After writing an entry on the idea of tough love, I found myself also thinking of its close cousin: the idea of true love. Having counseled many couples, researching relational dynamics, scratching my way through novels, and watching more than a handful of mild relationships on television, I find the idea of true love to be a very disturbing idea that is presented all too simplistically. Part of the disturbing nature of the idea of true love comes from the magnitude of the idea itself and its own frightful measure.
True love is oftentimes represented in epic literary and cinematic relationships: the mythic Orpheus & Eurydice, the classic Romeo & Juliet, and even the contemporary Bella & Edward. Each of these examples may be held as a paragon of true love, for each represents that idealized and iconic love story between two people, against all odds, finding true love. To stay with the above image for a moment before getting into its measure, it is careful to note that these love stories are romantic pairings within the same economic class, racial background, and heterosexual makeup. I bring up this point, not to extol these similarities as the fundamental character of true love pairings, but to note that there is a similar coloring, richness, and balance in these images that many people also herald as one measure of right and true love.
There are also some glaring relational and psychological problems in each of these pairings. The problems themselves underscore the meaning of true love: how far we are willing to travel in our own personal hell to have love; how worthless life is without love; how much abuse we are willing to endure to keep true love. In many ways, the problematic dynamics of the three above relationships, and that they represent true love, confers the idea that some form of abuse, whether from another person or from one’s self, is a necessary element in true love. This is what disturbs me. What frightens me is how this idea is accepted.
The hurtful, harmful, and abusive elements of true love are accepted, celebrated even, under the rationale that love must be tested for it to be true.
I believe that many people want true love, and for them, love must be proved. The greatest proof, the ultimate test of true love, then, is giving or sacrificing one’s life for another person. I will not get into the theological nor philosophical dimensions of this understanding of love, but there are those dimensions when we talk about love, sacrifice, and having an undisputed test of being loved. On the psychological level, death becomes the only definitive measurement of true love, because that love supposedly will go on until death parts you from your beloved, and because your life is supposedly meaningless without this true love. There is no other measure, then, no other test, which truly proves the existence of love. Dying for your loved one appears to be the truest, ultimate, irrevocable, and final act of true love.
There’s more to true love than its definition. Wanting true love also means branding all other loves as less meaningful, as less honest, or as wrong when they fail the test. For true love to exist above all others, then all other relationships must be lacking: Orpheus would not go to hell for anyone, Romeo would not have killed himself over the thought of losing someone else, and Bella wouldn’t give up her life to have any boyfriend. This exclusive aspect of true love, perhaps, has the widest psychological impact of all. Truly loving more than one person isn’t true love, because with true love one person is everything, and only one person is worth your life. If one person completely satisfies, completely offers security, completely gives purpose and meaning to life, and fulfills every emotional need and want, then nothing else can measure up. Nothing else will ever measure up.
A summer fling that brought a glimmer of abandon but ended come autumn, therefore, isn’t true love. A marriage that ended earnestly or acrimoniously, therefore, isn’t true love. A few dates that were promising and passionate albeit brief, therefore, isn’t true love. A trusted and stalwart life-long friend, for whom romance never blossomed, therefore, isn’t true love. A lover that hasn’t proposed marriage and devoted her or his life to their beloved, therefore isn’t true love. A person that will not die for another, therefore, doesn’t truly love them. These examples are therefore “false” images of love because they do not measure up as true love. They were tested against the standard of true love, and failed.
True love, as it stands, is an exclusive idea, which discredits other definitions of love and other relationships that are not tested. Is it a misunderstanding of love, then, that stokes this idea of true love? I do not think so. I think a cognitive dimension is at work in this desire to test love and measure it. Many people like to be testers, and the ideal of true love is hardened by every failed relationship, every unspectacular kiss, and every relationship that was somewhat less than ideal. Those persons that are searching for the right measure of love, which by extension is searching for true love, keep these score cards. However, I think there is more than cognitive schema at work here, for I think that the idea of true love also arose from a deep desire to reject all failed relationships. Rejecting those failed relationships, and somehow holding onto this idea that it wasn’t really love, that true love still exists out there, untouched by a failed relationship, is a soothing idea for us on those lonely cold nights.
If we allow ourselves permission to abandon this comforting idea of true love, then we allow ourselves the ability to accept and embrace a relationship, whether it ends or not, without a measure or test. We can give ourselves permission to feel what love is there for us, rather than testing it.
I have written this brief note to describe, as much as I can, some of the psychological implications of holding onto the idea of true love, and the lengths that we can go to find a definitive, and somehow right and true measurement of love. We do not have to play this game. We do not have to test or measure love. At heart, I believe we achingly want to know that we are loved, and we have devised a loaded test to prove it.
(Originally written on 2012)