What is Love

Dear Yours Truly,
What is love?! What is a good relationship? What is worth fighting for? My live-in boyfriend of 3.5 years and I broke up three months ago, very abruptly, moved out from each other. Our relationship was at least 85% great, but we did have problems we needed to work on such as me snapping at him, and generally not being as laid back as he is (I worry and plan, he goes with the flow, sometimes letting important things slide). The timing and abrupt nature of the break up was due to our lease being up and the convenience of moving apart at that point, rather than potentially breaking a lease down the road.

However, we spend every day together hanging out and being semi-back together (and have been doing so since about a month after the break up). We say we are “playing it by ear” to see if this relationship is something we both want and something we think we can make work, but now I am full of questions and doubts, probably due to being suddenly dumped by the person I thought I would spend my life with. Nothing feels 100% comfortable, because at any point either of us could say “this doesn’t work, please leave me alone forever. For reals this time”, which is a scary feeling.

How do you know what kind of relationship will “make it” in the long run? When we first started dating it was like lightning, so amazing. It was the kind of shit where you say “when you know, you know”, but of course (???) you come back down to earth, have to go to work, pay the bills, etc and your love just becomes something you live with. So now the second time around it isn’t sizzling and over-the-moon, its hard to tell if I am still in love (!), or if I simply dread change and the suffering of actually dealing with being broken up.

Is this question too huge? I would love a long answer, but if no advice is possible I will accept that as well.

Thank you!

(I emailed this lady back to find out how old she and the boy in question are, because I think such things are relevant (see below). She is 27 and he is 28)

First of all, let me say I am sorry you are having this hard time! It is definitely hard, but also please remember that EVERYONE has been there, in one way or another, and that you are definitely going to come out the other end of this totally okay, regardless of what happens. You’re going to ponder and be honest and make thoughtful decisions and you’re going to be okay!

I’m going to start by philosophizing very generally about relationships and love, as per your more cosmic questions, and what I personally believe about them, generally, before moving into some specific reflections on your situation.

Here’s a few things I now feel strongly about, based on observation and life experience. What’s your sincere reaction to each of these things, if you let yourself really close your eyes and think about them?:

– a truly good relationship is a place of solace and comfort, not a place of stress, confusion, tension, or regular fighting. Sure, you’re going to have some fights, some annoying stuff, some stretches of time where one of you is applying to grad school and is acting like a maniac, but these should be significantly in the minority. So many people, if they really asked themselves this question: “does my relationship GENERALLY bring me comfort and solace or does it stress me out?” would I think find it is the latter, and I don’t think this is a good basis for a relationship.

– a truly good relationship brings out the best in you, such that when you remember the way you were in other relationships–or even alone! who knows–you feel huge relief that you don’t have to be that person anymore. Do you regularly find yourself being like “What am I doing, who is this person I am acting like?” In past relationships I would have honestly described myself as a “hectoring shrew,” and even at the time it felt wrong to me, like not who I truly am.

– a good relationship has 100% trust at every level. There is no backing down from this cold hard fact. Trust means you never have any pangs or worries about what is really going on, in many different regards: cheating, being mean in fights, trusting that he will tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth, trusting that when you have your period and feel like a dog shit on your face he will still love you, trusting that he won’t abruptly break up with you and move out of your house, trusting that he will listen to you when you tell him something important, that he will respect you and really hear you when you tell him something he does that bothers you or whatever, trust that if he says he will change a behavior he will actually work to change it, and trust regarding money and material stuff–trusting that he isn’t somehow getting more of your money than you’re getting of his, etc., trusting that he doesn’t make you do all the housework, like maybe he hates cleaning the bathroom but he makes up for it by always cleaning the stovetop or something. In a really good relationship you don’t have to worry about Keeping Things Equal, in any regard, because they just ARE EQUAL. (and all of this goes vice versa, too, he has to trust all these things about you)

– a truly good relationship makes you sincerely, unproblematically happy much, much more often than it bums you out

These are just my opinions, I suppose they could be disagreed with by someone who loves fighting and not trusting their partner, but hey, this is my advice column and I call the shots.

And what all these really boil down to is: communication. It’s a cliché because it’s true. And “communication” doesn’t just mean you barf out whatever’s on your mind without regard to hurtfulness. And it doesn’t mean you constantly process about your emotions and cry all the time. It doesn’t mean anything, except that you feel heard, and that you feel 100% of the time that you have the space to say what’s on your mind without fear of judgment/meanness/defensiveness from him. And that you also appreciate this responsibility in return, and you also 100% give him the same space and the same respect. Communication. Meaning you see the other person’s humanity AT ALL TIMES. You never see them as an adversary, even when you are ragingly angry! This is a hard thing to accomplish or even to explain, but it is real. Even in the heat of rage, you aren’t thinking of it as a battle with points and a score, and you know he’s also not thinking this way. And you aren’t afraid that he’s going to actually wound you, and you aren’t trying to wound him. You are thinking about how this is a human person with thoughts and feelings, and you care about those thoughts and feelings, and you are trying to hear him even though you’re mad, because you know he’s also trying to hear you. Arguments have to be “productive,” which means you feel heard and then actual change gets made afterward, in some way, by one or both of you. You can’t just keep fighting about the same thing over and over again and it never changes, whatever it is. That demonstrates that you actually aren’t communicating–you’re just fighting.

