Love is a concept that people of all ages struggle to define. Many will marry without being certain of what it is, others may pass on never knowing it, while some rest their hearts certain that their lives were graced with love.
In an attempt to deter young couples from becoming just another Taylor Swift ballad, this article aims to discuss sophisticated theories by demonstrating the difference between infatuation and genuine love, so that young adults may develop a higher wisdom about love as a whole.
For the most part, we are expected to know how to relate to others through our instincts, emotionally and otherwise. But due to the media’s portrayal of love and lust, society now holds a great misconception about what love truly is. Movies make us think that our first love is oftentimes our true love. With apps like Tinder, we are taught to believe that if there is a problem in our current relationship, we can go online and shop for a new one. This discord in our expectations of love divides how young adults maneuver the dating scene.
“Love is divine only and difficult always. It is a learned application. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplations – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.” — Toni Morrison, Pulitzer-prize winning author
Likewise, philosopher Erich Fromm calls love: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. 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.”
A major misconception many have is that love is somehow magically obtained. Whether it’s love at first sight or the sudden burst of compatibility with a stranger, it more often than not manifests as a choice to spend energy and attention on another person. Love doesn’t just happen; while it may feel ethereal at times, you control all your actions to make it happen or not in the first place.
In Plato’s The Symposium, Pausanias labels Fromm’s definition of love as “Heavenly Love.” Heavenly Love is when wisdom is exchanged for wisdom. It’s when two individuals bond as one in a way that doesn’t sacrifice each other but brings out the best of both. It is a combination of agape (unconditional spiritual love), philia (friendship), and eros (romance). These versions of love must be in balance to form a strong, healthy relationship. If they are not in harmony, then it is not quite true love.
For example, your parents provide agape because they may love you no matter what, but they are unlikely to show eros to you. Your best friend may provide only philia through loyal companionship. A passionate significant other who enjoys cuddling, romantic dates, and sexual activity is strong in the eros field. A balance of all three is considered a genuine long-term love, which many humans strive for but don’t always understand.
Often times we confuse Heavenly Love with “cathexis,” a term coined by psychiatrist Scott Peck to describe common love. Cathexis is feeling the chemistry that people often misinterpret as love at first sight. Common love would be more modernly described as “puppy love,” or love with no reliable emotional foundation. It is the feeling of being connected to someone, but it lacks the essential ingredients of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, or trust. Cathect relationships are illusions of true love, one that we might see Disney-inspired teenagers seek. bell hooks* distinguishes these apart in her book, All About Love:
“We can only move from perfect passion to perfect love when the illusions pass and we are able to use the energy generated by spiritual bonding to heighten self-discovery. Perfect love is a personal revolution: takes your ideas, your desires, and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality which is a new you.”
When we are ready to be spiritually transformed by love, we discover it within ourselves. Unfortunately, when people mistake passion for love or when we are not emotionally prepared to act upon love, we get hurt. A true partnership will share the best qualities of each, so both may develop as stronger, happier individuals in unison.
Many teenagers step into a romantic relationship with stars in their eyes and lose their sense of identities under infatuation. They hear sweet nothings and in their excitement find proposals of everlasting affection. These same people believe they deserve love, rather than earning it through opening their hearts to actively care for others.
Relationships like these–without a strong emotional foundation– reveal a desire to find a partner rather than to know love. As such, we would benefit from having a strong sense of who we are, what we seek in relationships, and what our boundaries are.
“Young people aren’t completely comfortable with themselves yet, and they don’t know how to communicate that. They tend to jump into romantic intimacy instead of fostering emotional intimacy.” — William Blair
We get dazzled by the prospect of holding hands, picnics in meadows, and candle-lit bedrooms so much that we forget that these activities are not what defines love. Young adults tend to think that dates promote intimacy, but what truly brings people together is understanding our identities with one another.
