What is love?
From the beginning of time, whether poet or king, nearly all humans have tried to explain the universal force called love. Expressed through many different beliefs, cultures, and traditions, it’s an ideal so broad, its meaning is literally something different to each and every person.
When we’re young, we think we’re in love with someone because of the way they make us feel. Whether it’s butterflies in our stomach or sweaty palms, the seemingly only explanation for our very physical reaction to the presence of another must certainly be love. We think this incredible feeling is some divine fate, falling from the sky, sealing our destiny with another, only to wake up five years later thinking, is this it? At least, that’s one of the most common realities of couples I see in my practice.
The force and excitement we first feel when we’re in love, the chemical surge of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, is not real love at all, but rather what psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined as limerence. It’s the phase where you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and all you do is think of your sweetheart. You’re essentially addicted to your lover, honed in with hyper focused attention, perhaps to the point of obsession. Through your romance-induced lens your beloved is perfection squared; all red flags are in the blind spot.
This limerence phase, while it feels the most exhilarating and romantic, isn’t actually true love. It’s simply the excitement of seeing the potential in having all the tools and materials needed to build something great—perhaps a tall fortress. The only problem is, nobody gives us an instruction manual, so many of us think the fortress will build itself. We think this great feeling is what will ensure our happily ever after, and then we’re stunned when it doesn’t last. But, if we’re some of the lucky few fortunate enough to figure out the blueprints of what’s needed to build our fortress sans instruction manual, then by the time the limerence phase is over (usually 18 months to three years max), we’ve created a solid foundation. It’s from here that the real work begins; from here that our great fortress of love embarks upon the years-long undertaking of building to greater and greater heights.
True love requires that we show up every day and put forth the intention to give, not just to another, but to the third entity that is our relationship—even if the reward doesn’t feel as intoxicating or exhilarating as it once did. Because that is the process of building the one thing that is so precious and so priceless that it fills our lives with rich eternal meaning. Even when, for all of us, death is inevitable.
Three weeks ago, I lost my best friend to heart failure. She had a rare condition where her symptoms could be managed but her disease could not be cured. My world stopped when she fell ill. Over the years, she had seen me through cancer twice, failed relationships, graduate school, career changes, and major life transitions. It was the least I could do.
The cardiologists gave her three months, but she lived for nine. The caretaking process was a joint effort by my partner and I to make the end of her life as wonderful and comfortable as possible while she lived with us. We awakened multiple times a night to check on her and help her to the bathroom. I learned to preempt her needs and became hypervigilant about her intense medication schedule. When she was weak, we learned to communicate simply with our eyes. On several occasions, I laid with her in the floor when she collapsed as we waited for help to arrive. We would reminisce of the good ole days and I would sing her favorite songs. I bathed her, cleaned her up and made her laugh when she peed on herself. I brushed her hair and teeth, cleaned out her ears, applied lotion on her dry skin, and held her when she cried. Her muscles atrophied at the end, so I’d carry her to the bathroom or wherever else she wanted to go. I cooked meals which adhered to her strict low-sodium diet, but also learned how to make her favorite Italian dessert. All travel for work and leisure was cancelled and my social calendar put on hold. I spent nine months sacrificing myself for someone I profoundly loved. And it was worth every single second.
To my surprise, I realized in those nine months, that our bond only grew stronger and our connection deeper. It was the daily work and effort that made my love for her flourish and expand in ways I hadn’t experienced in the many years I’d known her before. And while she never held a place of romantic interest in my life, the greatest lesson I not only learned—but felt—from these past nine months, was that true love really isn’t some chemistry-like magical force that falls from the sky. True love is intentional.
It isn’t in the feeling that true love exists. It is in the doing.