This is what Real Love looks Like.

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I love love.

Not just the cheesy-holiday-romance-movie love, but the love that transforms your heart and expands your soul.

This love itself is natural, if we allow it, and the working for it, learning from it, and treasuring it is when it becomes powerful.

When I was growing up, I planned to be married by the time I was 21 years old. It would be my third year in college, so I would have had three years on my own, and be ready to settle down. Love meant meeting someone who “made sense” and fit the wish list I had made as a teenager. We would share a life together full of some mutual goals.

Now, I’m 30 years old. I am an unmarried adult woman with a job and an apartment who has moved across the country several times and traveled the globe.

The last 12 years of my young adult life have included the single years, the dating years, the dating app years (yes, a whole separate chapter), and the relationship years. Love has a whole new meaning.

These years have provided me with lots of stories, laughs, and heartbreak. As any newly single female such as I knows, at the end of most relationships, our minds can be consumed with questions starting with the word, “why,” followed by laments under the theme of “regret.”

As I look back, I find that when I give real love a chance, I have learned more about myself and the human experience than I thought possible. And these lessons live on beyond the relationships. May I share a few?

#1 The Checklist and The Imagination

When I was 18, I had my love life planned with a boy we’ll call “Him #1.”

We shared religious views, values, and lifestyles. We grew up in the same hometown, and both our families lived in the area. He was a family man, he had plans for medical school, and he played guitar. He made me laugh, and my best friend was dating his best friend.

Obviously, we were M.F.E.O. (made for each other).

At some point during our non-relationship-relationship, I told him I loved him. And to my 18-year-old self, I did. Love was something largely unknown. It was sweet and innocent, built on experiences like drinking milkshakes together at the drive-in. For me, love was largely built on believing—almost an imagining of what could be, and then falling in love with that idea.

For a large chunk of my life, I felt love in this way. The imagined way.

While I was busy imagining a love with Him #1, I presented a version of myself to him that fit the imaginings—a version that I believed he would want to be with—but I was never fully myself. It was as if I believed that if we met each other’s checklists, then the imaginings would come to fruition and we would be set in love.

But real love—the kind I’ve learned to adore—is based on what’s real. It’s not about what can be “checked off,” “looks good,” or “could be good.” It’s about what is good. In real life.

All the imaginings in our heads may never come to fruition, and we do ourselves and our partners a disservice by getting swept up into it. Not to mention, we miss out on experiencing reality as good, deep, and powerful as it is.

#2 Acceptance and Closure

“Him #2” was a different story.

I loved him immediately for no reason other than I just did. There were no imaginings of a perfect love with him, because he didn’t fit the check boxes and I had no expectations. He was romantic and kind. He was affectionate, and he made me laugh. But what I loved the most about him was how he treated me.

I had been used to caring for myself, but with him, I was cared for. For the smallest of things, he always made time for me. I never doubted that I was special and valuable to him. He taught me what it means to be loved and wanted without having to do anything spectacular other than just being myself. At that time, to me, he embodied love.

The irony of this love was that although it ran deep in my heart and felt unconditional, there was also a feeling of lack. Something incomplete.

It didn’t make sense, but I couldn’t shake it. I believe this was a love which we both truly wanted to work, but no matter how many times we tried, there were fundamental things we couldn’t make align.

That made the breakup nearly impossible, and the heartbreak beyond painful. It was a pain I had never experienced before. It seemed as if the world was punishing me for falling in love.

At this time in my life, the only way I could find to deal with the heartache was to remove myself from my current life. I quit my job, moved out of state and decided to start over.

I learned that, no matter how the movies sensationalize big changes, your heartache doesn’t live in an old apartment, an old job, or an old circle of friends, and you can’t escape the pain that needs to process through you. The heartache and the pain will follow you.

In heartache, we often want someone or something to blame for the pain. I wanted it to be “his fault.” But it wasn’t. It wasn’t “my fault” either. It just was. We chose different paths that couldn’t align with each other, and putting our own choices above one another meant we couldn’t be together.

When we parted ways, we kept the door open to each other, which made it nearly impossible not to look back. So, how about closure?

Closure, to most of us, looks like a sign or an assurance that it is “supposed to be” over to provide the confidence that something else will work out, so we won’t spend the rest of our days in that state of devastation. What we forget is that the universe doesn’t guarantee closure.

I spent six months journaling my raw heart to work through my own closure by taking responsibility for my decisions and feeling my grief.

Eventually, in slow pieces, I developed an acceptance that unconditional love does not equate to a compatible lifetime partnership, and that regardless, love never need be a regret.

The genuine love we give and the sincere love we receive—no matter an outcome—is felt, it is experienced, it is not wasted. An outcome does not negate the experience and transformation of love.

#3 Growing and Transforming

Walking out of The Great Heartache and Personal Downfall of 2016 and into 2017, I decided to focus on rebuilding my sense of self. I carried with me reflections from the past 12 years. One slow day at a time led to now, where I find myself in a new kind of love with “Him #3.”

Neither logical nor expected, it is a love that has grown and transformed over time. It is not a rushed love. It is a love between two souls that continue to choose each other.

We’re not paper-perfect. We make mistakes. We see a lot of things differently.

But this love is patient. This love is big. This love is worked for.

Over the last rebuilding year, I’ve met my emotional side through days of tears and questioning everything. I’ve met the dark spaces of my mind, and my imperfections and self-criticisms have relentlessly paraded themselves in front of me as if in a constant loop. During this time, I haven’t had the luxury of hiding anything about myself. He has experienced me raw, and I’ve never felt more exposed.

Rather than running away or disappearing, he has shaken hands with some of my demons. He’s held me. We’ve walked together. He has taught me what it feels like to be loved through mistakes, and how to courageously share every part of yourself with another soul.

Through our experiences, I have felt how steady love can be in the white spaces of each ordinary day. I’ve learned the faith of trusting another person, and how selfless this love is.

Because our love has lived outside the confines I previously would’ve set on relationships, I experience our love in new ways. I’ve learned to love our love for exactly what it is in this precious time that we have it.

To be in love: 

When it’s real, there’s nothing naïve about it. There’s no need to explain it.

In this life, many of us will have the privilege to engage in some type of loving relationship. Each one is different, but they will each leave us with memories and emotions of all kinds.

It is our choice how we will learn from them, and if we will allow these lessons to transform us.

In a world full of love clichés and angst, there need be no regrets in real love. Real love is not a finite resource with only one shot to be given or received. A heart is not a constrained vessel, but a medium of infinite capacity. In its genuine form, love exists to be shared, grown, and felt.

This is the love I love.

author: Darcy Stewart

Image: Marcelo Matarazzo/Unsplash

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Darcy Stewart

Darcy Stewart is a small-town girl with a big love for sunsets and live music. She has lived coast to coast, from Washington D.C. to her current life in Southern California. Darcy enjoys hiking, weightlifting, hot yoga, and wandering around old bookstores finding children’s books and paperback classics. She also enjoys the “more-than-occasional” baked good, in her search for the perfectly-baked chocolate chip cookie.

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