Love is a verb and a noun

I ended an engagement about 6 weeks ago. I think this happens more often than we realize, but we probably don’t hear about it so much because it’s not something we want people to know about or are capable of discussing; it’s an incredibly difficult decision to make. For me, it was a decision to acknowledge doubt that I had from the first day we met and which continued to grow with the relationship. Working up the courage and integrity to end one of the best relationships I’ve had was incredibly stressful, but was something I should have done a long time ago, and now that it’s done, I feel relief and excitement for the future.

Coming out of a long-term college relationship back in 2010, I had tried to explain to my girlfriend then, when she was breaking up with me, that all “love” fades and the reality of long-term commitment sets in, and as such, “real love” is about honoring that commitment—I told her, and sold myself on the idea, that love is a behavior.

I’ve now been through two long-term relationships since college in which I faced constant doubt. In both cases I hesitated at the outset of the relationship because I wasn’t in a hurry to jump into anything and I value the process of getting to know a potential partner. In both instances, a couple months in I told myself that I was “unsure” about the relationship and that I needed time to see how it would play out. It seemed true at the time, how could 2 months be enough to know whether someone would be a good partner? Both women are exceptional. They were compatible in terms of goals and values, beautiful, shining personalities, loving and stable families, strong careers and ambitions, large groups of friends, fantastic in bed, and generally thoughtful and giving. How then did I come to end both seemingly healthy relationships?

In 1967, John Lennon wrote a song called, “All You Need is Love.” He also beat both of his wives, abandoned one of his children, verbally abused his gay Jewish manager with homophobic and anti-semitic slurs, and once had a camera crew film him lying naked in his bed for an entire day.

Thirty-five years later, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails wrote a song called “Love is Not Enough.” Reznor, despite being famous for his shocking stage performances and his grotesque and disturbing videos, abstained from all drugs and alcohol, married one woman, had two children with her, and then cancelled entire albums and tours so that he could stay home and be a good husband and father.

One of these two men had a clear and realistic understanding of love. One of them did not. One of these men idealized love as the solution to all of his problems. One of them did not. One of these men was probably a narcissistic asshole. One of them was not.

In our culture, many of us idealize love. We see it as some lofty cure-all for all of life’s problems. Our movies and our stories and our history all celebrate it as life’s ultimate goal, the final solution for all of our pain and struggle. And because we idealize love, we overestimate it. As a result, our relationships pay a price.

When we believe that “all we need is love,” then like Lennon, we’re more likely to ignore fundamental values such as respect, humility and commitment towards the people we care about. After all, if love solves everything, then why bother with all the other stuff — all of the hard stuff?

But if, like Reznor, we believe that “love is not enough,” then we understand that healthy relationships require more than pure emotion or lofty passions. We understand that there are things more important in our lives and our relationships than simply being in love. And the success of our relationships hinges on these deeper and more important values.

— Mark Manson, from Love Is Not Enough

I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s sentiments. But reading between the lines, I’ve discovered that love and compatibility are not mutually exclusive. Mark goes on to write:

Love does not equal compatibility. Just because you fall in love with someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good partner for you to be with over the long term. Love is an emotional process; compatibility is a logical process. And the two don’t bleed into one another very well.

I’m going to disagree with Mark one his last point because I believe it’s possible to fall in love with someone you’re compatible with—I’ve witnessed it many times in my own life, both among friends and within my family.

I’ve fallen in love twice in my life. Once in high school and then again with my college girlfriend. With both, there was an immediate pull, an immediate “I want to be with this person.” Regardless of compatibility or the outcome of those relationships, I know what it is to love emotionally.

Now, at 30 years old, I’ve been through many relationships and dated many women. I’ve also spent the good part of the decade in introspection, becoming more of the man that I’ve always known I was, becoming more confident in my goals and values, in my strengths and self worth, and in the importance of listening to my intuition. This year, I’ve learned that both professionally and personally it’s incredibly important to my quality of life to choose to surround myself with people whom I feel comfortable and have rapport with, but also respect. I’ve found that my first impressions are almost always accurate and I can tell from “Hello” whether a person and I will get on well. Relationships are complicated and none will ever be perfect or without conflict, but sensing compatibility is a good way to measure the likelihood of the long-term quality and success of a relationship.

I’ve fallen into intense emotional love with someone. And I’ve also chosen to love day to day, as an act of honor, respect, and good faith, and as an acknowledgement that the person is deserving of the utmost care and respect. But, I’ve come to terms with my experience and belief that, with love, I now know that it’s both a noun and a verb. Emotional love can be the fuel that drives one to love each and every day. Without emotional love, behavioral love can become an obligation, something one is resigned to out of both spoken and unspoken commitment. It can be draining and lead to a decrease in motivation and willpower over the long term, which is ultimately unhealthy and leads one to be unable to fulfill the commitment to choose love each and every day to the best of ones ability, especially in the context of marriage.

Love marriage is revered in Western culture, and it’s often cited that 50% of marriages end within the first 7 years. The reality is that most of us choose emotional love or behavioral love, but rarely find both in the person we commit ourselves to. For me, I have a lot of respect for the promise of marriage and I want to whole heartedly believe in my ability to honor my vows, should I give them one day. And that means I don’t want to enter into marriage with doubt.

I’m fortunate to have a few good examples of love relationships in my life. I recently wrote my maternal grandmother a letter and in it ask how she knew grandpa was the one she wanted to marry. She wrote back:

I knew after the first date that he was special and after the second one I wanted it to go on forever. I liked everything about him.

In this instance, she married at 19 in the mid-century South. She clearly experienced emotional love, and it’s not entirely evident for me whether she had criteria in mind for what made my grandfather a compatible partner, but they’ve been blessed with 57 years of love and marriage. It’s something I aspire to.

When I was struggling with whether to end my engagement, I asked my father how he knew my mother was the woman he wanted to marry. My father and I don’t speak often on intimate matters, so this was a fairly personal and private question that I’d never thought to ask before. I was surprised and pleased to hear that when he met my mother, they clicked immediately and wanted to spend every day together, and he knew within a couple months that he wanted to marry her—never doubting it once. He told me that knowledge has sustained him throughout his various military deployments—sometimes 6 months or a year at a time—and that he was always excited to return home to my mother. Without that conviction of love, I think many people would have experienced incredible stress and disillusionment, potentially leading to emotional distance, fighting, or even unfaithfulness. I have no doubt those deployments were stressful, but I also know that my dad’s emotionally convicted love for my mother provided the fuel he needed to remain true to his commitment to her. Love is a thing for him, but also something he chooses to do.

I now hold as an ideal for choosing a life partner that I want to both fall in love with them and also choose to love them.