This post originally appeared on 40:20 Vision, a website where women in their 40s give advice to women in their 20s.
I spent most of my 20s obsessing about love. When will I meet him? When will I find true love? Why isn't he calling me? Why am I alone? Where is he? Who is he? Am I over him? Why can't I get over him? These were the litany of questions that lived in my mind every day.
Life was about one thing: Finding love. Some nights, it happened like dye in water, suddenly -- and there he was walking toward me. Other times it happened slowly, a pebble floating downstream along a long and winding river. But every time it happened, I believed this was it, as if falling in love was itself an end instead of a beginning.
What I didn't know was love -- even when you find the one -- is always a journey, one full of risk and compromise and ups and downs. The goal is to make it last, but most relationships don't. And, sometimes, love can even outlast the relationship itself.
You see, love is always more complicated than we want it to be. We want it to be easy like the end of a Disney movie, a prince and a princess and happily ever after. But it's not like that.
Love, I've learned, is mostly about support (and I don't mean financial). Will you be here for me? Will you support my dreams? Will you help me become the person I want to become? And the converse: I will be here for you. I will support your dreams. I will help you become the person you want to become.
It's not roses and diamond rings -- although flowers and jewelry can go a long way sometimes. It's not a pre-determined list of requirements (he must be over six feet tall; he must have blue eyes; he must watch Grey's Anatomy with me). And it's definitely not abuse (physical or emotional), which so many of us have confused for love at least once in our lives. We deserve better.
Since I'm working on a memoir about losing and finding love, I've spent a great deal of time reflecting on this topic. Here are four things that, at 38, I believe about love that I wish I knew when I was in my 20s:
1. You need to love yourself first.
I thought love was tantamount to pain. I put up with men who called me names and yelled at me, who accused me of lying and cheating when I hadn't, who were jealous and possessive. Men who most of all wanted to control me. I thought that's what love was. I didn't respect myself enough to stand up for myself.
2. You will regret the way you treat some people.
Even though I got hurt, I delivered my share of pain, too. I was selfish. I wasn't ready for serious relationships. I cheated and lied and dumped and pushed away. Now, as a mother of two boys, I cringe at the way I treated mothers' sons. If someone hurts one of my sons like this one day, I will be heartbroken.
3. Worrying about love is a waste of time.
OK, maybe not a complete waste, but I did spend too much mental energy on relationships or failed relationships when I wish I had channeled this energy into something more creative, like writing a novel. By contrast, my 30s have been more productive -- both in terms of my career and my life goals. I've finally been able to clear my mind of the obsession of love. I'm married, I'm a mother and I'm working on my first book.
4. Love is going to change -- and that's a good thing.
Your ideas of love (and marriage) will change. What becomes important in your life will change too. Love at 16 is not the same at love at 38. And I imagine love at 38 is not the same as love at 58 or 78 or 98. As we age, we begin to think differently about life and love.
At 16, I fell in love for the first time; I dreamed of marrying my high school sweetheart, but I had no clue what it meant to be married. I pictured the wedding, but I never pictured the day-to-day. I'm not sure I knew what life would become -- a career, children, bills, a mortgage, laundry, and date nights scheduled between bedtimes, family events, work trips and outings with friends. I see my husband as my life partner, someone I love but, perhaps more important, someone I can live with.
Love, as it turns out, is not everything.
Finding a man who makes me happy, keeps me stable (mentally) and plays a supportive role in raising our children -- this is what I value now. This is what love is to me.
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