The experience of love is ineffable, i.e. it is so great that it cannot be described with words. The problem with this is that we try to describe it with words because it is so important to our experience. So we have many different ways of understanding what love is - and not all of them are helpful to our emotional and relational wellbeing. The modern day conception of love is nothing more than a fantasy that is deeply unhelpful to the lived experience of anyone who has ever had a relationship. I believe the term genuine love is the most helpful term - terms like true love or real love aren’t always, but often are, the cultural fantasy version of love. In this article, I will outline what genuine love is, why we lose sight of it, and what you can do to attain it.
To start, left me give a definition of genuine love:
Genuine love is a wilful attitude and commitment to the growth and wellbeing of oneself and another. It is intimacy that is achieved only when you have faced your fears, addressed your personal issues, and come to know and love yourself. It is an expression of who you are without expectations for others to do or be anything other than themselves. This does not mean that we live forever in peace and harmony and never argue about the dishes or laundry. Being committed to the growth and wellbeing of another involves conflict, negotiation, and exploring who we both are in a relationship, while going about our daily lives. The divine is in the details.
Now let us delve into these issues in more detail to reveal what genuine love is and what you can do to attain it.
Genuine love is an act of will and commitment
Falling in love is, Erich Fromm (1966) suggests, an act of will. It is a decision, a judgment, he maintains, and moreover it is not constituted by the other person but by the mind. Furthermore, he asserts, if we concentrate all our love on one person, then it is not genuine love, it is a ‘symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism’. He is saying that it is a manifestation of need for security or feelings of self-worth.
Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character, which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not towards one object of love
Adopting the position that it is the other person who is generating the feelings and state of being in love is, Fromm says, as ludicrous as someone thinking that, if only they could find something really beautiful to paint, the right object or view, then they would become an artist. Finally he concludes that ‘love is exclusively an act of will and commitment’.
Scott Peck (1989) offers another definition of love, albeit acknowledging that giving definitions cannot be satisfactory, due to love’s mysterious nature:
The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth
M. SCOTT PECK
He also maintains that love involves effort. I would add that the act of love also requires courage.
There do not seem to be many examples of ‘love’ around for people to experience or use as a model. Life is full of examples of ‘love’, some of which present pretty convincing evidence that they are it. Having been involved in a culturally idealised relationship that was the envy of people, who thought that what we had was true love – and knowing (from the inside) how far removed from ‘love’ it was – I cannot recommend it as a model.
I am sure that, when people do observe and experience demonstrations of genuine love, they do not identify it as such because they are looking for something different.
How our ideas of love become distorted
The ideas that we develop about love are distorted. The root of what we see as love, what we learn about love from an early age, is most often an expression of parents’ neediness or their fear.
This might seem like a rather generalised statement but if we look at what researchers have found, it may not seem like such a bold statement.
Alice Miller, psychologist, researcher, and author of ‘for your own good’, argues that out of an inability to distinguish their own needs from a true expression of love for their children, parents manipulate their offspring and attempt to fit them into costumes that are of parental design – the costume they would be happy to see us wearing. No matter that it is not what their children want or feel comfortable in. They must represent their parents’ efforts and be a reflection of their parents’ success in that role.
Despite the fact that children know that the costume does not suit them and does not fit, they contort themselves to fit into it in the hope that, then, they will retain their parents’ love and get a sense of their own worthiness. But that is tantamount to someone loving you because you buy your clothes from the right sort of store – you are not being loved and valued for your uniqueness, and for the fact that you are you.
Of course our parents do not intend this, nor are they aware that this is what they are doing. If they were aware, they would stop, because they do not mean to harm their children, they want to love them – but that is impossible if you do not have, and never have had, an experience of love. Most of us think we have been loved, and we may be sadly wrong.
Daniel Hughes, a psychologist, uses the acronym PLACE to describe the essential ingredients that children need from parents if they are to grow into emotionally mature adults who can be true to themselves. This stands for:
P - Play; L – Love; A – Acceptance; C – Curiosity; E – Empathy
He maintains that without these components children will develop a false self (a mask) to hide behind so that people will not realise how flawed and unworthy they are.
