The Real Meaning of Love, & A Reflection on Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships

Hi lovely readers,

Happy Saturday/weekend! Today I’m going to write about something it has taken me a very long time to be sure enough about to post publicly. Throughout highschool and university, and until very recently, actually, I was in a slew of deeply unhealthy relationships. And I was under the impression that I had been ‘in love’ many times. This post is not meant to dismiss every relationship I have had, or any of them really. They all taught me things, gave me some happy memories, and some of them helped me get through incredibly difficult times. And through what I will share I have learned, I know that now that since I do not think I was in love then anymore, for the reasons I was not my partners weren’t truly in love with me either. While I intend to discuss both what I believe love to be and what it is not, this post is meant to be very positive, and I will explain in what sense later on.

So, after years of toxicity in my relationships (much of which was as a result of me, a symptom of dynamics that simply weren’t built to function, and some of which came from the people I chose to be with or, at times, seemed to find myself committing to somewhat unwillingly) I have a long, written list in my journal of every quality that defines a relationship built on love and that does not. I considered everything I wrote very carefully, because I believe that knowing the reality of healthy love accurately is vital to a happy life, and I would not want to give false ideas to any reader who might be in a place of uncertainty with this topic. I have decided on these attributes of love and determined what is not synonymous with it through examining the wealth of experiences I had, as someone who has been both deeply codependent and commitment-phobic. I also write this as someone who has been very ill with regards to my bipolar 1 diagnosis, my PTSD (in fact, this may have been the most prevalent issue in terms of my dating life), a lot of anxiety, and substance use disorder, and ill at the same time as trying to date/continue serious relationships. I am much healthier than I used to be, and sober, and I have learned to look back at my dating history as a tool for personal growth, rather than a way to cause anger or sadness within myself.

So what is love, in my humble opinion? For one, it is a genuine, deep, shared interest in knowing all of someone, including flawed aspects of them, and then encouraging them to strive for growth while they do the same for you.

It is wanting the absolute best for them, including if that means not being with you for a reason they feel is of value or even because you know YOU are not growing in a healthy way at present, and will not be able to do so soon enough that you will be able to avoid harming them or keeping your partner stagnant.

Love is a drive to ensure your partner’s safety in all forms, comfort, happiness, and success in the areas they value while they reciprocate.

Love is learning from them and vice versa.

It is adapting to their needs while respecting your own, because they allow you to do so unconditionally.

It is honest, deep, genuine mutual respect.

It is honoring the fact that any feeling they have is important because they have to experience it, by listening actively, extending the kind of sympathy, compassion, and help they need as best you can, and just being present, because they consistently strive to do so for you, too.

Love is giving them complete freedom to be themselves, because you love who they really are, in return for the same.

Love is susceptible to ending if growth on either or both ends ceases and things become unhealthy – or simply if one person grows in a manner that causes them to no longer feel a spark for their partner. It is sad but it is reality, and the mutual respect that true love requires ensures that should a break occur, both people leave feeling as though they still possess innate, independent value, and while it is not necessary to ever move on to another person, moving on in the sense of still being able to function and feel happiness should be entirely possible. Ideally, a loving relationship leaves you better off than you were when it began, because you have experienced more and learned things about who you are when you are with someone vs. when you are single. The things you have discovered and the memories that glimmer in your mind do not simply dissipate. Though there is an element of pain, too, in most losses, ultimately if love ends you should still be better for having had it.

There are many things that I used to confuse with love, that in reality love is not, too. There are even some things I had conceived as being love that I wish I had never had to experience, in spite of what they taught me. But, so long as you are aware of these misconceptions and find the truth and live according to it, you can be better off for the more hurtful relationship experiences you may have had. It is key to not fall into a pattern of unhealthy relationships, though it is natural to, and should you do so self-blame is not helpful or necessary. We learn upon reflection, and to reflect we must give ourselves the time and space to do so.

So, the first thing that love isn’t, is judgment. It’s not any form of abuse. It’s not rage, violent or not. It’s not lust. It’s not jealousy, it’s not forced commitment. It’s not immediate, because real love requires wholly coming to know someone. It’s not selfish and never comes from a place of egotistical self-interest. It’s not pressure and no pressure is involved. It’s completely consensual. It has nothing to do with concern for one’s own potential to be alone or lonely. It’s not obsessive. It’s not sexual desire on its own. It’s not appearance based – sexual attraction is normal and healthy but love requires a well-rounded attraction based on more than the physical.