The media portrays our first loves as our only love, but in reality, we will have many. Ironically, in the comedy TV show, Scrubs, Dr. Cox explains this exceptionally:
“Relationships don’t work the way they do on television and in movies. Will they, won’t they, and then they finally do and they’re happy forever– give me a break. Nine out of ten of them end because they weren’t right for each other to begin with, and half of the ones that get married get divorced anyway.”
A supportive and loving companion is motivated to grow along with you throughout the stages of your lives. Healthy relationships can help you find your identity, although it is imperative not to let your partner define you at the same time. Love goes wrong when a person becomes objectified as a medium of love, rather than someone to discover love with. Ultimately, no one can value you more than you value yourself.
“Don’t ever settle for bad love. When a person becomes so obsessed with the relationship or their partner, they end up hurting themselves,” said Blair. “Often times we become fixated on the happy parts from earlier in the relationship, but if you’re not currently happy then you should get out.”
Some people foster your growth during specific stages of your life. However, as we grow older it becomes evident that not everyone is meant to stick around. When two people begin to drift apart, perhaps it’s for the best. It’s sad when the spark between pupils evaporates, but if the relationship was good then both partners can move on understanding they grew positively as individuals.
“When we’re left behind, we think it’s us,” said Blair, “but it’s the relationship that is lacking– not you– because what we need in a relationship is not being met.”
There are different kinds of love to suit what different people need. We become ready for varying versions of love at different stages of our lives.
“Sometimes you outgrow your relationship and it’s time to move on. Letting go can be very difficult and painful, but it’s better than being miserable, co-dependent, or being a version of yourself that betrays who you really are,” according to an experienced young adult who wished to remain anonymous.
A couple that truly cares for the well-being for one another will end their chapter with a gracious smile acknowledging the beauty they shared. A partner who concludes perfect love relationship will walk away wishing happiness upon the other. There would be a continued expression of love in a different manner, be it of respect, support, or space.
Even if one of the two has moved on romantically, respect and care for the other’s happiness would be mutual. Do not act out angrily against your ex out of spite, that only reveals your selfish intentions to make yourself feel better over the heartache. One who seeks happiness for their former significant other shows sincere love.
With each relationship, we learn what we’re seeking and our boundaries, and over time grow closer to understanding love.
“When first love ends, most people eventually know there will be more to come. They are not through with love. Love is not through with them. It will never be the same as the first, but it will be better in different ways.” — David Levithan author of Every Day
We can fall in love multiple times in our lives, so we must not put overburdening expectations on any one relationship. This isn’t to devalue a current relationship, but it means to say that if a love ends, we should not crumble and give up on love itself.
There is no formula to concoct love, nor is there a truly flawless relationship. We have the capability fall in love with many people in our lives. Some of us will, some of us will not. It depends on when we are ready and what we want to discover in love.
And like York psychologist, Professor Arthur Arun found, love has a way of manifesting itself. She asked subjects of a study to find a complete stranger and reveal intimate details about their lives to each other for half an hour. Then they stared deeply into each other’s eyes without talking for four minutes. Interestingly, the majority of the participants felt deeply attracted to their partners after the 34-minute experiment, and two of them later got married.
“You’re going to fall in love with someone who will make sense beyond college or a job or a particular season. They’ll make sense forever and won’t ever want to leave you behind. I’m telling you this not because it’s true but because it needs to be true. Everyone is entitled to this kind of love, so why not? Have it. It’s yours.” — Ryan O’Connell, author of The Types of People You Will Fall in Love With in Your 20’s.
Relationships can be increasingly influential as we grow throughout our lives, but they are not necessary to attain happiness. True love can help one discover happiness within and teach how to invoke happiness for others. When we want to see our partners happy without compromising ourselves is how we know we are expressing sincere love. Through trials and experiences, one day we may be able to fully understand love, and it will be worth all the joy and heartbreak.
Don’t be afraid of love, but recognize how to foster and nurture it. Love is a capability and choice everyone has, but our absolute success of sharing that love depends on how we ultimately come to love ourselves.
*Gloria Jean Watkins uses the nom de plume of “bell hooks,” which is intentionally uncapitalized.