5 Things I Have Learned About Love

It is February and love is in the air. 

Today is Valentine’s Day. At the beginning of the month, Barb and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. We did it in style, ordering restaurant takeout and then watching Dateline. Yeah. We know how to party.

We got married at the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth by the county Justice of the Peace. We got married on our day off. She was working as a hotel clerk, I worked at Blockbuster Video. Yes. Really. It wasn’t until later that I put together that we had been married on Groundhog Day.

The Bill Murray movie had come out a couple of years before we got married, and – other than our marriage, obviously – that movie is the single best thing to ever happen to Groundhog Day. All apologies to Punxsutawney Phil, but the whole groundhog / shadow thing is pretty ridiculous. 

The movie, however, is really good, and surprisingly complex. As Phil Connors comes to understand and accept the nature of his day on infinite loop he works through most of the ways humans have come up with to deal with the ontological property of being. Why are we here? What is existence, and more critically, what does it mean? These are big questions with no easy answers. All the more remarkable that they are dealt with in a Harold Ramis movie starring Bill Murray.

The constant repetition of Phil’s day also serves as a pretty good analogy for a long term romantic relationship. Barbara and I went on our first date over 31 years ago. We were both 17. We have been together ever since. Every day has been unique, and every day has gone in a different direction. But just as Phil woke up to Sonny and Cher every morning, and ran into “Needle-nosed Ned” in the street, we have had the same basic contours shape our life together. We have always been… us. Our existence has had to account for, include, adjust around, or accommodate one another’s presence. 

Every day is different. And every day has included us together. It has been like Groundhog Day. The movie. Not the one where the big rat looks around for weather patterns.

In that time, I have learned a lot about love and relationships. What makes them work and what makes them wonderful. What makes them strain and struggle and sometimes suck completely. I have learned what love is, and what it isn’t, and what you can reasonably expect from your connections with the people you care about.

For this week’s 5 Things, I am sharing the 5 Things I Have Learned About Love.

1st Thing I Have Learned About Love

Love is not one thing.

There are a handful of phrases that cause me to have an immediate and overwhelmingly negative reaction. “At the end of the day.” You don’t have to say that. Just say what you want to say. Then use a period. We know it’s the end. FFS. “Honestly…” Wait. Was there another option? Why did you suddenly call honesty into question here? I was with you, but now I have questions. Anyone wearing green and then saying “Fly Eagles Fly.” You are the Philadelphia Eagles. Please. Just stop.

Of all these, I think my least favorite is when someone says that the person (or persons) that they are in a relationship with “are not the same person they were when we met.” And that “things have changed.” Yeah. No shit. You are in a relationship with an actual living, breathing human being. Things change.

Our culture tells us a lot of lies about love. Many of them are really pernicious and cause quite a bit of damage to relationships and the individuals in them. One of the bigger lies is the idea that when you fall in love, that the relationship is suddenly encased in amber and that nothing ever changes. All stories end with “happily ever after” like the characters are going to stay in exactly the same place they were when the story ended.

No one does that.

Life happens. Change happens. We grow as individuals, and we change as a couple. The spark and the passion that exists when the right person smiles at us from across the room isn’t gonna be there every day for 30 years. It’s just not. It doesn’t mean that it goes away. But it will start to pick and choose the moments where it makes itself visible. That isn’t a bad thing. It just is. We are the ones who tie judgment to it.

The people we are with will grow and change. Our relationships will not stay static. That is a beautiful thing. We get to grow and change with one another. And that is an incredible gift.

Love is not one thing.

2nd Thing I Have Learned About Love

Have red lines. Not many.

One of the hardest things to do when you are in relationship with someone is figure out how you are going navigate the complexities of moving through the world while balancing the needs of more than just yourself. Take something really simple. What do you want for dinner?

This seems like a pretty straightforward question. Until you are in a relationship. Then it gets really complicated really quickly. You have to start balancing all sorts of competing wants and needs, likes and dislikes. You have to consider available resources. Pretty soon, you have to do a whole ass SWOT analysis just to figure out if you want pizza or maybe a burger. Arguments have occurred. Hell, relationships have ended because of this very simple question: What do you want to eat?

Take a look in the mirror. Are you always comfortable with every choice that the person staring back at you makes? Do you feel satisfied with them every minute of every day? Are you completely, 100% satisfied with them all the time? Chances are likely that the answer is no. Now. Multiply that by a whole other person.

