There’s a guy. He’s having a really bad day because this girl he likes a lot decided to stop seeing him.
She thought they were two people who enjoyed one another’s company.
He thought they were madly in love, boyfriend and girlfriend, and going to get married someday.
Dude’s a nice guy, as the story goes. One of those guys with an inferiority complex about women breaking up with him or rejecting him, because it seems to happen to him a lot.
There are probably some young women out there who want a super-clingy dude with hyper-codependent tendencies who smothers her physically, mentally and emotionally. But near as I can tell, most don’t.
This guy’s default state of being—how he shows up in the world—is THE RECIPE for triggering discomfort and mistrust in a potential romantic partner. You can still be liked. You can still be appreciated. Perhaps even genuinely cared for.
But very few—I’d argue zero—healthy people are going to intentionally commit to being a couple and/or pursue marriage with someone who needs, needs, needs all the time. Someone who leans so heavily on OTHER people to achieve balance or to feel good about themselves.
People Have Load-Bearing Limits
I kind-of know those feelings. Not because I’m overly co-dependent emotionally—I’ve got that only-child thing going for me—but because I do have a distinguished marital history of leaning heavily on my spouse to “take care of stuff.” It’s hard enough for most of us to take excellent care of ourselves under optimum circumstances. When you start adding career responsibilities and children to the equation, any extra bullshit being dumped on you from another adult is going to feel even heavier than the regular kind of bullshit.
Many divorces happen because one spouse is willing to carry that extra bullshit early in the relationship because intense feelings of love are present, and because they have the mental, physical and emotional bandwidth to take that on, BUT then five to 10 years later, when there are children and financial pressures and stale, if not non-existent, sexual routines, and years of tiny resentments piling up, and some major life trauma like the death of a loved one… that person who was carrying so much of the emotional and mental burdens of marriage or the relationship becomes too exhausted to carry it anymore.
It’s a sad story, and one I regret subjecting my ex-wife and son to.
But there’s another element to codependence as well.
And that is the idea that how OTHER people feel about us—whether they think we’re attractive, or want to play with us on the playground, or want to sleep with us, or want to hire us at their company, or want to accept us into their graduate schools, or want to go out on a date with us, or want to be friends with us, etc.—is some kind of legitimate gauge for how we should feel about ourselves.
I spent most of my life hung up on the Majority Rules concept. That when things are subject to vote (whether that be at the ballot box, or which store they shop at, or which food they like, or which movie or music artist is best), that what the Majority says is best is a reliable indicator for what actually is best. (I know. Concepts like subjectivity were totally lost on me.)
Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”
I learned that quote while working as a reporter for my college newspaper. I’ve been (very slowly) inching my way down a new life path ever since.
Without getting political or philosophical, let’s just use pop music as an example.
Can we all agree that at least ONE super-popular song you’ve heard in the past 10-20 years—something that topped the music charts and sold millions of records—was a steaming pile of suck in your opinion?
There you have it.
Only ONE person gets to decide what we’re worth and how we feel every day when we wake up. And that person is ourselves.
If You Don’t Know What Love Actually Is, How Can You Know Whether it’s in Your Life?
Captain Whiny Guy feels like a victim today.
He’s not celebrating the quick end to a relationship that NEVER had a chance of evolving into a healthy love or marriage or family or anything that he claimed he wanted in life.
He’s lamenting that he, once again, feels like a loser in the Pick-Me Dance game, because a girl he liked didn’t like him as much as he liked her.
His sadness and disappointment and feelings of rejection predictably turned to anger.
“I love you,” he told her. (I don’t think he knows what that means. Weeks, not months went by.)
He cited all of the nice things he’s done for her. All of the gifts he’s given. He expressed fake-unselfish concern that he was worried that she would eventually “end up settling for someone who won’t treat you the way you deserve.”
