What is Love?

Conditions for Love

In order to love, we must have self-respect and a feeling of comfort in our own skin. This requires that we be honest with ourselves. Self-regard is different from narcissism, which is pathological.

Constant Effort: Being ready to love means understanding what love is and being willing to put the effort into growing and nurturing a love relationship. The other person can be a catalyst to its growth or an impediment. Our own attitudes can act like water or poison. If we want to sustain and grow love, we must work at it, which involves open, honest communication. Even though this is painful, we should be willing to do it because love makes us feel safe, given the challenges we face in the world and our uncertainty about what life will bring. People realize that we need to interact with others in order to survive. This, in part, is the foundation of our need to love and to be loved.

The idea of two individuals becoming one sets up the wrong expectations. A better model is two individuals being great partners. And in any great partnership, each needs to participate equally in the effort. When one does more of the work that the other, the inequality will eventually wear on the relationship.

However, just like the lack of effort can hurt a relationship, putting in the time and effort can strengthen it. We should constantly reveal yet unseen aspects of ourselves to our loved one by being creative and thus keeping passion alive. For example, consider a couple that has been together long enough so that their lives become routine. One year, instead of taking his wife to their usual celebratory restaurant for her birthday dinner, a husband prepares a private sunset picnic on a beach. Surprise and thoughtfulness can add vitality to the relationship.

Shedding Illusions: Often, passion is the initial impetus that leads to love. Initially, passion is for a fantasy that we project onto someone, not for the person's true self. For example, if a person is a great kisser, we may project other favorable attributes onto him/her such as generosity and kindness. With time, as we accumulate the essential ingredients that produce a love relationship, our fantasy of the person will start to separate from the reality. So we may complain that all he/she wants to do is kiss, rather than listening to me when I talk. "Fantasized love" is often mistaken for real love. Real love is only possible when experienced in actuality, not when experienced through anticipation, fantasy or projection.

We continuously test reality as we live our lives; thus, our real perception of our loved ones gradually replaces our desired perception of them. Our fantasy of the loved one is never as nuanced or complicated as the image we come to have of the real person.

One of the delights of a relationship is the process discovering, new aspects of the person, at least when we find those aspects attractive. The behavior of the idealized partner will deviate from the long-term behavior of the real one. One of the great disappointments is discovering unappealing features. So, as we spend more time with the person, we find more features than we envisioned in our imagination. If the features we dislike are powerful or manifested often, the non-pleasure they bring will outweigh the pleasure we take in being with the person. Accepting and admiring the reality and shedding illusions are important to the relationship. If we cling to the fantasy, then that person will inevitably disappoint us when they do not do things that we expect they would. With time, actual experiences outnumber fantasized ones. Our expectations then either force us to adjust our picture, or they make us feel disappointed or even betrayed.

Ideals: Unfortunately, from early childhood we absorb the myth of the flawless prince or princess. Of course, no one is flawless, so as disappointment with a person grows, we begin to feel that someone better must be out there. The moment a problem surfaces, people with immature expectations will simply move on and keep searching for their prince or princess, sometimes leaving something terrific behind. It is important to identify if the disappointment is valid. Moving on to seek another relationship should be done only with the realization that there is no perfect prince or princess; we should be seeking a partner who makes life richer and deeper, who helps us become more authentic in the world.

Empathy: Love requires empathy. Empathy is a necessary precondition for love as opposed to one of its seven essential ingredients. Contemporary neuroscience has shown that normal human beings are wired to feel empathy. In the early 1990s, Italian researchers discovered what are now called "mirror neurons." These neurons fire in the same way when we act or feel in a given way and when we observe others acting or feeling in that way. Prominent neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran calls these "Gandhi neurons" because these mirror neurons are responsible for connecting people to one another. Aristotle said 2,400 years ago that human beings by nature imitate and enjoy imitations. Contemporary science has proved him right. Empathy is a kind of mirroring or imitating. If I see you suffer, then I can feel your suffering, through empathy. That feeling of kinship widens my world and gives me a sense of connection. Love relationships thus enrich life, except for those with certain pathologies.