So some of us dutifully don our costumes or masks and from time to time we become aware of their hateful restrictions and try to take them off. But discarding costumes makes us feel exposed, ashamed. Only the costume, we think, earns us love – without it we are worthless.
Tricia is a perfect example of a parent-pleasing, tailor-made child, who kept desperately trying to feel at ease in her costume and failed.
Tricia: I feel very evil at times. I am a door-slammer. I feel the overwhelming compulsion to throw things. I feel really evil.
Jean: You are angry. You need to find out what you are angry about.
Tricia: I can pinpoint things within my marriage which undermine my self-esteem. It goes back further than that. My father tried to mould me to what he thought I should be. He still manages to make me feel really inadequate.
Jean: That is a killer. If you think back to Emmanuel’s Book, he suggests that at one time you put on a costume that didn’t fit. That is where the rage comes from. You need to burst your way out of there.
Tricia: I did rebel. I drank a lot, and slept around with people. Although I was quite a ‘good little girl’, too.
Jean: Yes, it’s ‘Let’s let the bad girl out of here’. Of course the ‘bad’ girl isn’t bad, it is someone who wants to say ‘Look – this is me. I don’t want to be you: I just want to be me.’
Tricia: When I go and visit my parents I make a resolution that I won’t let my dad get to me. He always gives you the impression that he can do everything better. He does it as a joke, but I think he means it really. He has no idea the effect that has on me.
Jean: Are you doing what you want to do with your life now?
Tricia: I have got wonderful ideas of selling up and taking off somewhere and I think mum and dad would be upset if I did.
Obviously Tricia has learned to be a people-pleaser. She thinks she will not get love if she does something that goes against the wishes of other people. She must live her life in a way that other people approve of, otherwise she will be worthless. She also seems to have married a man who replicated her parents. It is as though we need to keep repeating the experiences of our childhood, until we discover how to deal with our parents and not allow them to invalidate us.
Perhaps the practice we get finally enables us to affirm who we are – or it doesn’t. We have to keep banging our heads against a brick wall until we see that the only thing that changes is our own heads. It certainly provides us with the opportunity to see that we do not need to find our validation from someone else – that we do not need to keep being dominated, manipulated, abused, rendered emotionless – and whether we learn or not is up to us.
Genuine love is a gift
Derek learned a lot from his (nice) parents about love. What he learned was that you never get anything for nothing, and that love comes with strings attached, and you had better watch out, because if someone loves you there is a price to pay. He could not really see that there was anything amiss with this line of argument. He was extremely reluctant to acknowledge that his parents were anything other than good, loving people. The problem is they were also needy people.
Derek: But surely you owe your parents something? After all, they brought you into the world.
Jean: People want children, but they don’t really want to be parents. Your mother wanted children – she took on that job. You don’t owe your parents anything. Where does that come from, that you owe them something? They don’t owe you anything and you don’t owe them anything. This is not some kind of Monopoly game we are playing here.
Derek: They have given me life. I am not able to look after myself at first, so they look after me, therefore I owe them for looking after me.
Jean: I would hate to be in a relationship with you, Derek. Boy, are you going to cash up things in your bank account, and are you going to want payment back for it.
Derek: How do I change this? What do I do?
Jean: I will give you this pen, Derek. (Takes pen from table and gives it to him).
Derek: Oh. What do you want?
Jean: I don’t want anything – I just gave it to you.
Derek: Oh, (slightly embarrassed), guilt, indebtedness... Do you want it back?
Jean: I gave it you.
Derek: It’s not a short-term loan?
Jean: I gave it you.
Derek: Forever and ever?
Jean: I gave it to you.
Derek: Yes, I do find it hard to accept gifts.
Jean: Furthermore, it wasn’t a pen, it was love.
Derek: Looks like a pen to me.
Jean: It was love, and it was a gift.
Derek: Point taken. Love is a gift.
Jean: You don’t really know that.