Love gets complicated quickly. The antidote to complication is clear communication, especially around issues and situations that are important to you. In order to provide this clarity, it is important to have and share your red lines – the things that are nonnegotiable to you. It can be hard to maintain boundaries, especially early on when you are just so excited to be with someone who brings you joy. And it is important to the later health of your relationship that you know and share your red lines.

And while having limits is healthy, having only limits is not. If everything is a red line, nothing is. You don’t want to define your relationship by what it is not, or what it can’t be. If monogamy is important to you, and you feel it is central to your view of relationships, you should share that as a red line, and be willing to discuss that with your partner. That is healthy. Saying that you will break up with someone if they eat Lay’s Potato Chips may not be the nonnegotiable red line you think it is. 

Set boundaries but be willing to talk about them openly. Have red lines. Not many.

3rd Thing I Have Learned About Love

Love is an action verb.

There is a great moment in the Flannery O’Conner novel The Violent Bear It Away when the main character (and a hell of a character he is), Francis Tarwater, is told no. Tarwater takes umbrage and says:

“You can't just say NO," he said. "You got to do NO. You got to show it. You got to show you mean it by doing it.”

Words have power, and words have meaning. But there are some situations where words alone are not sufficient. There are times you can’t just say a thing, you must also DO something.

Love is one of those times.

All too often, the way we talk about love is passive. People “fall” in love, as if pulled by gravity. Those initial moments of attraction do feel like being carried away on a river of dopamine, but anyone who has been in a relationship for more than a few days will tell you that the dopamine rush slows. That doesn’t mean it disappears, but it does change. Falling is replaced by hiking pretty quickly. 

We talk about being “in” love, as if it is just a state of being. It is, but it is a state of being that requires attention and work. Just as an untended garden is soon overgrown, an untended love quickly goes to the weeds.

You can’t just say love. You have to DO love. 

Love is an action verb.

4th Thing I Have Learned About Love

The healthier YOU are, the healthier your love will be.

One of the great gifts of love is having someone in your life who cares about you, and who wants to help carry the things that weigh you down. 

We are all carrying something, and much of what we carry is heavy. Sometimes it can feel impossible to carry alone. And in those times, it is so wonderful to have someone in your life to help carry that weight. 

And.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make in our relationship is to make someone else responsible for our happiness or wellbeing. If you expect the person(s) that you are in a relationship with to fulfill all your emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual needs all the time “until death do you part” then I have some really bad news for you. That is not going to happen.

You have to take responsibility for your own mental and physical health, not depend on a partner to do it for you. The person you love should want to help you and encourage you and build you up. They shouldn’t just do it. And if you are hoping that they will - and if they actually want to do that - then you should see big red flags waving. 

The healthier we are as individuals, the better we are able to give and receive care. You can’t pour from an empty pitcher. And you can’t receive if your cup is broken. Asking someone to help you fill your pitcher or patch your cup is one of the reasons love exists. However that shouldn’t be confused with letting someone BE your pitcher or take your cup.

The healthier YOU are, the healthier your love will be.

5th Thing I Have Learned About Love

There is no “right” way to do love.

Over my years of advocacy for and in the veteran’s community, I have had a consistent mantra. If you have met one veteran, then you have met one veteran. I say this in order to remind people that veterans are people first, and that our community is not a monolith in experience or outlook. The popular image of vets as Black Rifle Coffee Company swilling, Grunt Style shirt wearing, bearded 3 percenters with bushy beards and wrap around shades, hands wrapped around an AR-15 is about as alien to my experience as a vet as it can be. Do those guys exist? Sure. Stereotypes are sometimes grounded in truth. Are they all vets? Not even close.

The same mantra applies to love. There are many different ways to experience and express love, and to be in relationship. What feels “right” or “normal” to you may feel completely alien to someone else.

Monogamy is a hot button issue for many couples. The people in these relationships believe that when you form a romantic relationship with someone, you are committing to an exclusive physical connection with that person for as long as the relationship continues. There are some for whom that construct is simply unworkable, limiting, and unacceptable. One way of being together is not more natural, or superior to the other. They are simply different ways to get to the same goal - fullness of connection and experience with another.

There are as many different ways to be in relationship as there are relationships. What works for one relationship should not be presumed to be normative for another.

What is most important is that the people involved love one another. That they respect one another’s red lines. That they share one another’s dreams, and support one another’s goals. What is important is that they get up every day and DO love.

There are lots of different ways to be in relationship and experience love. And, at their best, they build us up and connect us with human experience and expand our understanding of ourselves and others. This is the power of love.

The power to change the world. One connection at a time.

Happy Valentine’s Day y’all.