The implication from everything this dude said was: I will be nicer to you, give you more things, and do more stuff for you than anyone else, thus you’re wrong and making a mistake if you don’t choose to commit to me and love me forever.
This guy thinks love is a meritocracy.
This guy thinks who you date and marry is a math equation rooted entirely in behavior.
As if the biggest sack on the planet could simply out-gift and out-favor and out-sweet-gesture every other guy in someone’s life and guarantee himself her approval, sexual connection, and lifetime commitment.
I feel sorry for him. But the truth is, he’s simply going to have to keep getting his nuts kicked in until the lightbulb goes on and he starts asking better questions about how he shows up in the world.
Love Cannot Be Earned, Nor Bought, Nor Taken
Love is a complicated thing to discuss because so many people define it differently.
People commonly associate love with emotions, with feelings—romantic and sexual.
People think of love in conjunction with the loyalty and foundational structure of their family of origin—the love that exists between parents and children and siblings and their pets.
People love things. Like music, art, sports, traveling, literature, cinema, and various activities of personal interest.
Generally, in the context of dating and marriage, use of the word love typically characterizes that feeling. It’s not a sane feeling. It’s not a rational one. It can’t be bottled or boxed up. We can’t trap love, stow it away, and break it out later whenever we want.
Love—the feeling—may not be the biggest factor in whether couples last forever or fizzle out fast, but let’s not pretend that it doesn’t matter. Love is UNQUESTIONABLY the most potent and influential of human emotions, and the one most likely to compel a person to do something big and otherwise unusual—hopefully something insane like moving far away to be with someone, and NOT something insane like murder in some bizarre love triangle, like that crazy astronaut love triangle that involved adult diapers and a long murdery road trip.
Because love is the most potent and influential human emotion, I think it’s important for people to truly KNOW what it is.
Let’s start with the obvious.
You cannot buy it. If you buy people roses, and write them love notes, and take them to dinner, and are super-affectionate and thoughtful, physically and emotionally, there are not units of love that can be earned or given in return.
Love is not measurable. It cannot be counted.
Love is NOT conditional. That is not to say that love won’t dissipate under certain conditions, but simply that love ceases to be love when it’s exchanged only under certain circumstances.
Companionship can be bought. Sex can be bought. Love can’t be.
“Love is inherently free. It cannot be bought, sold, or traded. You cannot make someone love you, nor can you prevent it — not for any amount of money. Love cannot be imprisoned, nor can it be legislated. Love is not a substance, not a commodity, not even a marketable power source. Love has no territory, no borders, no quantifiable mass or energy output,” said Dr. Deborah Anapol in her book The Seven Natural Laws of Love as shared in Psychology Today. “This doesn’t mean that love allows destructive and abusive behaviors to go unchecked. Love speaks out for justice and protests when harm is being done. Love points out the consequences of hurting oneself or others. Love allows room for anger, grief, or pain to be expressed and released. But love does not threaten to withhold itself if it doesn’t get what it wants. Love does not say, directly or indirectly, ‘If you are a bad boy, Mommy won’t love you anymore.’ Love does not say, ‘If you want to be loved, you must be nice,’ or ‘Do what I want,’ or ‘Never love anyone else,’ or ‘Promise you’ll never leave me.’”
I like the way Anapol characterizes it.
Love is inherently unselfish.
Did the whiny guy give the girl What?! Pick Me!!! roses because he loves her? I mean, maybe. I guess. But isn’t it more likely that he sent the girl who rejected him roses because he was hoping for a desired response—one intended ultimately to benefit him?
Wasn’t it a tool to make her change her mind, or at least feel regret about ending it with The Super-Nice Guy Who Sends Her Flowers?
And doesn’t that make him kind of a dickwad—whether it’s intentional and self-aware or not—for saying “I love you”?
Sure, it does.
It wasn’t a selfless act of love. He of course said the cliché thing people think they’re supposed to say I just want what’s best for you! I just want you to be happy!