Derek: I’m struggling towards knowing.
Jean: If it is not a gift, it is not love.
Derek: Yes, you do not want to love in the expectation that you are going to get something back.
Jean: If it is not a gift it wasn’t love, it was trade. When people give you love, say thank you and accept it.
Derek: But giving love in return is a way of saying thank you.
Jean: In return for love? People do this, they say, ‘Oh, what can I give them back, otherwise they will think I am dreadful. I really ought to give them something’. If you want to say thank you, say thank you.
Derek: (Still talking about giving love back) Not because you ought to, but because you want to thank the person who has given you that.
Jean: Then just say thank you. If love is an obligation, it isn’t love. Are you trying to justify that you ought to give something back? Are you trying to have your construct of love be right?
Derek: Yes, I can see that. I find this so difficult to get round.
Jean: It will destroy your relationships, Derek.
Derek: It has done.
Jean: You say ‘I love you?’ (places hand to ear as if to hear the expected reply ‘I love you, too’). And this is what your parents have done with you, otherwise you wouldn’t have learned it ‘I love you and what I want from you is ... I love you too’. They don’t spell it out, but you get the message anyway.
Derek: I would really like to get rid of this love as a duty thing. If I could free myself of that and look at my mother as a person! The word mother brings with it obligation and duty. I do love her, but the other things are there.
Derek’s love for his mother is obscured by the feeling that he has a duty to love her; that love is something he owes her and, if he doesn’t pay her back for what she gives, her love will cease. There is, in this system, a constant weighing and measuring to see how much have you given me and what do I owe you. I suggest to you that this is how people normally interact with ‘love’. We are constantly weighing up the evidence, adding up the score to see if, or how much, we are loved. What a lot of energy we expend on this game.
We fail to realise that the acceptance of love is a gift, too. Giving love automatically returns it to the giver. Only if the gift is not valued, not allowed in, can it feel wasted. And why would not people simply accept love – let it in? There seems to be a deep suspicion of ‘love’, which was illustrated by the conversation with Derek. He is not the only one: most of us seem to have difficulty with love. Deep down, when people offer us love, in whatever form – gifts, help, support, sympathy, attention – we wonder what is behind it? Why are they doing it? Do I deserve it?
Travis and Aronson explain this inability to accept love and admiration or support as cognitive dissonance. That is an academic term that describes the consternation of the mind when it is faced with evidence that contradicts the identity it has constructed for itself. If I consider myself to be unlovable then I struggle with any evidence that does not support that belief. In order to restore my equilibrium of mind I have to do something with the evidence – invalidate it in some way. Well if they really knew me they wouldn’t say or think that; they must be after something – why are they buttering me up? They don’t really mean it, they are just saying it to be nice.
It is almost as though someone has handed you a piece of a jigsaw puzzle but you cannot see where it fits. If you try to fit it in you will spoil the picture, so you discard it.
Genuine love is connectedness without need
Love, in our culture, can become a game which we all play by different rules, and then wonder why we never seem to win. This became very clear to me one evening when Tim took me out, on our wedding anniversary, to a special restaurant that we normally would not think we could afford. We sat there in the candlelight, music softly playing and Tim took my hand, gazed into my eyes and said ‘I really love you’. I had a feeling he thought this was the appropriate script for the occasion – this is what he should be saying – and so he had dutifully obliged. I also know that, at that moment, he was in touch with loving me.
Being in a somewhat playful mood, and feeling that Tim was perhaps ‘hamming it up’ a bit, I told him I loved him too, and then added, ‘But if you really loved me, Tim, you would have bought me flowers as well, and found a restaurant where I was serenaded by the waiter’. Entering into the spirit of the game, Tim replied, ‘Well if you really loved me you’d have skipped dinner and gone to bed with me and made mad passionate love’. ‘Ah,’ I replied, ‘if you really loved me you’d have booked us into a hotel for the night, so that we could have done both.’ And so it went on, until, in the end, we were laughing hysterically at this funny game we had discovered.
