Published in ‘South Bay Woman’ Magazine, Feb. 2009 issue
By: Kristin Whitelaw
Has love come to mean something about who you are – your value, worth, security, identity, capability or loveableness? Is your identity tied to whether you are loved and needed? Is your value measured by how much you are loved or by who loves you? Are ‘in love’ with the person you hope they will be, the person you thought they were, the person they once were, the person you would like to change them into or the person you need them to be? How do you know if you have healthy love in your relationship?
Years ago I developed and facilitated a program for the Riverside County School system that specifically explored characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships. The goal was to motivate an open and honest discussion among High School students by asking questions such as, “what is love?” The answers followed a common theme – one reflecting qualities of attachment as well as the foundation of addictive thinking rather than authentic and healthy ‘love’.
The students responded by using examples of relationships in movies, the most popular being “Pretty Woman”, “Titanic” and “Romeo and Juliet”. When I asked the females how they know if their boyfriend really loves them, their answer was, “if they want to spend all their time with me and don’t want me to see anyone else”. Jealously was considered to be a validation of love. Another common answer was “if we couldn’t live without one another” and another answer was, “he would make me feel complete”. This feeling inspired by the movie “Jerry McGuire” in which the lead male character announced to the female lead character “You complete me”. Young females swooned at these words and proceeded to seek the same from heir present or future partners. Another answer to “What is love?” was, “When we would die for one another. When we are not as important as the one we love.” When I asked the girls why they thought “Pretty Woman” represented real love, they quickly explained “he (the lead character) must have really loved her to want to change her into something better. He saved her.” When I asked them to further explain why “Romeo and Juliet” represents love they answered earnestly, “because they were willing to die if they couldn’t have the one they loved.”
This describes the romanticized version of love which is perpetuated by T.V., movies and advertising and has a major impact on how people define, experience and confirm love in their relationships. This idea of love is substantiated greatly by the intensity and drama surrounding the experience. The more heightened the emotions, desperation and need for the other person, the greater the “love” must be. The more the person ‘needs’ us the more they must love us. The more all consuming the experience, the deeper and more real the love must be. This perspective of love ignites emotional attachments that can turn into addictions to love. It stimulates the behavior of seeking outside rather than inside sources of identity, healing and fulfillment. Entering into relationships with this level of expectation creates inevitable disappointment and loss of personal identity and power.
We don’t become addicted to love, per se, we become addicted to what we believe will relieve our discomfort, fulfill our emotional needs and resolve our inner struggle. We think that if we can find someone who will ‘love’ us, we can relieve our pain, loneliness, fear, emptiness, sense of loss; we can confirm our value, fill the empty spaces, become more comfortable with ourselves and secure in our future. We become addicted to the ‘drug’ we believe will comfort our needs – that will make us feel okay about ourselves and in life. This builds an addiction to what we believe love will provide for us, and an attachment to the person we think will give it to us.
An interesting component to this is that love is often seen as a separate force that overpowers all else. It defies reason or rational thinking and is believed to have the capability of canceling out negative, harmful characteristics in a relationship. It is seen as an energy that is self-sustaining, supported by the ideal of itself rather than an experience in reality. This means that it is defined by the expectation of what it will make us feel like rather than tangible characteristics, exhibited within a relationship. When women in abusive relationships stay with the man ‘because they love him,”, they exemplify this belief that love has the ability to remove any other considerations that may speak to something different. This takes us away from the true power of love, the health and purpose of love.
In truth, love reflects that which is the expression of its energy. Simply, love is defined by characteristics such as trust, honor, communication, commitment, non-judgement and respect.
To determine if you are seeking healthy love or searching for someone to fulfill unhealthy emotional needs, here is a simple exercise: when saying the statement “he loves me,” try replacing the word “love” with one of the words listed above. For example, “he loves me” becomes “he respects me.” This helps to show if you have a relationship truly reflecting healthy love. Can you honestly replace love with loving characteristics? This helps us stay honest and aware of what we choose to experience as love and why.
The healthiest relationships are based on two whole people coming together to share in the experience of one another in life. Looking to each other, not to fulfill what only we can within ourselves, but to celebrate one another’s unique being and fulfill the reflection of that as our relationship.