Love and Relationships

I cannot for the life of me imagine why it has taken me nearly twenty years of therapy practice to finally write a blog post on something as “basic” and important as Love. I mean, I am not just a therapist. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist! You’d think I’d be quicker to the cause of love. Here’s my best guess for what has taken me so long. Maybe a fear of not having much to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times over a thousand years spent expressing opinions about “what is love?” Maybe I don’t want to be “that guy” (the marriage therapist that thinks he’s got the corner, the angle, the final and best thing to say about love). Or maybe I just don’t know that much to say about it and don’t want to either sound lame or obvious. Sigh. At the risk of either and both, here goes….

Several years ago, a client struggling with big relationship decisions asked me straight up, “what is love?” Panic stricken, I thrashed around my inner store of platitudes, euphemisms, and analogies to come up with a quick and viable answer. And this client was a real smart cookie, willing to call BS on me if she thought I was pretending at being a therapist! Here’s the thing, whatever I said, I cannot remember, which is a testament to how assuredly lame it was. I think it mostly passed muster though, because I do not remember the client becoming disinterested or silently judgmental. Phew! What is much more important was what she said. Casually, but with a kind of certainty to it, she said, “I think love is attachment.” 

Yes, it is. Love is attachment. So elegant. A simple definition of love—free of all the trappings of Shakespeare, the Ancient Greeks, the later poets and their sonnets, and all manner of consternation, confusion, ambivalence and hyperbole. And yet complete. The statement does not try to explain how love comes to exist, how it grows or dies, what impact it has on those who feel love, or don’t feel the love they wish they did. It just explains what love actually is. Love is attachment.

As to the question of what is “attachment,” I will most assuredly need to write another blog post on that topic. For one thing, it is a complicated topic with many implications for living a satisfying life as a human. For another, “attachment theory” is perhaps the most useful and noncontroversial (meaning it hits the nail on the head) of any theory of psychology I know. I wrote a little about attachment theory in a recent blog post called Equanimity (which is worth a read all by itself anyway). So, for now, let’s just say that attachment is a pull to want to be with someone else; to feel some sense of satisfaction when you are with them, some sense of disappointment, loss, grief or sadness when you are not with them. Now let’s dive a little bit into how love feels, and what needs to happen to be open to it and keep it alive.

Have you heard this phrase? “Love is a verb.” I kind of hate it—maybe it just seems like a thing someone says to be clever, and yet it seems to have a grain of truth. I guess the idea is that love is a choice and requires action. This certainly can be true, but it isn’t the whole story. Love is not merely a choice. If it were, there would hopefully be less loneliness, less grasping at a thing that seems so unattainable to so many. How about this. Let’s say that “love is a verb” tells a part of the story, but certainly only a very small part. Someone recently reminded me of this statement that I only vaguely recall having read in a self-help book, workshop, or video presentation years ago. It got me thinking, though, and became the reason for this blog post. 

Love is a verb, I guess, and yet it is so much more. Love is openness to opportunity, timing, mutuality, readiness, and all of it bound up in a bit of luck. Love can spark or not spark on a whim and a gesture, seen or unseen, pursued or ignored. Love comes in artifacts of purpose, desire, shared meaning, consolation and need, but not directly, or the whole enterprise is lost and nothing comes of it. Maybe love is like trying to start a fire with a flint and stone. You hope for a fire. You create sparks with each stroke. The sparks catch the paper and wood, or they don’t. You try again, and again. Then the spark catches, but all is not complete. Then gingerly, you must tend to the small fire, protect it from the slightest wind that will blow it out, but also giving it room to breathe, and then slowly, carefully adding fuel, just enough to keep it going, not so much you’ll smother it, and hopefully, eventually the fire becomes for a time somewhat self-sustaining, but even then, wood must be added periodically, embers shifted to keep things going, to avoid the dying last wisps of smoke, to hold entropy at bay. 

The first choice involved in love is the choice to be open to love, and to create and look for opportunities in which it might arise. And even here this is not enough. Have you ever experienced or seen someone experience the phenomena of “being in love with being in love?” I think this happens when someone wants to be in love, wants to have those feelings of love, so they convince themselves they have it, even though the feelings have little to do with the person with whom they think are in love. For love to happen, some part of us must have the willingness, capacity and desire for love. Yet, we must also nurture a core affection, acceptance, respect, and admiration for the person that becomes the object of our love, which then, maybe, but certainly not always, gives rise to the “spark” of passion that is the difference between mere affection and actual love.