But he didn’t act like it.
He acted like a petulant whiner with an exceedingly flaccid and unused penis.
And when you act like that, girls tend to find the behavior unattractive. And I hope he figures it out someday, because there is a place in this world for a husband and father who loves to demonstrate his love through gifts and thoughtful acts of kindness.
But I think we have our fill of human beings who don’t actually know what love is.
We don’t love our parents or our children or our brothers and sisters or our best friends because there’s some reward in doing so.
We just love them.
Romantic and sexual love are different.
I think the fabulous philosopher and author Alain de Botton might have said it best in The Book of Life.
“In general, civilisation requires us to present stringently edited versions of ourselves to others. It asks us to be cleaner, purer, more polite versions of who we might otherwise be. The demand comes at quite a high internal cost. Important sides of our character are pushed into the shadows.
Humanity has long been fascinated – and immensely troubled – by the conflict between our noblest ideals and the most urgent and exciting demands of our sexual nature. In the early third century, the Christian scholar and saint, Origen, castrated himself – because he was so horrified by the gulf between the person he wanted to be (controlled, tender and patient) and the kind of person he felt his sexuality made him (obscene, lascivious and rampant). He represents the grotesque extreme of what is in fact a very normal and widespread distress. We may meet people who – unwittingly- reinforce this division,” de Botton wrote. “The person who loves us sexually does something properly redemptive: they stop making a distinction between the different sides of who we are. They can see that we are the same person all the time; that our gentleness or dignity in some situations isn’t fake because of how we are in bed and vice versa. Through sexual love, we have the chance to solve one of the deepest, loneliest problems of human nature: how to be accepted for who we really are.”
Love is a feeling—wild and unpredictable.
But love is something else. Something more pure and absolute.
Love is an action, even if only in our hearts and minds.
Love is freely given, without agenda, because for reasons we have never thought through entirely or been asked to explain, we truly love someone and seek to improve them and their lives completely independent of our own emotions, or how it might impact our own lives.
Love is kind. Patient. Compassionate. Empathetic.
You don’t get to take love from someone. You don’t get to convince them they should love you and have it work out. You can’t EARN it.
It’s acquired one way only.
As a gift.
And when we’re blessed enough to receive it, it’s our responsibility to be good stewards of it. To treat it with the care and importance it deserves.
The care and importance that you deserve, when you finally decide to love yourself, because you finally realize that you’re worth it.
26 thoughts on “Maybe Your Love Life Sucks Because You Don’t Know What Love Is”
Outstanding post. Thank you for continuing to write. You have so much insight to offer and you somehow put very difficult ideas and thoughts into words. It comes across as a practical insight, that anyone could understand. Not fancy, just humble and thoughtful and so useful. Thank you so much for continuing to share your thoughts with us. It means so much to get a post. I always learn something new about myself and my marriage. I’m going to start sharing your posts with my older son who is having relationship issues in the very short times he has a dated a couple of young women. He is struggling to understand what is very complicated (and social media seems to have really complicated college dating), and I think you have wonderful, easy to understand, insights that will help him navigate his way to a healthy, good relationship.
Thank you so much, Kelly.
I do believe strongly that most failed relationships are rooted in fundamentally flawed beliefs in our youth when most of us are dating, learning about ourselves, and trying to figure out who we want to hitch our Forever Relationship wagons to.
We want our friends to approve. Our families to approve. We want them to believe all of the same things we believe. We want them to like all of the same things we like.
I can’t imagine how the internet has complicated that even further.
Dating after divorce is pretty awful, but in my experience has radically different parameters and pitfalls then young, pre-marriage dating from our teenage years through—statistically—marriage sometime in our late 20s.
I believe that if I knew then what I know now, I would have had a healthier marriage.
So much power in simply being aware that something matters. Rooting for your son. And you.
Can’t thank you enough for reading this stuff and for sharing your exceedingly kind thoughts about it.
