Love is not an easy thing to define – it’s one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it kinds of things. When you’re in love, you feel all sorts of things, and they are often overwhelming and confusing. You may feel giddy and dizzy with delight and desire, but then moments later you may find yourself plunged into the deepest depths of despair.
Much of our understanding of love comes from the media, by which I mean Hollywood, and from much older sources of propaganda like fairy tales, stories like “Romeo and Juliet,” and love songs and so on. From what we see and hear in these fantasy stories, we form some kind of idea about what love is, about being “swept away,” “losing control,” about being struck by a “thunderbolt.” Love, it seems, is like a drug that seizes us and causes us to lose all control. Nothing else seems to matter, or at least nothing else seems to matter as much. Love, we are told, trumps all other things in our lives – our careers, our families, our finances, our health, everything.
But those are our dreams of love, fed by music and movies and the romance industry. The Russian writer Dostoyevsky knew this when he wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” By this he didn’t mean love was awful. But what he meant was that the unrealistic idea of love we are spoon fed is so ridiculous that no real love relationship could ever hope to compare to it favorably. And when our actual relationships fall far short of the fake ones in Hollywood movies and such, that can cause painful disappointment and lead to toxic resentments.
Don’t be discouraged. Love is a wonderful experience that makes human life beautiful, transcendent and worth living. But you should try to keep a realistic view of what love is and how it fits into your life. Don’t ask love to do too much. Don’t expect it to solve all the problems in your life so that you can live “happily ever after” without any hard work. Here are three lessons to consider:
Love takes effort
Falling in love doesn’t take much effort. That’s why we use the verb “fall,” and why we often describe ourselves in terms of loss of control, being “swept off our feet,” or “carried away.” But the easy, dizzy excess of infatuation doesn’t last very long, and if a love relationship is to endure, it requires a lot of work. That isn’t always fun to accept, but it is true.
A quick love affair doesn’t give us much time to notice or care about our partner’s flaws, whatever they may be, and to worry about our own negative characteristics. At first, we are so enamored of the other person that we don’t notice anything negative about them. But if we continue to date them and become more seriously involved, stuff comes up. Perhaps one person has a bad temper, or both do. Maybe one person is overly jealous, or nags, or doesn’t have the career ambition required to sustain a family. Maybe one partner drinks too much, or gambles, or smokes, or works too much. Love is not going to magically fix any personality flaws. If you were lazy before you fell in love, you’re likely to still be lazy afterwards. If you had a short temper before, you will still probably have a short temper afterwards.
Those are all things that can be worked on and improved, either alone or with professional help from a therapist or group, such as an anger-management class. But changing deep-seated aspects of our personalities takes serious effort. That work is worth it, as it can be the foundation of a fulfilling relationship or marriage that exceeds all expectations.
Long-term relationships require effort to divide up the labor of household chores, and to determine the family’s finances – who makes how much and what it is going to be budgeted towards. Since money is nearly as difficult to talk about in modern society as love, it isn’t easy to have such conversations, but they are very important.
There are no guarantees
Love is an amazing thing that adds tremendous happiness and richness to our lives. But there are no guarantees in love, and any expectations that we have about how long or intense our relationship is likely to be are just that – expectations, not guarantees.
First of all, life itself can be harsh. Loved ones can get sick, or have accidents, or die. That’s not fun to think about, and fortunately it isn’t all that common, at least when we are young, but it does happen. And we don’t stay young. We get older, our blood pressure goes up, our muscles get flabbier, and we change. That is guaranteed, if we are lucky enough to have a relationship that lasts decades. And it isn’t just our physical selves that change as we age. Our minds change, and our emotions change, too. It takes effort to understand and react appropriately to those changes.
Sometimes, people change and stop loving each other. It happens, and it’s important to understand and accept that it happens. Doing the work mentioned above to keep the relationship healthy and harmonious is a good way to prevent this from happening, but there are no guarantees. It is not likely, but it is remotely possible that you could wake up one day and realize that you don’t love your partner anymore. Or they could realize they aren’t in love with you anymore. People do change. They also have midlife crises. Sometimes these changes are so severe they lead to breakups and divorce.
So it is important to accept that love is a finite thing. It doesn’t last forever, since we don’t live forever, and it doesn’t stay the same forever, since we change as we grow and live our lives. Recognizing and accepting this reality isn’t a lot of fun, but if you can accept it, you can take a lot of the pressure off of your relationship, since you will realize it is a precious gift, rather than a guarantee. Enjoy it each day, because it is possible it may change tomorrow.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Think of yourself as an athlete training to run a race. Love is a long race, a marathon, or even one of those unfathomable ultra-marathons, a hundred miles in the desert. It isn’t a sprint. If you treat it like a sprint, you will never make it, just as if you try to run ten miles at a sprinter’s pace. Your lungs will catch on fire and you’ll pass out before you get too far.
But there are great advantages to thinking of love as a marathon. You can start slowly and get the feel for the right pace. Don’t feel like you have to meet, go on a couple dates, move in together and get married all in a few months. Give yourself time to get to know each other, and to get to know yourself, too. Run too fast too soon and you’ll pull a muscle. But take time to warm up and you will be able to keep going a long time. You’ll also have time to learn what muscles are likely to hurt, and you’ll be able to get used to using them.
Eventually, you’ll find a comfortable pace and be able to keep going for miles and miles. That doesn’t mean it won’t be tough at times – ask any marathoner and they’ll tell you there was some awful mile or two halfway through the race – but you will have a good chance of going the full distance.