How Do We Know What Love Is?

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

Perhaps the three most difficult English words to string together and mean are: “I love you.” But what’s this thing called love that’s so terrifying to reveal. 

What Love Isn’t

To understand authentic love, the first thing we need to do is to describe what it’s not:

Love is not a thing we fall in or out of. How could it be? Fall means to stumble, trip, lose your balance, and tumble headfirst into madness. We all know that feeling: your head is spinning like a top; you can’t stop thinking about her; you’re terrified that you might lose her; you desperately need her to feel alive. Losing her is death. Heart shattering feelings perfect for a country and western song, but it’s not the loss of love Dolly and Reba are wailing about:

It’s the loss of the “love high.” 

You reach a euphoric state; you’re bouncing on air; floating on a cloud; and then, inexplicably, you lose that love feeling. Gone. Was it nothing more than a fleeting moment of intense emotion? Where was the gravity of love? That soul-to-soul connection that keeps you grounded when the game of intimacy can feel like it’s too hard to play.

I’ve been a psychologist for forty-seven years—the same amount of time I’ve been with my life partner and soulmate. We met in graduate school. I wasn’t looking for love. Becoming a psychologist was hard enough, I didn’t need the additional challenge of learning new steps in another dance of intimacy, especially when the odds are that sooner or later you’ll be stepping on each other’s toes. But so much for logic—as if we can schedule with whom and when we’ll decide to be in love.  

In my memoir entitled, Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah, I describe when I knew I was in love:

By two in the morning, five weeks after first laying eyes on her, I showed my hand. The crazy thing was that my “I love you” was so unrehearsed, and so unlike me to express, that it had to be real—terrifyingly so. Like I’d just discovered the other half of my soul and come home. A lot scarier, in fact, because in a moment of health, you can always walk away from the madness of love. But how can you leave a part of yourself? 

Riding the Edge is a story about the challenges of love and intimacy—about the choices we make to create or destroy a relationship, and how those small and large choices led to the deep sense that Deborah and I were two unique souls bound together as fellow travellers, lovers, and partners on the journey of life. 

So, What’s Love?

Ok, so let’s return to the question of what’s love and how do we know we’ve got it. To answer that question, I want to quote from a very wise psychoanalyst named Harry Stack Sullivan, who said, “You know you’re in love when your partner’s needs are equally important as yours.” 

In another words, unlike the experience of falling in love where it’s all about the faller’s feelings of euphoria, in this experience of love you’re focused on the other person. What interests her, interests you.  You want to give to her as much—perhaps even more—than you want to receive. In fact, giving is receiving. 

With authentic love, you feel like she gets you; she challenges you to drop your mask and be real. You want to be your best self with her—no games, no ego trips, just raw and transparent. She can’t love a role. She can love you when she can see the true you. And the same goes for you toward her. 

Seeing means loving. It doesn’t mean being blind to her warts but seeing her warts as part of what makes her real. A great example of that was when Robin William’s character, Sean McGuire, in Good Will Hunting, lovingly describes how he’s late wife would fart in her sleep and wake herself up.  Not very romantic if romance for you is only about beautiful music and perfume. But quite romantic when you learn to smile when you think about those quirky idiosyncrasies that make her who she is. 

 So, loving is cherishing what you see in your partner.  In fact, in the movie, Avatar, the characters never say, “I love you.” They say, “I see you.”  For me, that’s the essence of love: to never stop wanting to see or be seen. Terrifying, yes. Because it’s scary to be so vulnerable. But it’s what we all want and need. 

Yet, it’s so much easier to run from this authentic and sometimes gut-wrenching experience of love to the quick and empty feeling of falling in love. But it’s so much less rewarding.  In real love, you invest. You create an intimate connection with loving actions. You don’t get love because you demand or deserve it. You get love by giving, by seeing, by your willingness at times to put your needs aside for another. 

So, if you want to sign up for this deep experience of connection, ask yourself if you’re scared. You should be because in real love she’ll throw you off your game and challenge you to come out from hiding. And you’ll do the same for her. 

Yet, it’s so worth it. A deep and enduring connection always is. 

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