What is the meaning of love?
This age-old question recently resurfaced for me due to a misunderstanding in a fairly new romantic relationship.
After several months of dating, my dating partner unexpectedly announced that he was going to return to a monogamous arrangement with a former lover. While I almost always champion the best possible decision for others, this decision involved canceling a trip of ours at the last minute, his declaration that “I wasn’t really in love with you anyway,” and the realization that, unbeknownst to me, this change had been brewing in him for some time.
While the outcome of this particular saga is most definitely in everyone’s best interest, the process left a lot to be desired. It left so much to be desired in fact, that I consider it wildly unethical dating behavior. I was impacted enough by this stumble that it inspired me to articulate some best practices for a conscious relating.
1. Love is a verb.
For weeks after this incident, which, thank heavens, I got over relatively quickly, I was pondering, both internally and externally, the perennial question, “What is love?”
For many, it’s a feeling in the heart and sometimes other bodily locations. For some, it’s a commitment, even though the actual feeling may come and go. And for some, they believe our actions define love—that through the things we do and say, we are practicing love (or not), at every moment.
No doubt, there is truth in all these perspectives. Maybe one thing we can agree on is how Stephen Covey puts it, “Love is a verb requiring our involvement and our active participation.”
Yet humans are fickle creatures. And mysterious ones. To the ongoing dismay of many of us, humans are never more fickle nor more mysterious than in the realms of love.
2. Love is the master volume dial.
Lately, I’ve been playing with the image of an old-school stereo receiver to help define how I see the multifaceted concept of love. Picture the dials on such a thing, which if you were born before 1980, you know it well.
The power button represents the turning on of our life force. As sentient beings, we inhabit an existence, which is a gift from the divine unknown. In this metaphor, the power button turns on our aliveness and animation.
The love dial, as I see it, is the master volume that makes everything audible. Without it, there is no sound.
The other, smaller dials on the system include things like: specific choices and decisions about relationship structure and format, closeness and frequency, degrees of trust, compatibility and lifestyle preferences, intentions and desire, commitment, shared background and values, and stage of life. All of these things matter and any one of them can make or break a relationship. Yet, they are also all flexible and negotiable. They are like the treble and bass dials; they can make a big difference in the sound, but you only need to move them a little. They are the nuances of the sound.
3. We are each completely in charge of our own flow of love.
I believe we are completely in charge of our own love dial. Because every single person is inherently lovable. And love is a matter of turning that dial-up or down based on our own capacity, skill, willingness, and practice. In an ideal world, the dial that controls our love stays fully on, strong, and clear for those, near and far, to feel, hear, and experience. In this mindset, great volumes of love are available to us at any time, in any place, and under any circumstance. The love flowing through us — our bodies, our actions, and our hearts — is fully and 100 percent our responsibility.
Seeing it through this lens raises these questions: Can we stay open-hearted no matter what? Can we open the aperture of our love so fully that the volume stays turned up even in hard times? Can we keep the love dial turned up despite what happens to the small dials?
As we go about our lives, it’s clearly important to tend to all the smaller dials. Each one of those characteristics: structure and format, closeness and frequency, degrees of trust, compatibility, and preferences, intentions and desire, levels of commitment, shared background and values, and more are crucially important in the journey of relating with everyone in our lives.
At the same time, some of us can get overly focused on those small dials as the whole truth — thereby mistaking a part for a whole. This tendency is quite human. And yet collapsing all the small dials down into either “I love you” or “I don’t love you” does a disservice to the expansive nature of love.
4. A failure to love is our own failure; never the fault of someone else.
With the help of this metaphor, maybe I can, as I mature in my own inner growth, begin to see the love dial as the part of me that is divine. Through my brief experiments with this, I’ve come to know, at the very least, that a failure to love is actually a failure of my own imagination, my own creativity, and my own ability to remain open. It’s never, under any circumstance, a failure of the other person.
This applies in the reverse as well. As my dating partner, in the example above, was stepping out of a relationship with me, he was adjusting all the small dials to attune his receiver to the person and situation that most suited him. Yet he collapsed all that nuance down to suggesting he didn’t love me, which had not been his self-ascribed experience while we were actually relating. I’m guessing that shutting down to the flow of love might have felt like freedom and relief to him at the moment, yet I believe it is the false freedom and relief of a defended heart. The problem with defense systems is that the first and foremost contract our own lives.
Armed with this new understanding, I can hold his “I wasn’t really in love with you anyway,” statement as his lack of ability to separate the details from the big picture. From there I can see that his lack of understanding about how the love dial works are unfortunate for him and for me, but it in no way implies a failing, or inadequacy, or lack of lovability on my part. “Love,” as I see it now, had nothing to do with it.