The hardest part in all of this, which also makes it the most rewarding, is that you cannot will yourself to love someone. We’ve all heard stories, read books, seen movies or plays (or tragically experienced) when someone marries someone else out of duty, or an arranged marriage, necessity, convenience or family pressure, thinking, “I do not love (them) now, but in time, I will grow to love them.” Sometimes this becomes true. And sometimes, it does not. When it does not, there can be a lifetime of loneliness, sadness, missed opportunities, and regret. While love is partly a choice, choosing to have love doesn’t make it so, which is one reason I am not fond of calling love a verb, even though it does involve choice and action. If the circumstances for love bring it forward, then there is the choice to see it, notice it, and if desired, pursue it, which requires the risk of being hurt. (For more on this, see the chapter in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, called “To the weak I became weak” about the paradox of intimacy and vulnerability.) If love between two people catches, if it becomes the kernel of a desire to let it grow, an openness to its possibilities must be mutual for it to grow from mere desire to the fullness of strong and deep bonds of attachment, to move from the fantasy of love to its reality.

I believe love is a beginning, but only a beginning. Without love, what else is there worth having (in a relationship)? It’s pretty difficult to imagine how a relationship without love could lead to regular times of happiness, meaning, satisfaction or joy. Based on my own experience, love is only a beginning, and is not self-sustaining. Love is necessary, but not sufficient. I still like the idea that love is attachment, a bond, like a glue, but glue can decay, rot, break apart. The bond has to be strengthened with affections, attention, desire, focus, and work, sometimes hard work, which has the effect of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy (the work helps to create the bond while also justifying the bond). Long-term love will die on the vine if it is taken for granted. As one client said to me, after ten years in a marriage in which love was not sustained, “you can only coast in one direction: down.” (See my blog post, Coasting.)

Once love exists, once attachments are formed, there must then be choices again and again to move into it, to stay with it, to mollify its bumps, its ups and downs. These are the big emotions of desire, passion, and fears, fears that whatever is felt will be lost, that it will not be met with mutuality, reciprocity and continuation by the other person. Both people come to this, to see it, and despite their wariness of it, move into the love, the attachment, the bond, in spite of their fears. In its way, love is a bit magical, because it makes no sense held in this light. Sanity, logic, calculation all dictate this response: “Run!” And yet, we don’t. Not if we want to have, hold, keep, and grow the love we desire, yet fear. We do this because we know, instinctively, that where there is love, actual love, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Which is just another way of saying, “we are better together than we are apart.” The greater the desire for love, the greater the potential pain, and so the greater we fear its repercussions. If we can hold the fears at bay, and take the risks of fallen love, and the ache of unreciprocated love, the affection grows, because both people continue to realize that the other has taken the same risk, and made the same calculation that they themselves have found an attachment with someone who places a value on them, which is equal to the value they place on the object of their attachment, their love. One client has told me several times that her recognition of the importance of reciprocity (both people are willing to give and take and invest) as an essential requirement for all the relationships with people in her life, including her primary partner, has been nothing short of transformative for her. (For more on this topic, see my blog post, Introspection Part 7: Intersubjectivity.)

I think it was John Gottman in one of his many books on marriage who said a telltale sign of whether a marriage will last is whether there is a mutual investment in “repair.” What he seemed to mean by repair is that both people want to make sure when there is trouble, they take care of it, they heal the wounds created, they want to resolve the issue. The greatest incentive for repair is love. Without love, it might be easy to remain at a distance, to let things build, until the relationship has so many barriers to affection, it is like the hull of a ship carrying thousands of barnacles stuck to it, encrusted to the point that it takes jackhammers to scrape them off, which is often how I see clients that are separated by years of resentments building due to lack of repair over a thousand dumb fights and niggling bothersome irritations they didn’t bother to talk through. They either never had an investment in repair or they gave up. With love, the investment in repair is paramount. Likewise, we refrain (in the best of all worlds as best we can as often as we can) from saying or doing things that will take things beyond the point of repair because we love the person, we care deeply about how they feel, and we don’t want to lose their affection or their respect. With love, when there is a breach, an argument, a fight, or even just a “spat,” each person misses the satisfaction of having that love resurrected between them. They are invested in making repairs after an issue surfaces, so the relationship is back on an even keel, a sound footing, and the affection and attachment of love can return—the safety, comfort, and joy of love can come back into their connection. Where love is strong to begin with, where it is carefully tended, and both people take action and risks to repair it when damaged, love in a relationship can and often does last a life time.

Crap. In the end, I must confess, love is a verb. Love is action, and choice, and work. Love is risk, and reward. Love is beautiful, and kind, and can be cruel. Love is worth it sometimes, and not at all worth it at other times and in other circumstances. We can live without love, and yet can live with more meaning, satisfaction, and belongingness if we are open to love, notice it, and allow ourselves to feel it and give it to others in our lives. Love is attachment, and attachment requires choices that can enhance and enrich our lives if we are willing to take the risk and seek what we want and need from others while also taking the time and energy to pay attention and understand how to give others that we love what they need and want from us.

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.