Insightful as always. I so appreciate the idea as love as a gift. It reminded me of something Michele Weiner-Davis says–it’s not a gift if you expect something in return. And it’s also not a gift if it doesn’t cost you something to give.
Love is a verb.
Your texts speak to me the same way a book spoke to me once: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years – hard reality that tells you that unless you work for something and understand the ups and downs of everything – you won’t feel content or stimulated enough to change/look for a different way of doing things. I really like the way you write 🙂
I am a big Don Miller fan. Connecting Matt and Don is spot on. Both of them make you think and challenge the status quo.
The definition of love also changes over time. The other day I actually got misty eyed because I jumped in my car and realized my husband had quietly filled my gas tank the night before.
My idea and expectations of love were formed when I dated a super nice guy in high school and then a subsequent line of mediocre half wits. I also mistakenly thought I was always the hero of my own story- the great one in all the relationships who did everything right. And then I got a glimpse of what I’d actually been doing during a brief look through someone else’s eyes and I was horrified. While it was great fodder for change, my “the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of all men” moment made me unsure I was marrying material.
Thankfully I found an equally flawed but functional guy and we got hitched, but man I wish they’d give you a pep talk at pre Cana that looked more like a military strategy..
“More than half of you won’t make it. You’ll be embarking on an impossible task with improbable people in a leaky boat and there might be some small kids and a dog you have to keep alive until you get to your difficult to see destination. Good luck! Don’t die!”
No one would be married but it’d stop everyone believing the bag of lies that all relationship are satisfying, gentle calm oasis islands where you get your dreams fufilled.
I love this. You are so on point with the whole speech thing. Made me LOL.
Perception, Expectations and then Reality.
Great post, Matt.
You said, “Dude’s a nice guy, as the story goes.” Something that really helped me, in the bible Jesus, perfect, sin free, says, “why do you call me good?” One of the biggest stumbling blocks in our relationships is we usually think we’re good, so we’re entitled, we deserves this, we earned it. That mindset of “I’m a nice guy” now burdens you and the other person with, “I’m owed, I’m due, I’m entitled.”
It’s been done before. Read the whole thing – it’s short. I copied a portion because it fits in well with what you wrote.
“What’s wrong with Nice Guys? The biggest problem is that most Nice Guys ™ are hideously insecure. They are so anxious to be liked and loved that they do things for other people to gain acceptance and attention, rather than for the simply pleasure of giving. You never know if a Nice Guy really likes you for who you are, or if he has glommed onto you out of desperation because you actually paid some kind of attention to him.”
About sex…I’m kind of turning this over and over.
One thing that I see (and actually may be a positive), is that generally speaking men’s fear of being perceived as a pervert and women’s fears of being perceived as less than a goddess (body image issues) may actually be a way of trying to meet each other’s needs. It’s kind of like the story about the gift of the magi, where the girl cuts off her hair to buy a chain for her beloved watch. Meanwhile her beloved sells his watch to buy her a pearl hair comb.
He wants to be respectful for her, she wants to be sexy for him.
We want to be approved of by our partners, but we take it upon ourselves to guess what the partner desires or is satisfied with- we take it upon ourselves to guess what the other wants, and what the other needs. (And most of this is informed by the cultural messages we receive.)
There may be times when certain things really are not desired, but most of the time I don’t think people are in a place to even talk about it openly.
I think what is talked about here is more than specific acts being accepted, it’s more about the person as a whole being accepted.
I think for the most part our society is very confused about sex. We use it as entertainment. We use it as a measure of value, ..and it loses intimacy and the fulfillment it has to offer.
It seems like if we didn’t have the explicit images given to us, or social taboos about it, two people (or more in some instances) could find thier way around this part of thier relationship without the expectations or fears around it.
It seems like if we were allowed to discover it on our own, it would be a much less taxing issue.
PIP, I think you know I agree.