It consists of no disrespect. It is not dependent and it’s not consistently unhealthy reliance, with no work being done to improve on it. It never involves manipulation. It never begins with, or continues to exist because of, sharing of unhealthy behaviors, attitudes, or addictions. There is no consistent lack of balance in a loving relationship. There is no submission or dominance extending outside of sex, should that be consented to – with plenty of assurance that even that is a thoughtful and respectful decision for time in bed. It is not control of any kind. It is not ever inflicting unwanted physical pain (again, see what I’ve said about consensual sex above). It never involves a loss of love for self or loss of interest in your own personal growth or theirs. It never involves the use of drugs or alcohol as a regular method of connection.

It doesn’t consist of any form of dishonesty, even when being honest is incredibly challenging and ultimately painful. It does not have passive aggression involved, with the intent to hurt. Love never means having any sort of desire to make someone fit an ideal you feel you need or have envisioned. Love is not a power struggle, unnecessarily and regularly painful, vengeful, and does not consist of mind games for manipulation purposes or really any other reason. It should not be stagnant.

It does not consist, EVER, of aggressive or persistent pursuit of a one-sided attractionif feelings aren’t mutual, YOU are responsible for dealing with your emotions without involving or affecting the person you believe to have feelings of love toward.

It is never a guarantee, and does not have to last forever. It never leaves either person feeling used in any sense of the word.

People can certainly grow together, but in my experience, love never truly starts from a place where one or both people only know each other in mental sickness or addiction, where there has ever been a desire to inflict emotional or physical pain, or where, point-blank, there has ever been any form of abusive – intentional or as a result of being unwell or unconscious habits or patterns. 

Love is life’s most beautiful experience, and humanity’s most wonderful feature. It is what truly gives meaning to existence. Experiences, mental-illness, trauma, passivity/anxiety and fear, and loneliness cause our ideas about love’s true meaning to become severely distorted. Even in a societal sense I feel love has been twisted and become accepted to be toxic and utterly unhealthy, because it is confused with passion, and because people think passion is also synonymous with ‘dramatic’, ‘undying’, ‘jealous’, ‘vengeful’, and ‘painful to an extent that exceeds what is unavoidable and unintentional.

Love feels like magic, I am not disagreeing with that. And there are inevitable flawed human reactions that occur in any relationship where both partners know that losing their life’s central joy (not purpose, in its entirety) is always at stake to some degree.  But love as I have come to know it means freely and openly acknowledging your mistakes, and mutual agreement to work through them and improve constantly with individual and partnered work on growing.

Love is unconditional, but not really. It’s unconditional in the sense that you can love people when they go through difficult times, and support them when they are not at their best. But that is only the case if nothing about your partner and their actions violates or starts to violate your generalized happiness, trust, feeling of safety, self-confidence, natural independence and morals. 

Love is  out there for everyone who listens to their hearts enough to truly understand the term’s meaning and to learn where to look, and when to look for it. It should be noted that while love can and should contribute to our betterment, we are not likely to find it when we are sick, toxic people ourselves. And if it is found then by chance, a committed relationship is best to wait for until an individual has recovered greatly through professional support and because they wanted to, because they care for themselves enough to value themselves – not to gain their beloved’s partnership. 

Love is good. Never dark and twisted. Never hateful. And it always feels worth every ounce of effort put in, because the return is so great – feeling loved back, for all the right reasons, and for who you are.

This post is really meaningful to me, honestly, because it took me so long to have this understanding, and because these things are hard to talk about. I’ve experienced true trauma before, but in a sense, even a non-abusive but toxic relationship can be just as painful as some of the things therapeutically deemed more serious. For a long time, there was an abusive relationship from my past that I refused to stop calling my most important experience with love. But when I realized that it made no logical sense to think that a word that is supposed to capture bliss and selflessness and empathy and giving applied to a time of my life where I felt scared, ashamed, self-hating, violated and used, sexualized, the most mentally ill I’ve ever been and well, just, sad, all the damn time, I felt free. I feel free these days of that, finally, and I feel lucky, because I have the real thing now.

Lots of love,

Liz

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