I wanna know what love is. — Foreigner

My awareness about marriage is abnormally keen. Given that I am now fully immersed in the study of marriage and family therapy, it is certainly plausible that I am more acutely attuned to discussions about couples and love and marriage legislation. So, with all the discussions lately about marriage and love and legality, with my reading for school, and even attending my first wedding of the year, I have been thinking about it much more than usual. Within my circles, I will inevitably be known as an expert in the inner workings of relationships of all sorts — even now, I am regularly asked about what the perfect marriage looks like.

There are some key elements I’d like to discuss: the self, selflessness, communication, and transcendence; then, what that means for us as a society.

Firstly, let me argue that the most important component of a healthy marriage is a developing and healthy sense of self. Developing because it speaks of an imperfection that we remain undaunted in the face of, as we learn what it means to grow as a person. Healthy because there are views of self that are more helpful and beneficial than others — reasonable doses of confidence, selflessness, generosity, and resilience come to mind. Finally, Sense because while we may seem relatively stable, we change every day. You and I are not the same persons we were yesterday, last week, or last year. Every choice changes who we are, integrating consequences and reactions into our beings.

It is phenomenal that, even in a sea of people, we can be alone with our thoughts. It is through this reality that we live our lives — even as a couple, we ultimately interface with the world as individuals. Without the confidence to assert ourselves married to the selflessness to willingly and wisely submit to another’s wants and desires, our relationships can feel as though they are missing something vital.

We have this notion that two become one. While I’m not yet a clinician, I feel pretty strongly that there are other ways to acquire relationship advice than from the Spice Girls and misinterpreting scripture. There is this notion of intimacy and joining that is incredibly important but not at the expense of our own identities. Who am I should not be dependent on who you are. “Without you, I am nothing,” may not be as romantic as it seems (though, I will grant you that “Together, we form a loving and purposeful partnership” probably isn’t as dramatic).

Selflessness is particularly hard for many of us. ”You complete me!” makes our relationship about what you can do for me. “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted!” says that I want to freeze you as you are at this moment, arresting your growth (not to mention the standard of perfection this sets up). We are well aware of the message that we can have what we want, when and how we want it — the problem is that many of us translate this into the notion that life is ultimately about us. Life isn’t. Neither are relationships. Learning our place in the universe (i.e. that it doesn’t revolve around you) is key.

Closely related is the number one reason that couples report coming to therapy: “We need help communicating.” Most often, this means, “We fight and no one seems to get what they want at the end of it all.” When people argue, it’s because they believe something strongly. It can be something menial (“I believe the toilet seat should not be left in the upright position”) or something far more intense (“Life isn’t worthwhile unless we have children”). In either event, things go haywire when we put all of our effort into expressing our perspective and none into hearing our partners’. In fact, we’re probably not fully listening as we’re adjusting our attack strategy while they unleash their onslaught — a very selfish endeavor. Consider this challenge: During the next spirited discussion, before retaliating, repeat back what your partner just said in your own words. It helps you acutely understand what position you’re actually arguing against, rather than what you assume to be their point.

Recently, I heard it said that science is beginning to unravel how the brain responds during “love” — which chemicals stimulate which receptors and in what amounts. It is astounding knowledge but it also means that, in part, love is a dreadfully unromantic biological process. This is only half of the story, though. The same science is woefully inadequate at determining whom you will love and why you will love them. Love transcends these processes in a real and purely qualitative way. There is no science I know of that could specify your perfect partner. It can pool and present compatibility data and perhaps even present someone with whom you will be content, but it can’t determine whom you will love.

Love transcends because people transcend. Whether you call it spirituality or nonsummativity or synergy (please don’t call it synergy), there is more to one’s humanity than the tally of their neurological activity. We are complicated, ever-changing creatures. That we can think and be and do on our own is incredible enough — alone, it inspires awe. Successful relationships, then, acknowledge that there is more to our interactions then simple transactions. We learn from each other. We change and grow every day. When we truly believe this, we become curious about each other. We get a sense that even since dinner last night so many significant things have happened and that the person across the table is not exactly the same as they were.

Nor am I.

Clearly, it is a futile effort to attempt to define marriage with any sort of conciseness. It is a beautifully, complicated arrangement. For many, though, this narrative is considerably more complex. As a society, we do not have the capacity to tell you whom you will love or why you will love them. Still, many of us (perhaps a dwindling majority, if we are lucky) feel it necessary to define whom it is appropriate (some might say “natural”) for us to love. It would be one thing if it were merely about semantics: if you fit this definition, there you’re in a marriage; if not, you’re in a partnership. Unfortunately, it’s far deeper.

We can’t determine who you will love, but we can treat you differently based on who you decide? We can decide who gets to make decisions about end of life care for you based on systematic adherence to a plausibly irrelevant sacred ritual? We can insist that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness doesn’t look like that?

This is a deeply ignorant and conceited stance. We ignore the reality that love can clearly not be contained to the quantitative, data-centric realm. It is conceited to insist that love and marriage can follow any prescribed definition and to actively discriminate based on the inalienable way that we are attracted to another human being.

Perhaps, the same elements that make for a good marriage can lead to a more loving, compassionate, and satisfying society.