What is love and how do we approach it?

I’m in love. I’m in a new relationship, and newly cohabitating with a partner — for the first time in years. And it’s not your casual, light, easy, skim the surface kind of connection. It’s the kind of relationship that makes you look at all your “stuff.” The stuff hidden in the back of the emotional closet — the array of barriers I have towards love, the walls I’ve put up over the years to protect myself, to keep myself safe. A borderline obsession with independence? Check. A fear of true emotional vulnerability? Check. It’s as if, through this painfully clear mirror of love, I am able to truly see myself for the first time. And through this clarity, I can see all of the patterns and narratives of my past playing out, IRL.

A few days before this month’s Dinner, I started to wonder if I was destined to continue these avoidant (and at times, destructive) patterns; if my approach to love was part of a pre-written, immutable genetic relationship code. But an amazing thing happened — sitting around the table with women from all different walks of life and all different interpretations of love, I witnessed with awe and wonder, the capacity we all have to interrogate our understanding of love, and from that interrogation, to create the love we desire in our lives.

Key Takeaways

Reliving childhood experiences in our adult lives

Many of us share difficult childhood memories that made us feel unloved — whether that involved abuse, emotionally absent parents, etc — we experienced dynamics and behaviors that left a mark, deep inside. Fast forward, and there is a tendency to replicate what we experienced in our childhood into our present day personal relationships (eg. “I sought out a partner who makes me feel safe bc I didn’t come from a home where I felt safe”). Many of us used the lens of Attachment Theory to identify and understand our past and present relationship styles. Witnessing this unconscious learned trait inherited from our parents left many of us wondering, “Is this process inevitable?” “Am I destined to carry on my family’s love deficiencies?”

Those who challenged “their destiny” often embraced a journey towards forgiving and accepting their parents for who they are. And while it can be a long and painful process, letting go of our resentment leaves a lot of room for peace.

Differentiating between conditional and unconditional love

Conditional love is understood as “I can only love or be loved if…” Here, many women talked about “sacrifice” and creating “tests” — for some of us, love is measured by how much you/your partner are willing to give up for the other person (eg. Is he/she willing to move cities? Am I willing to not have children? Will she/he give up smoking?) This is about expectations around how your partner should be. Conditional love feels like a projection of someone’s needs, and an almost certain recipe for disappointment.

Unconditional love feels like receiving love simply for being. No should’s — just pure, unabated, flowing love. When reflecting on unconditional love, many women thought back to the love they received from their grandparents, or even a pet. This form of love requires a departure from the fantasy where people and relationships are just as we wish, and transitioning into a new mindset of accepting people for who they are. Why does unconditional love feel so rare?

Reconstructing the fairytale

Many of us were raised on a classic cultural love narrative: girl waits around for boy, girl finally meets boy, boy sweeps girl off her feet, boy and girl get married, make babies, and live happily ever after. Key undertones of this narrative include, “romantic love as the savior,” an implicit sense of feminine helplessness, and the idea of “love ‘till death do us part.” Today, a lot of us are approaching the narrative with newly skeptical eyes. Whether it was a traumatic past relationship or an aching desire for something different, life has opened our eyes to the fact that this fairytale may be impossible, unattainable, or for some — simply undesirable. Is it possible to love one person forever in that way? We know that love changes shape, evolves, and shifts over time. So how do we want to respond to those changes? How do we want to embrace the different facets of love?

Exploring the many expressions of love

Love is not a one size fits all concept. For some, love is about that one monogamous partner that you share all aspects of your life with. It can be about companionship, a secure and non-intimate committed partnership and holistic family life. And for others, love is for giving and receiving with with multiple partners, an explorations into polyamory and fluid sexuality. Love changes over time, taking different forms at different stages — there is love when you first meet, love before having kids, love as parents — and each stage brings out different emotions and contexts. With so many different love narratives, and those narratives shifting over time, how do we know what works for us? How do we gain the courage to ask those questions? And more, how do we know what love is?

The journey to self-love

Love is a mirror, and when we come from a place of our own wholeness, we can heal the sense of severed belonging from our past and give and receive love in abundance. Many women had come to the understanding that in order to give and receive unconditional love with others, they must first and foremost give and receive unconditional love to themselves.

Getting to this realization is a real journey, requiring significant struggle and introspection.

It starts by letting go of our pleasing tendencies (will I let people down? Will people not like me if I say what I need?) and creating a re-prioritization process (eg. I nurture my body, I say no, I listen to my needs, I communicate my boundaries, etc). This process culminates by loving all parts of ourselves — because to truly love oneselves, we must love the parts of us that we don’t like. Self compassion is a practice, one which we need to nurture even when we don’t feel compassionate towards ourselves at all.

Postscript

At the end of the night, we ran a little experiment. We asked some of the ladies: if you had to describe your current approach to love, what word would you say. While some words were “positive” i.e.: peaceful, present etc… Many of the words represented more difficult emotions: anxiety, blockage, apprehension.

This made us wonder, how can we break the patterns from our life and find a way to approach love in a way that feels right for us?

The Third Way

With so many interpretations and behaviors representing love, many women were asking themselves a very simple yet profound question: “what is love?” They were seeking an understanding of what love is in order to identify how it is showing up (or not) in their lives. The sheer act of asking the question marks the end of the cycle, and the beginning of something else — a different line of exploration.

The third way represents a choice — a decision to embrace love in a way that feels healing, nurturing and uplifting. For some, that meant forgiving past love wounds, for others prioritizing peace and security vs. lust and for others, it starts by simply thinking and talking about it…

Experiment

  • How do you define love? What does love mean to you? How has your approach to love evolved over time? Just start by asking the questions!
  • How much is your approach to love defined by the past? Try to imagine how the alternatives could look.

Written by Sybil Ottenstein with contributions from Veronica Marquez and Francesca Varda