Friends, put on your flak jackets. It's time to drop some honesty on yet another uncomfortable topic: love.
We use the word "love" to mean a lot of things. Throughout this post I'll be referring to the romantic kind of love, the kind that usually involves sexual attraction, AKA "falling in love".
Love: The Shocking Truth
The truth about love is: it happens. A lot. It happens at appropriate times (like, when you're in a long-term relationship with someone great), and also inappropriate ones (like, when you meet somebody at a party and have a weirdly awesome conversation and then make out in a bathroom). Love is just not all that concerned with appropriateness.
We have a mythology surrounding romantic love that says it's a special, rare feeling, reserved for just a few people in your whole life. It says that love takes time to develop, and that the feelings you experience at the outset of a relationship are not love, but something else ("infatuation", "a crush", or my favorite, "twitterpation" (see Bambi)). It also says that love is generally constant and reliable, and that falling in love is A MAJOR LIFE EVENT, about which SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!
In summation, the plot of every romantic comedy: if you fall in love with somebody, you better go out and get 'em - even if they're already married and they don't really like you and you're their stepsister and you're leaving for a six-year residency in Mongolia in the morning - because you'll probably love them forever and you might not ever love anyone else.
We are so enamored with this idea that we tend to round some feelings up to love (when you first met the person you later married), and others down to not-love (your weekend fling with a Spanish dancer). The thing is, those experiences feel remarkably similar from the inside.
That Old Feeling
Love is a feeling. It's hot and fluttery and tingly. I get it in my guts and chest and face. The feeling is accompanied by a series of enthusiastic thoughts, such as "This person is the greatest person ever", "I wonder how I can make this person feel good", and/or "I want to climb onto this person and put my face close to their face and smoosh my body onto their body."
I have felt this way, to varying degrees, towards probably a hundred different people. Actually, that's a lie; it is way more. When I was a teenager, I felt it towards approximately three people per day. Lately, the torrent has slowed to once every month or three (I am a bit of a love-fiend, I know. I don't think such frequency is average.) And I'm married!
And speaking of being married, yes, I do experience this feeling towards my husband. It feels different now than it felt when we first met: softer, warmer, with more comfort and less urgency. But the love I have for my husband is surrounded by a bunch of other feelings and thoughts that are much rarer than love, in my experience. These include: a deep mutual understanding of and appreciation for each other's personalities, values, and quirks (e.g.: he finds my love-fiendishness endearing); years of shared experience; a lot of conversations about the kind of future we're aiming for; and plenty of similar tastes and preferences (e.g. New Orleans, humor, dogs, dark chocolate, Ray Charles, The Daily Show, preferred frequency of house cleaning/travel/sex).
But underneath all that is the same feeling: love.
Instead of trying to deny it, or ignore it, or call it something different in each different situation, I want to call it like I feel it: I'm in love. I'm in love with my husband, several of my friends, most of the musicians who move me (including some who are dead, such as Chet Baker, who would sympathize), and a handful of people I hardly know but have had good conversations/dances/make out sessions with. I fall in love all the time.
And really, it's no big deal. It's actually kind of fun, once you get used to it.
I love you. NBD.
The kids today are having a casual sex revolution. "Hookup culture" is akin to "free love", but with more condoms and fewer hallucinogens. And I'm for it! In case you haven't heard, I like casual sex. It's my observation that as casual sex becomes more acceptable behavior (for men and women), it lessens the shame and anxiety associated with the sex that people are having anyway (and have been having since the dawn of time, and are going to keep having). I'm thrilled that young people are beginning to feel they have the option of exploring sex, safely and consensually, outside of the boundaries of long-term commitment.
But why not have the option of exploring love, too, with or without a side of commitment? If we can agree that our bodies are not inherently dangerous, can't we do the same for our hearts?
I suggest we take a page from the casual sex book here. Let's lift some of the weighty grandiosity off the shoulders of love, and allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.
Imagine if you could say to a casual partner, "I love you. It's no big deal. It doesn't mean you're The One, or even one of the ones. It doesn't mean you have to love me back. It doesn't mean we have to date, or marry, or even cuddle. It doesn't mean we have to part ways dramatically in a flurry of tears and broken dishes. It doesn't mean I'll love you until I die, or that I'll still love you next year, or tomorrow."
Then later, perhaps over brunch, you could tackle the question of whether there's anything to do about it. All of the aforementioned - dating, marriage, cuddling, etc - are options, and there are an infinite number of other options (Skee ball, sailing around the world, double suicide). These are all things you can now choose or not choose, as two conscious adult human beings. The important distinction is that none of them is implied just by saying the word "love".
There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of "love" from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of "commitment". For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I've tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.
The big advantage for the lover is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we'll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We'll throw a lot of expectations at them ("Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!"), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We'll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.
The big advantage for the beloved is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it's super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that's not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it's the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say "thanks!", and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can't eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.
If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn't collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn't feel so personal. If it's not mutual, so what? If it doesn't turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef's Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef's Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.
And here's my favorite part: if love is casual - not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable - we all get to feel more love, and share more love.
Sounds lovely, right?