The tragedy is, of course, that for so many people it is a deadly serious game that they see as the truth. Most people know precisely how to play this game. They have played it all their lives and they believe it is the only way to play the game of love. When I invite them to demonstrate the rules of the game they can do so with alacrity. This is how we play it on the course.
The phrase, ‘If you really loved me you would...’ is written at the top of the board and the participants are asked to complete the sentence. They have no trouble at all complying with my request. With increasing humour they shout out the ending of the sentence. The completed list looks like this:
give me space; give me affection; treat me as an individual; not mother me; not lie to me; wouldn’t treat me as a possession; want to be with me; let me make mistakes; wouldn’t be jealous of people I go out with; let me meet your family; not say nasty thing; be straight; want to be with me all the time; go to bed with me; be as unhappy as I am; care about me; tell me you love me; love me as I am; wouldn’t ask me to do courses; be responsible for yourself; support me; let me be bad sometimes; not keep secrets; tell me everything; respect me; share everything; be friends; not isolate me; not make me feel guilty; let me go; let me be free, but know you can’t be; know I was equal; have a child; come and see me; notice me; know what I am thinking; know what I want without me telling you; not send me to school; trust me; be honest; listen to me; buy me flowers; support me financially; understand me; remember my birthday/anniversary etc; not make me feel guilty; not criticise me in public; not hurt me; not leave me; would leave me; give me your last toffee; entertain me; wear fish-net tights; marry me; divorce me...
I could go on. The lists from each course are similar. How tragic they are. What do they say about our relationships with each other, and with love? The manipulation, the possessiveness, the pain, the guilt, the imprisonment, the unrealistic expectations in those words. And yet this is what we do in relationships. Who wants to carry on playing this game? When I ask this question I do not get any volunteers. It is a game that has no winners. Both people end up losing. They lose their identity, their self-respect, their dignity – they lose love.
Sadly, most of us do play this game to the hilt – or even to the death. Many of us are still playing it, determined that one day we are going to win and find someone who fits the bill. Or we have given up and decided we cannot win, and we are never going to play again.
Looked at this way, the game of love is clearly madness. We learned to play it at a very early age, and then took the advanced course from the media – popular love songs, romantic novels, films and television soaps all provide us with more pieces for the jigsaw of love. We play the game s/he loves me, s/he loves me not, using people instead of flower petals. One by one we pluck out of people what we need, looking for evidence of love, until there is nothing left, only emptiness. And then we say ‘You see, I knew you didn’t love me,’ or ‘I just don’t love you anymore.’ As Stuart Emery (1978) says, ‘Most people’s relationships are based on need, and they are disasters’. All the items in the list above can be traced to the need for security, for belonging, recognition, validation and identity. They are certainly not about love.
When we experience a sense of connectedness with another person’s being, then we know what genuine love is. Genuine love is the space of possibility – it is who we are, and who we can be.
When we encounter life we begin to close the space down. We learn that love – being ourselves – means that we can be hurt and damaged. We get the message that being ourselves is not good enough to please the people we rely on, and who are our source of survival and love, and so we build the layers of protection. We all learned that LOVE = PAIN, and many say ‘I won’t do that again’. I won’t trust again, get close again, depend on someone again. I will build a wall around love, and wait and see if someone is brave enough and persistent enough to get inside it – but I will employ all my weaponry to make sure they do not manage it.
The problem with this is that the other part of the equation is NO LOVE = PAIN, also.
The truth of it all, as Guy Claxton (1984) points out, is LOVE = PAIN SOMETIMES.
Of course, when we are very small and the people who purport to love us are causing us pain, it is easy to feel that the only solution is to cut ourselves off from love, or re-create it by experiencing the feelings of anguish that it caused us in our childhood.
Robin Norwood, in Women Who Love Too Much, suggests that this is what many people do. This applies to men as well as women. We have equated love with pain, with feelings of frustration and anxiety, or we have equated it with deadness, with being safe, with staying inside our costume. This leaves us in a quandary, because something within us, the Self, recognises that we are being led up the garden path – not to a bed of roses, but to either a cabbage plot or a tangle of thorns. Where then does the path to genuine love begin?