These are the nuts and bolts. But the stickier side of your question is this terror about What Is Love and how to recognize it. What if what you think is love isn’t really love? Many have asked this question, few have satisfactorily answered it! And I will surely not be among them, for really I do not know the answer! It’s very much like the tired old thing everybody always trots out about the Supreme Court Justice who said, of pornography, that he couldn’t define it but he “knows it when he sees it.” This is what Love is. I think it is hard to define because it’s going to LOOK different for everybody. HOWEVER, I think my above list actually should cover any relationship, at its foundations. Whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous, whether you have separate bedrooms or are constantly together, whether you’ve had a million abortions and he is an insane right-wing fundamentalist christian, I think you should be able to respond affirmatively to the items on that list. It’s not about the trappings of the relationship, it’s about the substance. How many advice letters do you read where the person is like “My boyfriend is perfect for me! We are exactly the same in every way! The only problem is he cheats on me constantly.” Too often we mistake on-paper compatibility or crazy sexual sparks for actual Love, yet herein is not where Love resides.

Another mistake I think is often made is basically that we decide we love someone just because we say that we do. “But I LOVE him!” I once dated a boy who I claimed was my soulmate, and yet all we did was scream at each other about how he pathologically lied to me, cheated on me, and took all my money and then literally did things like make me pay him back because he’d “loaned” me a postage stamp. Which my friends still bring up to this day to affectionately mock and humiliate me. Yes, I was only 20 years old, but I ask you, where did I believe “love” resided, in that situation? Looking back, it really does seem like I just decided to love him, so I said I did, and then that meant I did, I was committed. Or like because he made me laugh super hard, that was the same as being in love with him. I never once stopped to ask myself any of the above questions. Because if I had, I would have realized that really I fucking hated that guy. I dreamed about murdering him like every night. That is another thing that should be on my list: “you should only very rarely dream about murdering your partner.” Loving someone is not the same thing as just saying you love someone.

My old man likes to say that love is a project you both work on together, and it’s a project that’s never finished. Real good love isn’t something that’s just there. It’s a thing you build, a thing you make together, and continue tinkering with and appreciating and discussing and being aware of, together.

I don’t know if you do this, but a lot of people, especially in the younger years, mistake “passion” for love. Passion meaning, fighting, screaming, tearing of the hair, sobbing. When I was dating that awful boy I remember totally looking down my nose at people who didn’t fight with their boyfriends. Like how do you know you’re “really living,” if you’re not constantly riding the rawest possible edge of manic depression? As though this makes you an artist or something. It’s such a violent, brutal, self-hating way to live, not to mention pointless. What does it serve? It doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t serve the relationship. It doesn’t serve humanity. It’s self-indulgent and weirdly cowardly. The best thing about growing up, for me, was learning to love and appreciate the gentle ease of contentment. Life is hard enough; the world is sad enough, without your relationship also being a place of heavy strife.

This is the negative stuff. On the flipside, I think lots of times we miss seeing that Love might be there, because other stuff seems wrong, or the timing is off. Maybe he’s a republican, or a smoker, or he eats meat, or he’s “boring,” or he’s weird looking, or he’s a woman and we thought we were straight this whole time, etc. Because again, Love doesn’t reside in the surface level stuff, although that stuff is definitely a factor in it, and in building a relationship or not. But really it’s about a deeper understanding between two (or more) people. An understanding that goes beyond just noting his qualities or feeling like you should be together just because you already are.

It’s like “Avatar,” a stupid movie, but when they say “I see you,” I kind of love that. Love means you really see somebody, and they see you, and you know they see you and in this mutual honest view of one another all the other bullshit floats away and you are free. AND, he sometimes does the dishes.

What I’m saying is that there are so many things, both tangible and metaphysical, that go into Real Good Love that it is actually terrifying and hard to believe anyone ever accomplishes it.

I do not believe in soulmates. I believe in varying levels of compatibility, and that there are at any given time probably millions of people with whom we could all have fulfilling, satisfying, love-based relationships. Put the idea of soulmates out of your mind, if ever ’twas there at all. I think after years with someone you’re compatible with, he maybe becomes something of a soulmate, but I absolutely do not believe in the ideology of “The One.” I think that ideology is bullshit, and ends up locking a lot of people into relationships that don’t make sense for them.