5. Loving in the midst of negotiating all the details—it’s really a thing.
This inquiry raises another series of questions: Can I separate out my own flow of love from my actual day-to-day decisions? Can I stay in love and in openheartedness despite making hard choices about how I relate to others? Can I tend to the real and important work of discernment and still let love flow?
One instance of how these questions play out in my life has to do with the concept of trust. There have been times where I have trusted the wrong people or situations, which ended me up in seriously hot water. These experiences helped me hone my skills of judicious assessment, selectivity, and discernment. I’m now much better at choosing well, and my nervous system has adapted so brilliantly that it informs me early and often when something is amiss.
As a real-time example, in the romantic relationship I’ve been referencing, I now have so much more information about how this person manages the changing tides of a relationship. And I have determined that, at least for me, and at least at this time, there is not enough care, consideration, transparency, or forthrightness for me to turn up my trust dial. His willingness to pivot at the last minute, change his tune about the past, and withhold information is not something I want to be very close to.
So I have appropriately adjusted the trust dial down. As well as many other dials. I’ve gotten more distance (proximity), I’ve pulled back my own engagement (commitment), I’ve decided to take some space (frequency and geography), I’ve changed my mind about my own interest in continuing with a physical relationship (intention and desire), and I now consider that we have broken up (format and structure). Yet I am working on loving myself and this person through this entire process. Love in this context means that I continue to cultivate goodwill, respect, care, warm feelings, and an overall sense of wishing the best for all involved.
6. The “You love me more than I love you” notion is small-minded.
During one of the conversations that took place during the breakup process, my soon-to-be-former dating partner suggested that we had a mismatch in how we felt about each other, specifically that I loved him more than he loved me.
My response to that, which I never got to deliver, would go something like this:
“I’ve had specific concerns about the differences in our age and ability, our politics, our experience with conscious relating, our commitment to personal health, and our availability. Some of these I’ve shared with you and some I was intending to share as time went on. But all of these things are the little dials. Any one of them—or all of them collectively—could have been the death of us.
But the path I’m committed to walking is one of loving through, around, and in spite of differences. My intended course of action was to move forward, until or unless we decided together that these small dials were deal breakers. In the meantime, my plan was and is to feel and give and express and experience the most love that I possibly can. Because I can. And because everyone is lovable. The love that you have felt from me is my choice. I’ve turned up my volume dial. And honestly, it’s delicious. It makes for a better life for me.”
7. Love is not a light switch.
The difference between his perspective and mine can be ascribed to a vast difference in paradigms. The “I wasn’t in love with you anyway” paradigm is like a light switch, it’s either on or off. And the flipping of it on or off seems to have as much to do with the external world as it does with the internal world. It can feel and appear random, unintentional, haphazard, and changeable. The “I’m in charge of my own level of love despite the actual details” paradigm is like the “master volume love” dial as separate from “all the details of life” dials. They can be changed and maneuvered distinctly and with articulation.
From where I sit at this moment, I see the latter as a more mature and more integrated way of relating. From this position, there is more access to seeing and holding multiple perspectives, acting with ethics, and respecting everyone involved.
8. Models of mature loving.
A beautiful model of this phenomenon at work is how mothers love their children. Because the bond is strong and often lifelong, most mothers love their children fully and with unwavering steadiness; even if those children behave badly. How many times have we witnessed the mother of a violent criminal declares that she still loves her child? From one perspective, this may indicate denial or dissociation. From another perspective, it is one of the purest instances of abiding love that can be found in our earthly realm.
We might be wise to take a cue from this ability.
Because I don’t have children, I can relate to this sentiment through a different lens. A part of me still loves everyone who I’ve been deeply connected to. This includes former partners, departed friends and family, and those who have drifted away. These beloveds regularly show up in my dreams, occupy my thoughts, and pull at my heart.
9. Staying open despite external circumstances.
Love, when we let it, flows uninhibited. It’s the nonstop way that we express ourselves in this existence. Some might even say it’s the reason we incarnate.
It does, however, take a superhuman level of mastery to love in the face of seeming rejection, dismissal, and unrequitedness. Yet from the glimpse I’ve had of trying it, it can also be empowering, energizing, and profound.
In the past, during times of deep hurt, I have gone through a rather jarring process of slamming shut my love and heart only to go through another arduous process of reopening it after the pain had passed. All these gyrations seemed to be endlessly dependent on external circumstances.
With this new worldview, I am invited to keep my heart open despite making detailed adjustments to the specifics of relating. In addition to loving the person in front of me, it also allows me to stay open to new opportunities as they will no doubt arise.
Even if I don’t get it right all the time, this approach allows me to play with moving fluidly forward in my life unimpeded by my own contraction. I trip less over my own smallness and dance more fully into my own expansion.