I love this article. One of my favs. It really spoke to me. I saw so many similarities with my own now failed marriage. Knowing what I know now, would I choose him again? No.
I now see I carried the weight. Constantly fixing his messes. I was blessed with two beautiful healthy boys and I’m definitely so happy I had them. They are the definition of real love.
After 3.5 years, I’m ready to meet someone new and I have my eyes wide-open.
Ahhh I remember your blog from a while back! I always thought it was dope. Lush read and glad to be back on wordpress to see this again.
Just curious about something and would like to get your thoughts Matt. Is it possible for someone to love another person, but the second person doesn’t feel loved because the way the first person is demonstrating love doesn’t meet the second person’s needs? The obvious example would be a husband who struggles to connect at an emotional level, and yet the wife needs emotional connection more than any other type of connection. The husband likely believes that he loves his wife, but he might be trying to show love in other ways (service, gifts, etc.). However, since he is not giving love in the main way his wife needs to receive love, she soon feels that he doesn’t love her. Would you say that the husband in this case didn’t know what love was, or is he unloving because he doesn’t show love in the way his wife needs? Just curious on your thoughts on this.
I honestly don’t have a good answer to this. Part of me feels that the husband in this situation can genuinely love his wife. However, you could argue that he didn’t try to understand his wife’s needs, so he didn’t love her. Both arguments make sense.
I think there are a few distinct conversations to be had. Otherwise, we’ll get bogged down in what words mean.
Can a husband love his wife GENUINELY, TRULY, yet she experiences much of her marriage as feeling unloved?
Yes. Most common divorce story there is.
Is it important for husbands and wives (or whoever) to learn HOW and WHAT causes their spouse or romantic partner to feel loved as they intend them to feel?
Yes. I don’t think marriages last otherwise.
Is a spouse automatically an asshole who doesn’t love his or her partner if he/she FAILS to offer love in the preferred method of the other person?
I don’t think so. I think most people don’t know.
We’re stuck inside our own heads. It’s pretty normal, I think, to default to offering acts of love in the same way we want to receive them.
And it’s pretty normal, I think, to resist the idea that OUR way is somehow “wrong” or “not good enough.”
The fundamental problem there is, despite everyone’s best intentions, the marriage still falls apart anyway.
And the missing piece near as I can tell is getting two young people on board with the way it REALLY is. Two people’s experiences are rarely identical.
And if we want a happy, healthy, sustainable marriage, a critical role we have to play is determining what matters to our partner (even when it often seems so silly or inconsequential to us) and then honor that, respect that, in word and action.
I think it sounds, on the surface, totally ridiculous that THAT is the fundamental problem in modern romantic relationships, but I believe absolutely that this condition is the root and foundation of most failed relationships, the largest contributor to divorce.
Thanks Matt; that makes a lot of sense. I wish I had read a lot more about the differences between men and women prior to marriage. The books “For Men Only” and “For Women Only” by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn were really eye-opening for me. I wish every newly married couple or couples about to get married would go through those books together or something similar. Would likely reduce the amount of heartache that many marriages go through.
I really don’t think your last statement is ridiculous at all. While ignorance is not a good excuse for hurting your spouse, the truth is I think most couples go into marriage with very little understanding of the differences between the way they process information versus the way their spouse does. This naturally results in hurt feelings. I believe most relationships come to an end when one spouse feels unloved or disrespected and the offending spouse fails to try to understand the hurt spouse. Instead, I think the offending spouse often makes the offended spouse feel that they are being ridiculous getting upset over something that is perceived as small. I believe pride and the refusal to try and understand the offended spouse is usually the final blow to the relationship.
You touched on the issues of one book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, which is a must read for everyone. Also, read “His Needs, Her Needs” by Willard Harley.
Thanks Jay. I am somewhat familiar with Gary Chapman’s five love languages although I have never actually read the book. I haven’t heard of Harley’s book. Thanks for the tip. Will look them up.
