If you listen to popular music, or any music really, you’ll start to notice that there are a lot of songs about love (yes, obvious I know). But also, those songs about love are often about needy, codependent, and/or unhealthy love. If you really listen to the lyrics of some very popular songs, or even better sing along, you’ll start to notice how icky it feels (especially if you imagine saying them to someone). A lyric from a recent song most Swifies probably know goes like this- “don’t blame me, love made me crazy, if it doesn’t you ain’t doing it right.” And that is a tame one, by far. Of course it doesn’t stop with music. It’s everywhere- from movies, to television, to social media , and the message is clear- in order for something to be ‘meant to be’ it must be desperate.
From Romeo and Juliet to modern popular artists, this romanticization of “can’t live without you” is perpetual and has become the romantic ideal. If you aren’t crazy, head over heels, all-out passionate about someone, it’s not true love. And if you can live without them and function just fine, well then it certainly isn’t meant to be.
Except… that kind of dramatic, need to have you feeling is a lot more like lust than love. And it’s a lot more like teenage romance than a 30 year marriage. Now, I’m not saying that lust is a bad thing and sometimes lust does grow into love. Certainly after thirty years, there can still be passion and a spark. But to believe that something isn’t “real love” if that I’d die for you feeling isn’t there, is just wrong. Just plain wrong.
When I was in high school, my mom cut out and gave me a newspaper article outlining the difference between lust and love. I wish I still had it. It was marvelous. My fourteen year old brain was convinced that this feeling, this I need you now and omg I’m going to die if I don’t get you, was love. I was certain of it. My parents just didn’t understand! Then I got older and maybe a little wiser but that thought persisted- It wasn’t as dramatic or intense, but the thought that love always needed to be exciting, passionate, and maybe a little dramatic to be called love, was still there. After being fed those messages from all around, it’s no wonder that it was so difficult to let them go. The idea of having a relationship without it felt… honestly, boring.
And then, I fell in love with one of my friends. Truly and deeply. Except it wasn’t love at first sight because we’d known each other for years. And it certainly wasn’t dramatic. It was calm, it was slow, and it was unlike any start of a relationship I’d ever had. There weren’t a whole lot of surprises because we knew each other. We didn’t have those dates where we talked about histories because we already knew each others’ pasts. Hell, I knew of all his exes and even hung out with one. New territory between us was rare but it was all new territory for me. I had never been there before.
About nine months in, I panicked. I started to question everything. Why is this all so easy? Why are most of our arguments so calm and collected? Why am I able to feel so independent? And thus came the conclusion- it must not really be love. I’m not proud to admit any of this because knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back and shake myself.
Sadly, this isn’t something that most women talk about. When I went desperately looking for answers, the posts and articles I found were written by and for men. The comments made to women went like this: It doesn’t sound like you really love him or you just don’t feel that way about him, so you have to end it. I bought into it. And yet… something kept telling me: You’re trying to get out because you’re scared. And maybe, just maybe, all those other relationships didn’t work out because of what you think this one should be like.
So I fought it. We talked. I cried. Around and around again. He stood by me, loving me, telling me he knew even if I had lost some faith. But here’s one thing he didn’t do that every man in my past has done when something similar happened: he didn’t push. He didn’t make it about him. And he told me, politely and lovingly, that if I needed to leave, he would be crushed but he would be ok. He didn’t melt into my breakdown and his life didn’t depend on me. And despite what I thought I would feel (uncared for and alone), it actually felt really, really good. I finally felt what I needed to feel in a relationship, not just what I thought I should feel. Connected and independent. Desired and loved but free.
For the first time in my life, I think I finally felt what committed, mature love felt like. Of course, it can take all different kinds of shapes, but here is what it has taught me about love and lust:
Lust says: I need you and if I don’t have you I will fall apart. Lust wants gratification. I can’t say this enough: lust is about self gratification. Lust is about you. Lust feels exciting, needy, and sometimes desperate.
Love says: if you need to go, I will understand. It doesn’t mean that I won’t hurt, it doesn’t mean that I won’t fight, but loving you is about wanting what is best for you, no matter what that might be. Love is not about self-gratification. Love feels stable, secure, peaceful. Love says: I care for you more than I need you.
It turns out peaceful isn’t boring, secure isn’t smothering, and being with someone doesn’t mean giving up parts of yourself in order to keep it. That’s the anthem I’d like to sing from now on. But I doubt I’ll sell any hit songs.
When I went out there looking for answers, hardly any women were writing about it. I felt alone, confused, and without any other women feeling the same way, inherently different and broken. So I’m here to tell you, dear women who miraculously stumble upon this in your late night search for answers, that you are not alone, you are not weird, and you are certainly not broken. Commitment is a huge deal, even if society is telling you that you should only be elated about it. And please don’t throw away a great relationship because all you hear is that it has to be achingly desperate to be love. For me, I know myself well enough to know that I will never “just know” (something that has been beaten into my head) when something is right. I analyze and question everything. I don’t think I’ve ever “just known” anything. Being completely calm and knowing without question is just not my style.
Can I just say it again? If you’re human, you’re completely permitted and allowed to fear commitment. It’s a really big deal. So if it’s something you want but you’re terrified of it at the same time, know that it will take some work but that doesn’t mean that it’s not right or worth it. And I beg of you, please stop listening to popular culture for advice on what love looks like.