What Love Is and Isn’t

by | May 7, 2012

When you love someone in a rational, genuine way, you love that person as an individual. You sincerely want him or her to be happy, and you want to add to their life while, at the same time, experiencing your own enjoyment of that person.

TV viewers will never forget Marie Barone, the meddling, controlling and hilarious matriarch from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” After any one of her horrendous invasions into her kids’ lives and privacy blew up in her face, she would always look innocent and wide-eyed, purring softly, “But I did it out of love!”

Love and control are not the same thing. Some people think that their feelings of control are an expression of their “love”—but they are not.

Controlling people can experience a certain kind of attachment to another person, but it’s still not love.

When you love someone in a rational, genuine way, you love that person as an individual. You sincerely want him or her to be happy, and you want to add to their life while, at the same time, experiencing your own enjoyment of that person. In romantic love especially, the object of your love embodies the qualities you most value and enjoy.

We hear all the time that true love is “selfless.” In other words, if you love someone as I just described, you are keeping your “selfish” needs in check. This isn’t accurate, though, because a lover does, in fact, experience selfish pleasure out of the love experience. How else could it be? Love is not primarily about giving, but experiencing.

Experiencing is in the interest of, and for the pleasure of, both parties.

The issue with immature love isn’t “selfishness.” The issue with immature love is the nature of confusing attachment with love.

Immature love is a symptom of too little self. An emotionally immature person doesn’t feel comfortable and secure enough with him or her self to go through life without a romantic partner. He needs a romantic partner to “complete” his self. If the romantic partner pulls or grows away from him, he becomes threatened and lashes out in some way. This is what’s going on in cases of physical or verbal abuse. Physical and verbal abuse are tactics of intimidation. The person who victimizes his “loved one” with these tactics is not being “selfish.” Quite the opposite: he’s exhibiting a lack of self.

A mature lover, quite naturally, does not want to lose his partner. He does feel threatened if his partner appears to move away from him. But hurt over anticipated loss is not the same as the hurt and anger an immature lover experiences. The immature lover isn’t merely hurt. He’s angry as well, because on some conscious or subconscious level, he feels entitled to the other person’s continuing love and commitment.

One of the key differences between a mature and immature lover is that the first wants his partner to grow, intellectually and psychologically, while the immature lover does not. The mature lover is concerned with his partner being everything he or she can be, and does not feel threatened by his partner’s improvements. If the growth happens to cause the partner to move away from him, he at least understands, rationally, that nothing else could have been possible. Never, at any point, does the mature lover feel entitled to the person he loves. Never does he “drop the context” that the person he loves is a separate, autonomous individual, and should remain so. If he loses his partner’s love, he can feel great pain and a tremendous sense of loss, but he never feels that he’s being denied what’s “rightfully” his.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why the institution of marriage ends up being a disaster for so many people. If two people love each other in a mature and rational way, then marriage is a perfectly fine (although optional) way to express their ongoing commitment to each other—as well as to address legal and property concerns. But because so many marriages consist of either one or two parties whose “love” is an immature attachment with a sense of entitlement, the marriage ritual tends to reinforce the mistaken beliefs and attitudes rather than curb them. When a man feels entitled to the love of his wife, or a woman entitled to the love of her man, they become angry if the spouse grows or changes in a way that reduces the intensity of the relationship.

They become angry because they feel the act of marriage obliged that person not to change, despite the fact that no such guarantee is ever possible. It’s as if getting married was supposed to protect each partner from the consequences of errors, breaches or simply changing over time. Marriage, in my judgment, is not a wise, healthy or safe institution for people who don’t love in a mature way. It’s not marriage itself that creates the problem; it’s the underlying attitude of one or both spouses.

A healthy, mature and rational lover wants to grow and wants to be with someone who can grow too. He wants a long-term, even lifelong, commitment, but not at the expense of making either partner unhappy.

This is not “selflessness,” because there are few things as personally and selfishly rewarding as the experience of loving and being loved in a mature way. It might well be one of life’s greatest accomplishments.

Yet the rationally selfish, mature lover doesn’t seek out attachment and control in place of love. One of the greatest “red flags” that signal an unhealthy relationship is someone who seeks to control you. Control can take many forms: physical violence, prolonged and repeated verbal attacks, making unilateral decisions without the partner’s input—and expecting the partner to have no problem with any of this. Someone who loves you in a healthy way wants what he or she wants, and truly wants the same for you too.

Having a partner who “grows” is healthy, but growth does not necessarily mean drastic change. Growth means living life fully and always expanding psychologically, intellectually and economically. The mature lover grasps that growth is not a threat to the relationship; it’s merely advancement for the partner, and usually advancement for them both, at least indirectly.

If personal growth “causes” the individual to leave the relationship, growth isn’t the real underlying cause of the breakup. The real cause of the breakup in such situations is that the partner was only able to get so much out of the relationship, for a period of time, and likely could not foresee this at the outset. This is always very difficult for both parties, but it has to be accepted. When it is, both partners, richer and seasoned from the experience, are free to go on to bigger and better things.

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Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

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