I found it ridiculously trite but it can be summed up (in alphabetical order):
acts of service
If I may jump in and share some of my experience.
“I believe pride and the refusal to try and understand the offended spouse is usually the final blow to the relationship.
I would say that the answer is, as always, “It depends”… 🙂
I believe you are right, in many cases. but I also side with Matt here that in many cases we are stuck in our own heads.
But a lot of people are also let fumbling in the dark with no meaningful or useful guidance.
I once stepped out of a long-term relationship because I couldn’t find a fundamental connection, neither on the physical or emotional level.
Every time I tried to sit down and have a conversation around “What do you want/need to feel loved, what can I do, what can WE do to strengthen our relationship?” I usually got some variation of
– I don’t know.
(when in a good mood) – Whatever you usually do is just fine.
(and when in a slightly worse modd) – If you really loved me you should know that by know.
Oh well (sigh), can’t win’em all.
I’ve heard respect defined as “what matters to me, matters to you”. I like the simplicity and flexibility of that definition and think that’s what you’re saying here. Respect is an important part of any healthy relationship. But even with respect, we are going to have moments of strife in relationships, particularly the marital relationship.
I read your blog years ago and have recently returned to it. I have also come upon another website that seems to fit so nicely with what you say. I’m curious what you think of it. Here’s an excerpt that speaks to the idea of a happy, healthy marriage:
“A healthy marriage swings through moments of closeness into moments of distance and back again; with every cycle strengthening the Bond. When we construct artificial barriers to that natural movement (the Marriage-Box) we take the life out of our marriage. The Cure is first, the deconstruction of those barriers, and second, restoring the natural swing of a healthy spousal dynamic. This happens when we grow into beliefs about marriage that allow the honest fluctuation of distance, without compromise to our commitment. When we allow it, the Marriage-Bungee ensures the flexibility, the elasticity of our Bond, the natural Social Communication that ensures we weather all the storms, together.”
What are your thoughts on that, Matt?
I like it and agree with it, on paper.
But again, there’s always the problem of two people not interpreting the same words, or ideas, or actions exactly the same.
My strongest belief about marriage is that there is no obvious, gospel-truth ONE right way to do it.
If such a model existed, it would have such an exceedingly high success and satisfactory rate that MOST people would cite it and try to live by it.
It doesn’t exist because humans are diverse in their experiences and cultural norms and personal beliefs.
So, given that reality, my #1 goal for any long-term relationship would be Philsophical Alignment between the two people.
In other words, I almost don’t care what people believe so much as that I think two married people should believe the same things.
There are several ways to succeed at marriage, but I don’t think there are many examples of that happening when each spouse wants different things.
I say that because this idea of “honest fluctuation of distance” might mean to one person that they get a little more space and alone time via their husband or wife taking on more childcare responsibilities in the evenings twice per week.
And to another person, an “honest fluctuation of distance” might mean that they have sex with other people.
I make no judgments about what people choose to do in their marriages. But I’m not inclined to alter my belief that married people MUST be on the same page, walking hand in hand, and more or less at the same pace for everything to function well.
So, I’m in no way challenging what you shared here, Laney. I’m wading in semantics as I often do.
But my answer to your question truly depends on context and precise interpretation of those words and ideas, which aren’t immediately clear to me based on that excerpt.
I’m probably overcomplicating it. I do that sometimes. 🙂
Please let me know if I’m super-off-base, based on your understanding of the author’s intent.
A gem as always, Matt. Hope I always have your posts to read as long as I live – or at least for as long as I choose to be in relationships!
Also, just wanna stick in that I must be totally sick in the head (well, more than I always thought) because the clingy, hyper co-dependent kinda guy is exactly the type that I’m always searching for LOL.
I uh… better call my therapist and inform her of this revelation XD
I can probably hook you up with this guy in the article with a couple of phone calls. 😉
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