.
We’ve all been rejected. We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all had our hearts shattered. We’ve all been in things that ended unexpectedly, and made no sense. We’ve been cheated on, manipulated, and left alone. And after a while, these experiences catch up with us and cause us to stop believing. Love becomes Santa Claus, or a very hot stove we choose to stay away from.
But here’s the thing: What we believe will be the rudder of where we will go. This isn’t just with love, it’s with everything: Our beliefs determine our experiences. So if we stop believing in our ideal love, we will never experience the kind of love we dream about. Love will just be an idea. A billboard. A commercial.
So, we must continue to believe, with every fiber of our being. You have to, if not for you, then for us. Because if we all stopped believing, love would grow extinct, and we would all just become empty soda cans.
Life is about love. And love is what teaches us how to live.