What really is love? And how do you make it work?

Natasha Lunn
Photo credit: Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

From Red Online

Red's features editor Natasha Lunn has spent the last year asking writers and psychologists about love in all its forms. This is what she's discovered along the way..

A psychotherapist once told me that she believes all of us are born with certain questions that we spend our lives trying to answer. My question has always been this: what does it really mean to love? By this I don’t just mean how to find or be in a relationship, but how to pay attention to the many different forms of love - how to navigate the nuances of friendship and the complicated ways in which our families shape us, how to develop a sturdy sense of self-understanding and avoid the lure of romantic fantasy.

It’s a question that inspired me to start investigating love, one interview at a time, in a bimonthly newsletter called Conversations on Love. The aim was simple: to ask writers and thinkers about the different shapes that love has taken in their lives in the hope that their answers might offer up valuable insights for the rest of us.

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When I first began writing it, I worried the answers might become repetitive after a year. Instead, I have found the deeper you dig into the subject of love the greater the gifts it gives you. From interviewing guests such as Booker prize winning author Hilary Mantel, philosopher Alain de Botton and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, I’ve learnt that people are at their most fascinating and revealing when they are thinking about love. It is, after all, one of the biggest mysteries of our lives - as Jeanette Winterson wrote, ‘Nothing could be more familiar than love. Nothing else eludes us so completely.’

But I also believe there are ways in which all of our lives could benefit from working harder to understand love, some of which I’ve shared below…

Think about what you want from a relationship, not a partner

When I interviewed relationship coach Susan Quillam, she revealed that the first step to finding a romantic relationship isn't to find a partner. Actually, ‘it’s to understand what you need and what you want.’ She said, ‘I always guide people away from defining what they want in a partner to defining what they what in a partnership, because they can be very different.’

Ask yourself four questions about a new partner

When it comes to choosing a partner, Quillam suggests four checks in the first six months:

  1. 'In order to have a long-lasting relationship, you need to first of all be capable of a partnership which delivers a normal, happy day most of the time. If you’re not experiencing that in the first six months, there’s something wrong.
  2. What happens if you have a normal but unhappy day? Can you get through rows? If your partner has a stressful day at work, are you motivated to step up? Or is it like, "oh god, not that again."
  3. Can you celebrate an abnormally happy day in the same way? Or are you constantly frustrated because one of you wants to go out partying and the other wants to stay in?
  4. What happens when a day is abnormally unhappy? Of one of you gets a piece of really bad news or you lose your job, how do you both react? Are you prepared to step up and support the other? Or is it like,"Oh, well let me know when you’re better."'

If you have all four? Quillam believes you’ve got a good chance of making things work. But if one or two of the checks aren’t working, it's probably not going to be a good relationship.

Employ the 7/10 rule

Have you ever been engrossed in a book and then felt mildly irritated when your partner tries to tell you a story about their day at work? Or maybe they try to share something interesting they’ve read but you were too busy uploading a photo to Instagram to give them your full attention?

These might seem like small slights, but, as Red’s agony aunt and psychotherapist Philippa Perry told me, these bids for attention are a key part of sustaining long-term love. She pointed me to research by the Gottman Institute which revealed that if seven out of ten bids for attention are met by each partner, then the couple has a better relationship. If you meet fewer than seven? Your connection suffers.

Realise sex is the dream life of a marriage

Author Mira Jacob helped me to see that sex can tell us ‘what our bodies know about us, that our minds aren’t yet processing or can’t yet hold on to.’ She views sex as a ‘subconscious language that’s hidden in your blood and your bones and it makes sense in a way that music or art does; it makes sense to a part of you that doesn’t need to put words to things.’

So next time you have sex try really paying attention to how you are with each other - when you hold back, how the power dynamics shift, how able you are to truly let go and be vulnerable. There might be signs you’re struggling to connect that neither of you have been able to voice yet.

Acknowledge sex is important (unless it’s not to both partners)

New York Times Modern Love editor Dan Jones thinks that one of the biggest misconceptions is that true connection is the emotional one. He said, ‘Ultimately I think emotional connection is one piece of a relationship. People dismiss sex and physicality as being the shallow side of love, and it’s not; it’s just as important.’

Susie Orbach also pointed out that a sexual relationship is 'something you develop together - it’s not something you do with other people, and that’s what makes it special. You do all sorts of other things with other people, but not that.’

On the other hand, many therapists I spoke to said sex is crucial unless it’s not to both partners. If neither partner is interested in sex, then it becomes less important and the couple may develop other forms of intimacy (like cooking or gardening together).

Know that security is (sometimes) the enemy

Often what we lose in long-term relationships is kindness. When I asked relationship coach Susan Quillam why, she said it’s because ‘once you’ve got close to somebody they can more easily push your buttons than a stranger can. And vice versa.’

She explained that we’re unlikely to snap at our friends, but with a partner it’s easier to shout or lose your temper if you’ve become so close that it feels like a betrayal when you don’t agree on something. (Quillam calls this becoming ‘enmeshed.) So it’s about ‘being close, but not so close that you treat each other badly. And keeping sufficient distance that you can be kind to one another.’

Don’t expect feelings to sustain a relationship

‘Many relationships and long-term marriages fall apart because one person says, “I don’t feel in love with you anymore,” Dan Jones told me. 'The idea that that is the reason to end a relationship? There’s got to be more than that.' The truth is there are going to be times when we don’t feel ‘in love’ with our partners and we need to make peace with that. Since we are more independent than previous generations, Jones believes love has become the central reason to be together, whereas in the past the reason was dependency. And that’s ‘a big burden to place on love, that you have to feel good in a relationship all the time for that relationship to be worth sustaining.’

From Esther Perel, meanwhile, I learnt that even when we do feel ‘in love’ that isn’t enough – we have to demonstrate it too. She said, ‘If you tell me, “I care about my partner”’ then my second question is, “How do you show it?” The fact that you feel it isn’t enough. What do you do to let the other person – and yourself - know that that’s the case?' When you don't demonstrate love, that's when neglect seeps in.

Recognise love comes in different guises

Romantic love is only one facet of a life. You might assume this is an obvious lesson because in recent years friendship has finally been celebrated as a form of love (thanks to writers like Elena Ferrante and Dolly Alderton) and 2018 was the year self-love hit the mainstream (with the self-care movement).

But over the last year and a half I’ve uncovered more forms of love than I’d ever imagined – for Sheila Heti, writing was love; Ayisha Malik found love in faith; Jude Kelly found it in work; Hilary Mantel found it in a connection to a stranger at an airport. If we pay attention, love really is all around us, even if it comes in a different shape to the one we were expecting.

Understand a relationship is hard work, but love is easy

Several guests told me the one thing they wish they’d known is that love should be easy. At first, I thought this contradicted a lot of what I’d learnt about love being a verb, not a noun, and something that requires constant work and renewal. Now I’ve realised that while you have to work hard at a relationship, you shouldn’t have to work hard at convincing someone to love you. Either they do or they don’t. And when someone really loves you don’t have to do anything other than be yourself. To me, this is the most important lesson of all, because I spent so long trying to squash myself into a different shape in order to convince someone to love me, when really there was nothing I could do to change their mind. And equally, loving and being loved by my husband feels like the easiest thing in the world. So if someone makes you feel as if loving you is hard work? I don't think that's real love. And you deserve more.

To learn more about love Conversations on Love: Tinyletter.conversations_on_Love

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