Genuine love is attained by letting go of fear
Jerry Jampolsky devoted a whole book to this idea. Where there is fear in our hearts, there is no room for love.
When we want to love people, fear steps in and says look after yourself, protect yourself, get things for yourself, otherwise you are not going to survive.
What are the fears that stop us loving? I have given you some examples above – perhaps the fear that people will make us dependent on them and then let us down, or the fear that people will want something back for their love.
It is important to have people around who can give you love in times like this. When you speak to some people with fear they fuel your fear with their fear. Some people might want, unconsciously, to undermine my relationship with Tim, perhaps wanting it to fail so that they can say there you are you see, she couldn’t make it work either, and so they will discredit Tim and imply he is a waste of time. As long as you are speaking to people who are committed to your growth and well-being, you can deal with your fear and put it to rest.
Genuine love is attained through loving yourself
It is essential that we love ourselves if we are to love others. Similarly, before we can contribute to the growth of others, we must be committed to our own spiritual growth – practice our decision to love ourselves.
In order to do this we must deal with our guilt and shame. We must stop beating ourselves up, and criticising and judging ourselves. Would you speak to a close friend the way you speak to yourself? Of course you would not. Why do you tell yourselves you are stupid, useless, worthless, bad and wrong? What is that going to do for you? Speak to yourself with compassion, kindness and love.
When I am beating myself up I know I am not loving myself. I know that what I need to do is have compassion for myself. I can be harder on myself than my mother ever was, if I am not careful. I have to be very vigilant with myself in order to get balance in my life. I have a tendency not to allow myself to play enough and then get resentful about ‘having’ to work so hard. When I do play it would be easy to feel guilty. My mother used to say, ‘What are you doing, you idle devil, sitting there with your nose in a book, while I’m working my fingers to the bone?’ Now I have got an internal driver, my critic, the internalised mother, saying, ‘What are you doing? How dare you enjoy yourself?’ I can get into it in a big way. It is tempting to impose this work ethic on people around me.
Loving ourselves requires us to learn to say ‘no’, taking time for ourselves, telling people what you want from them, allowing them to do things for you. If we give out all the time and put nothing back for ourselves, we will deplete our energy. That is different, however, from giving out with the expectation that others will repay us. I know that it is my responsibility to replenish my energy supplies and find support for myself, and it might not come from the people to whom I am giving the support.
Genuine love is attained through deep personal understanding
Some of the problems we have with love arise because our modern vocabulary is too limited to encompass it. Norwood points out that the Greeks were streets ahead of us in this respect. They had two names for it, Agape and Eros. This is quite useful, since it helps us to distinguish what love is not, even if it does not tell us what love is.
Eros was the name the Greeks used for passionate love. Those who think that passionate love is true love measure the intensity of their love by the intensity of their suffering. Passion, Norwood points out, literally means suffering; therefore, it is necessary to suffer in order to be in love. Being in love, according to this yardstick, means that you constantly yearn for the object of your devotion and their prolonged absence brings about a state of torment and anguish.
The more obstacles that are put in the way of genuine love, in this model, the more the person suffers, and the more ardent they feel about the object of their desire. One person on the course said he had finished a relationship because he thought he did not love his girlfriend – she was not the right one. But, when she found someone else, he realised he still loved her because he had this terrible yearning.
Jean: We are looking for ‘the one’. The one that is going to come along in the shining armour or the flowing sequinned dress, and rescue you.
Derek: I broke up with my girlfriend a year ago. On the face of it we had a good relationship, but in spite of our almost-happiness she was not the right one for me. She was the first one, so she couldn’t be the right one. What a waste. You couldn’t expect the first one to be the right one.
Jean: No, of course not. You have to shop around, don’t you? Make sure there isn’t a better bargain hiding somewhere.
Derek: When I realised this, it was like being hit on the head with a mallet. How stupid I feel about this. It really was fear and more fear that made me think in this way ... I’d like to stop loving her, as she has moved on and has found someone else.
