How to fix the way we love.
Updated: Jan 4
Originally published in Medium, May 18, 2020.
Life is a journey where you relearn the things you were born knowing how to do — but which experience has “taught” you to forget along the way.
Case in point: love.
You knew how to love when you were just an infant. Look at a baby’s smile when she sees her mother or father. That’s the purest love there is. Nobody taught her that.
Then life happens. Human nature kicks in. Experience confirms and rewards our worst impulses and we think this is the way it is supposed to be. It’s dog-eat-dog. Even those who appear successful — especially those who appear successful — become cynical and jaded, but justify themselves by saying: “hey, that’s just the way the game is played.” Everybody follows the lie until we eventually believe the lie is the truth.
All is fair in love and war, right? Can you imagine going into every relationship you have with a mindset like this? And yet we do.
As Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it: “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”
He’s right, but I have a caveat: it’s not that we don’t know how to love — it’s that we have forgotten.
The journey into consciousness is not without casualties. The biggest casualty is knowing how to love.
Remember the baby smiling at her mother? That was all of us, once. Life chips away at our ability to love. In its place is a void that leaves us unhappy and unfulfilled, which we attempt to fill by expecting, even demanding, love from others. It’s like trying to fill our starving stomachs with dirt. It won’t work. Is it any wonder we’re so lonely?
Why is this? When and how did we forget how to love?
Philosopher Erich Fromm had some ideas:
Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.
Put simply, you can’t love by being lovable. They are two completely different things. We intuitively know this, but yet we don’t practice it. We make ourselves lovable enough to attract a mate or a friend, and feel empty when our desire to love — not just be loved — is left unsatisfied. Think about it like this:
We want to learn how to drive a car, so we learn how to be driven like a car.
We want to learn how to make a sandwich, so we learn how to be a sandwich.
We want to learn how to clean our house, so we take a bath.
You get it. Absurd, right? Hopefully now you can see that the way we practice love doesn’t work. In fact, it actively undermines what we’re trying to accomplish.
You don’t learn how to love by being lovable. You just love.
Sounds simple, and it is. But simple is rarely easy. Loving is hard. Loving is radical.
So the way we love is broken — how do we fix it? It starts by recognizing where we’re going wrong. The problem is we treat love like a game. We keep score. We put forth effort and expect something in return.
In the case of romantic love — if I make myself more attractive, an attractive person will love me.
In the case of familial love — if I take care of my parent’s, they’ll see I’m the best of their children and love me more.
In the case of platonic love — if I’m there for my friend, he’ll like me better than the rest of our buddy’s.
Love isn’t a competition. You don’t love for the reward, love has to be its own reward
Sound hard? It absolutely is.
Sounds like it may not be worth it? Well, that’s up to you.
You can love and love and love, and never be loved back. Or maybe the love you receive in return isn’t equal to the love you’ve given. You have to decide whether or not that’s worth it to you. Maybe it isn’t. But I can tell you this: it’s a darn sight better than being bitter about all the love you put out and never got back. And it’s a whole helluva lot better than using people too.
Now you should never allow yourself to be taken advantage of, or turn a blind eye to people hurting you. Self-love matters too. But you can’t treat love like a quid pro quo. It’s not and can’t be.
So what are we supposed to do?
I’ve written before about how The Only Relationship Advice You Need Is Something You Already Know. The same thinking applies here too — you already know how to love, you always have, it’s just really hard and may not always seem worth it. You may have to love without getting any love back.
Like I said, love is radical. And it’s not always easy.
If you want to be more “lovable” (i.e. be more attractive to the opposite sex; get your partner to commit; put passion back into your marriage, etc.) well, the internet is full of a million “How To” articles. Try them out and I wish you well.
If you want to know how to love, you already do. Just love.