We live under a massive cultural delusion about the nature of real love. Propagated by mainstream media, from the time you're born you're inundated with the belief that love is a feeling and that when you find "the one" you'll sense it in your gut and be overcome by an undeniable sense of knowing. When the feeling and corresponding knowing fade (for the knowing is intimately linked to the feeling) and the work of learning about real love begins, most people take the diminished feeling as a sign that they're in the wrong relationship and walk away. And then they start over again, only to find that the now-familiar knowing and feeling fade again... and again... and again.
If love isn't a feeling, what is it?
Love is action. Love is tolerance. Love is learning your partner's love language and then expressing love in a way that he can receive. Love is giving. Love is receiving. Love is plodding through the slow eddies of a relationship without jumping ship into another's churning rapids. Love is recognizing that it's not your partner's job to make you feel alive, fulfilled, or complete; that's your job. And it's only when you learn to become the source of your own aliveness and are living your life connected to the spark of genius that is everyone's birthright can you fully love another.
Although it's nearly impossible to capture this elusive word into a single definition, M. Scott Peck says it poignantly in The Road Less Traveled:
Love is as love does. Love is an act of will -- namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
By stating that it is when a couple falls out of love that they may begin to really love I am also implying that real love does not have its roots in a feeling of love. To the contrary, real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don't feel loving.
And as my favorite fiction writer on real love, Kate Kerrigan (author of a must-read for every engaged and newlywed couple, "Recipes for a Perfect Marriage"), writes in her fabulous essay, Marriage Myths:
You don't have to encourage it, or welcome it, but you better learn to suck it up from time to time. We have mythologized love to such an extent that people are no longer prepared for the realities of long-term relationships. We are taught that it is good not to compromise, not to put up with anything we don't like, not to sacrifice our own beliefs for anyone or anything. Yet compromise and sacrifice are the cornerstones of marital love.
No matter what way you dress it up, the best thing you can bring to a marriage is not the feeling of 'being in love', but romance's poor relation: tolerance. Add to that enough maturity to be able to fulfil your own needs and you have some hope. Optimism and chemistry, which seem to be the bedrock of the modern marriage, just don't cut it, folks. And while I am pontificating, one more tip for the ladies: Try to find a man who has that most underrated of qualities: character. I did and so far my Oscar hasn't bothered him. Although I am still waiting for my cooked breakfast...
Sound pessimistic? It's reality, not a welcome word in a culture addicted to fantasy. But here's the good news: when the initial infatuation feeling fades and you do the real work of learning how to love and be loved, something infinitely richer and sustaining than flimsy infatuation flowers in the garden of your marriage. Over time, these plants grow roots that are sturdy and strong. They are nourished by soil that is well-worked as you've sat beside each other and yanked out the weeds of intolerance, impatience, frustration, and fear. It's work that can and must be cultivated over a lifetime, and yet we expect to enter marriage with a perfect, rose-filled garden. Again, this is the fantasy that our culture propagates and throws many young people into despair when their fledging relationship fails to measure up to these unrealistic and damaging expectations.
If you're in a fulfilling, long-term marriage, you know what I mean and I'm preaching to the choir. But for the women and men who I work with every day in counseling, it's a crushing moment when the infatuation drug wears off and they're left to begin the real work of loving. And it's even more devastating when this happens during their engagement, a time our culture hammers into their head as the happiest in their life. It's time to send a different message to young people about the difference between infatuation and love. If we're going to restore marriage to a place of honor and respect, we must teach that the role of one's partner is not to save you from yourself and make you feel alive, fulfilled, and complete; only you can do that. It's time to teach a different message. Let's begin the conversation here.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her Home Study Programs and her websites. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com.