Jean: I think what you mean is you would like to stop yearning for her. Loving people is fine. It does not hurt. What often happens is that we are not in touch with how addicted we are to people, until they are not available any more. You can break off a relationship, but as soon as the other person finds someone else you think, ‘Hang on a minute, there might have been a bit of meat left on that bone,’ and ‘That was mine and now someone else has got it’ (laughter of recognition).
Derek: I was paralysed for three months, simply through realising I had lost this person I loved. Crazy!
Well, yes, crazy is the word to describe it. Don’t we say we are ‘madly in love’ or ‘I’m crazy about you’? Absolutely true. What we should say is ‘I’m madly addicted to you’ or ‘I am madly addicted to the high I get, to the rush it gives me, to the adrenalin-flow that happens around being in love’.
The pay-offs for Eros, then, are excitement, stimulation, heightened awareness and sensitivity, feelings of well-being and being in love with the world. This could be a description of someone taking stimulants or narcotics, and it is as addictive. The drawbacks to Eros are anxiety, depression, withdrawal symptoms, mood swings and feelings of being out of control.
Norwood suggests that the safe alternative to Eros (passion) is Agape. Now, after looking at what Eros constitutes, Agape might seem to many of us to be a better bet. Agape, says Norwood, is the stable, committed relationship, based on companionship and friendship, that two people have who really respect and admire each other. Each gives the other a lot of encouragement. The two people mutually support each other in making it through life. There are a lot of common interests and shared values and goals. Associated with genuine love in these terms are feelings of ‘serenity, security, devotion, understanding, companionship, mutual support and comfort’ (Norwood, p43).
Apart from this, and other possible drawbacks, Agape does not sound too bad to me, but Norwood suggests that it might be a bit boring compared with the passionate and heightened emotional state of the alternative. The problem, she believes, is that, in this culture, we are led to believe that:
A passionate relationship (Eros) will bring us contentment and fulfilment (Agape). In fact the implication is that with great enough passion a lasting bond will be forged. All the failed relationships based initially on tremendous passion can testify that this premise is false. In a passionate relationship, fraught as it must be with the excitement, suffering and frustration of new love, there is a feeling that something very important is missing. What is wanted is commitment
Norwood goes on to say that if we do eventually get the commitment, and people start to feel safe and warm towards each other, they will also feel cheated because the passion has gone.
The price we pay for passion is fear, and the very pain and fear that feed passionate love may also destroy it. The price we pay for stable commitment is boredom, and the very safety and security that cement such a relationship can also make it rigid and lifeless.
All this looks like ‘heads we lose and tails we lose’, doesn’t it? But Norwood touches on another alternative which she calls true intimacy. True intimacy is, however, only achievable when we have gone through recovery, this meaning the healing of the afflictions caused through our early childhood experiences.
The prospect of true intimacy, far from being desirable, actually fills most of us with dread. Is it any wonder? For many of us, those with whom we were once most intimately connected – our parents – exploited our innocence and violated our trust, even those who did it ever so nicely. And we are definitely not going to try that one again, even if we knew how to – and most of us have long forgotten.
Yet, it is through this process of addressing the past that we can attain genuine love in the present.
If we are to find genuine love we must first be able to recognise it - distinct from the ideas of love that we are served without our culture or usually experience within our families. If we can go beyond the passionate and addictive form of ‘love’ that speaks directly address our unmet needs (so feels that it will complete us somehow). And go beyond the ideas of a contented ‘love’, that is often served as an antidote to the first. Then we can start to work towards knowing and attaining genuine love. Committing to the wellbeing and growth of yourself and another takes a lot of energy and will-power. It takes a lot of soul-searching and opening up. It takes letting go of fear and reimagining who you are and can be. It takes finding a new way to love and be loved but feeling honoured to be supported and free to be who you are and do what you need to do with your time on this earth as a result. The pursuit of genuine love is the ultimate education in emotions and one the reasons we run courses is to help people attain genuine love.