I do not believe that Love means you are blissfully frenching 24 hours a day, or that you never argue, or that you don’t sometimes secretly wish he would just stop talking for a second because you’re trying to stare out the window blankly, or that in the night when he steals the covers you don’t sometimes “accidentally” elbow him with cruel intentions. One time I was so tired of hearing about my old man’s dissertation that I literally broke into tears and cried HARD for 15 minutes while he apologized. Me, a grown-ass woman! And okay, neither of us is proud of that moment, but that is real. Love doesn’t mean you are happy in the field with the unicorns running by all the time. Love doesn’t mean you stop being a planner and become as laid back as him–it means you both learn to live open-heartedly with those tendencies in one another, while also being willing to be honestly aware of those tendencies in yourself, and how those tendencies might affect each other.

Then again, in real love, there is always some amount of frenching or equivalent. If you’re not frenching anymore something is highly likely to be wrong.

When it’s Real Love, when it’s true and deep and based on 100% trust and respect: You love him more because you get through the hard stuff together and still love each other when you come out the other side. You love him more because he challenges you to work harder and to be better, always trying to be better than your baser self, and you love him because he’s always also working for you, trying to be better for you, too. You do that work because you value one another; you see each other as allies. You face the world together, in all its sorrow, and you make a place of kindness and honesty and safety and laughter, there amongst all the suffering and confusion in the world and in life. You love him when it’s fun and when it’s boring; when he’s driving you crazy and when he’s tenderly making love to you or whatever; when he’s there and when he’s gone. It may not be crazy sexual sparks all the time (although they should be there some of the time!) but it should be other stuff in replacement, better stuff, even. Love sometimes fades away and the relationship ends, but even when it doesn’t, Love still changes over time. We shouldn’t mistake the nice changes for bad fading–but we also shouldn’t mistake the bad fading for nice changes. If Love goes away it is better to acknowledge it and move on, than to cling. Sometimes the fading of sexual vibes for example speaks to larger ennui, bigger issues. I think this is a distinction you identify based on whether or not you are even asking the question to begin with.

in my experience (which is just me, and also who knows, maybe I will end up divorced and smoking Virginia Slims and being like “stay away from boys, honey”), but in my experience thus far, you know it’s “right” at the very point when you stop asking yourself that question. You know it’s right because you don’t even wonder anymore–it would not even occur to you to wonder. If you’re wondering, I have to say there’s a good chance it’s probably not right. For whatever reason. I mean, obviously if you’ve only been dating somebody for a week and you’re wondering “hmm, I wonder if this is going to work out,” that is totally reasonable. But wondering at nearly 4 years, after initially thinking it was a Life Partners situation and then suddenly having that life partner yank the rug out from under you but then continue hanging out with you ambiguously? Seems sad/sketchy to me, just on paper. It could turn out great–again, I emphasize that I don’t know you two, and maybe if I saw you in person I’d be like “they are obviously happy together”–but I would say the odds aren’t that good. I mean, lets just look at some numbers: of all the couples I have known in my life who have broken up and moved into separate houses and then briefly continued sleeping together, which is probably, I don’t know, hundreds of couples (i.e. almost everyone I have ever known, including me, has done this at least once), only TWO of them actually successfully got back together in a solid relationship-way in the future. Could totally happen! I’m just saying the data is not optimistic. Will take deep thought and commitment from both of you to get through it intact as a couple.

And I guess what you’re asking is, is that hard work even worth it, like maybe cosmically speaking he’s just some random boy and why should you bother pouring years of your life into working on a relationship that isn’t even that ideal in the first place? Again, I feel like hard work is worth it only up to the point where you start asking yourself if it’s worth it. Once you’re like “is this even worth it,” I kind of feel like the answer is “No,” most of the time. Relationships are always hard work but ideally I think when you are really happy together/go well together, it never occurs to you to wonder if it’s worth it, because duh. You know? So again, the fact that you are asking these questions might mean you already know the answers.

HOWEVER, and moving into specifics, I would be willing to consider your respective ages as pretty major factors in this, possibly. I am not a super woo-woo person, and I also don’t want to insult you by saying “oh you’re so young, lol,” but that whole Year of Saturn Returns thing (google it!) has proven to be remarkably universal across my group of friends. The age of roughly 27-28 tends to be a time of tumultuous change and questioning, of crisis, of stress, of painfully shedding the last vestiges of childhood and humbly taking up the mantle of adulthood with grave finality. This is the age when many people move across the country abruptly, or break up with their partner, or fall tumultuously in love, or suddenly decide to quit whatever they’re doing and go live in Tibet at a monastery. It is a time of milestones and the ends and beginnings of cycles overlapping in unusually violent ways. It is when you actually face questions like “who am I” and “what am I even doing” and “what career should I try to have, oh my god,” and etc. It is a very hard time to be in a relationship–it is a hard thing to weather, together. I can tell you this from personal experience. Although, I can also tell you from this same personal experience that it CAN, ultimately, be weathered, if all the above factors in making a good relationship are present.

