What the Heck is Love Anyway?

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Well it’s that time of the year again, Valentine’s Day, when we are supposed to celebrate love. I was thinking about the meaning of love the other day when I was sitting with a friend talking about his relationship. He was trying to sort through the complexities of this relatively new romance, wondering whether it was right for him. It got me thinking about whether it is ever really possible to answer that question and especially as one gets older when our perspectives change.

For the first half of my life it seemed that having a partner was kind of like driving a car, something we default to doing (at least in the US) to make life easier. The challenge really was to figure out what make or model was best suited. The notion that I might actually question the value of being in a formal relationship later on life would have seemed completely alien to me when I was young. As I listened to my friend struggle with the pros and cons of his current relationship it made me realize that it seems even harder to wrap your head around what love is as you get older. I’ve been wondering why?

Perhaps it’s because we are less idealistic as we age. Life seems to knock a lot of that out of us. The kind of romantic coupling idealized by Hallmark and other purveyors of all things pink and red on Valentine’s Day seems like a distant Hollywood dream. We learn, or at least some of us do, that its not just about physical attraction, or status, but rather a complicated intertwining of shared values, respect, compassion and honesty. Love and relationships are hard work and success, frankly, is rare. While a number of my friends seem to have happy, stable long-term relationships, they are definitely in the minority and I don’t believe it was any less so in my parent’s generation. The difference, it seems to me, is that in my parent’s generation marriage was more often a contractual working arrangement designed to support a family. Some got lucky and love either endured or grew over time, but many weren’t. Of my mother’s friends who were unhappy in their relationships, many stayed because they didn’t have the economic means to leave or they had simply lost their identities as individuals and couldn’t imagine life outside of marriage.

It’s a surprise to me to find myself single on the other side of midlife, but I can’t say I feel deprived of love for it. Touch yes, but not love. I had always imagined that I would find a fellow life traveler of the right make and model. But, in many ways, going solo has provided me with more freedom to experience love in all its complexity through rich and diverse friendships. There are the friends, and family, who have been with me through thick and thin, whose enduring love for me, and mine for them, seems unshakable. Like gravity or a sturdy walking stick on a slippery slope. There are friends that love me despite of myself to whom I’m eternally grateful for their patience and forgiveness. There are friends that delight, humor or inspire me, and others who drive me bat shit crazy at times, yet I remain devoted regardless. There are friends (sometimes former or future lovers) where the relationship is charged with unspoken sexual tension. Love mysteriously ambiguous and delicious. Then there is my dog! Unconditional love for me I’m told, but actually I think it’s the other way round. Nothing makes my heart bust open as wide as it does when I come home to find that little black nose pressed to the front door waiting to devour me with dog kisses. It’s a love so raw and simple it surpasses all boundaries, inexplicable in its intensity.

I could go on, categorizing and layering, but the reality is it’s probably impossible to really define love. It shifts and changes from moment to moment. Pinning it down is as futile as trying to catch a butterfly. As soon as we think we are closing in it’s gone. Perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be? The only thing I do know is that we need to be really clear with ourselves about what our needs and boundaries are so we can be authentic in our relationships with others.