I would further point out two other diametrically opposed things, which I thought of when I read your statement “at any point either of us could say ‘this doesn’t work, please leave me alone forever'” and how that is scary. My two thoughts were:
1. That’s just life, sister! Anyone could leave you anytime. He might get hit by a dump truck and die tomorrow. NOTHING IN THIS LIFE IS CERTAIN, ACCEPT IT
2. But also at the same time, I do think in a good relationship you are not actually worried he is going to leave you. I think in 9 years I have only worried that my old man was going to leave me once, and it only lasted about 6 hours until the next time we talked on the phone. I worry that he’s going to die, constantly, but I never worry that he’s going to leave me. The reason I never worry about this is because even during our hardest times he never abruptly broke up with me and moved out of our home. Meaning, your fear is totally justified and reasonable. But also meaning: it’s not fun to be with someone you’re always afraid might be about to leave you. And this is worth considering deeply.

I realize this “advice” has been a series of “maybe this…or maybe the opposite!” statements, but that is life with an advice columnist you don’t know personally! If I knew you personally I might have stronger words, like “DTMFA” or whatever the opposite of DTMFA is. My tendency is to believe that things like “suddenly breaking up and moving apart” and “questioning if I even love this person or not” and “constantly being afraid he’s going to leave me” are generally not good signs, for a relationship, but your particularly astrologically-fraught ages may be more to blame. It could be that you weather the Saturn Storms and when things calm down you are like “oh yeah, obviously this is my partner and we are happy.” Or it could be that this Saturn stuff is just masking what are actually irreconcilable issues. I can not know this. I urge you to make some brutally honest lists, about what you want vs. what you have, your ideals vs. your reality, your dreams for your future vs. what you see your future actually being with this person, who you are now vs. who you believe you really are/want to be. See how it matches up. I don’t know enough about you to give you super explicit advice, the way I would if your letter was like “my boyfriend raped me should I leave him” or something, like, that’s fairly clear-cut and I would definitely have specific advice for you then.

But here is what I do know:

What I Know For Sure:
– breaking up is not as scary as it seems and can be really awesome, although this is also always easier said than done
– conversely, relationships don’t have to be as scary as people often make them
– there is no such thing as “the one”
– relationships don’t “fail.” You don’t “fail” if you stop wanting to be in one. Relationships are fluid, they are born and they die just like all things on this good earth. Sometimes they end because they no longer make you feel good; or because one of you becomes a drug addict; or because you grow into really different life goals; or because you fall in love with other people. And sometimes they end because one of you dies. But they all end, and it’s not about succeeding/failing. Surely we have all had wonderful relationships we look back on with so much fondness, having learned so much from them and having nothing but kind feelings for that past person. Were these all “failures?” Is “being with someone until I die” the only viable goal, for relationships??
– 27 is a really difficult age
– life is TOO FUCKING SHORT to spend huge chunks of it mired in uncertainty and self-torment
– 90% of the time, we actually do know what we really ought to do, if we were only able to look honestly at our thoughts and feelings
– going on a solo yoga retreat to a hippie hot springs with nothing but a journal and a deck of tarot cards never hurt anybody

So here’s my advice: meditate and find a place of peacefulness where you can really let your thoughts and feelings out, and look at them calmly. This sounds simple, but we all know it is actually hard. The reason it is hard is because we’re afraid of what we might find. And we’re afraid of what we might find because we’re afraid of change–whether change means breaking up with someone or really open-heartedly changing beliefs/behaviors/lifestyles, or moving to a new city, or dropping out of grad school, change is ALWAYS SCARY. So we try to close our eyes and just hang on in whatever zone we’re currently in, hoping stuff will just get better on its own. And sometimes it does! But usually it doesn’t.

So yeah. “Pray on that.” And maybe you will find that this person is a good partner and you sincerely love him and want to be your best self for him and with him, and that this distance and confusion between you is just phantoms of your unfortunate astrological ages. Or maybe you will find that actually he stresses you out more than he calms you, that you don’t actually like the person he brings out in you, and that this confusion and distance between you is actually really about the fact that you aren’t right for each other and no amount of fighting/talking/living in separate houses is going to fix that.

Either of these options is ABSOLUTELY OKAY, and should be acted upon accordingly!

Good luck sister!

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