My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. Since then, I have been in love with the idea of being in love. During those first rough years following the split, I played house, acting out my fantasy of a happy family headed by a mom and dad. They slept in the same bed, laughed a lot, and never fought. I dropped the game as I got older, but every movie plot and book story line from then on perpetuated the fantasy.
Valentine’s Day encourages us to romanticize romance—to shoehorn our real relationships into the message of a pre-printed card, the vision of a bouquet of roses, the expectation of a diamond ring. But beneath the commercialization, the yearly ritual also affords us an opportunity to reflect on what love really means. After spending years searching for a perfect love, I’ve learned that to me love means embracing difference, discomfort, and struggle as much as it does the rosy version.
Expand your definition. My favorite definition of love comes from environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. “Love is not a fluffy thing,” Hill says. “It’s got edges and teeth. Love refuses to play small or sell out.”
This comes from a woman who lived for two years at the top of an ancient redwood tree to protest logging. She’s said that in order to keep herself sane up there, she prayed for all the people she loved. After a while, she ran out of loved ones. So she prayed for the people she didn’t love, the people who threatened her life. She found that loving these people was not only possible, but that this deep forgiveness compels her to continue her work.
What Hill is talking about is that big, universal love—not exactly something you can buy a card about. But I think it’s helpful to translate this to our personal relationships. Romantic love can wax and wane, but holding this big love reminds me of what is most important in life.
Ground love in reality. Even before I started dating, I already knew the type of guy I wanted to be with: tall, passionate, deeply sensitive. When I started looking for him, I was good at the flirtation and the frantic, romantic beginnings, but I buckled under the pressure of making things stay that way. The first sign of flaw in my partner made me desperate for escape.
This summer, while I was photographing a Rhode Island wedding, something big clicked. The couple had been together for 15 years, since meeting at their Jewish summer camp while they were both in braces. The bride gave a speech about how much she and her husband loved each other for their strengths. She went on to say that as wonderful as this was, the most meaningful part of their relationship was that they could also love each other for their weaknesses.
Instead of making love an abstract concept or something you have to search out and find, start to practice it today as best you can. Enjoy what you have. If you don’t have a partner, let your love for you family, your best friend, or yourself be big and imperfect.
Take your time. When I shipped off to Peru to join the Peace Corps, I fell in love with a sweet-eyed, guitar-playing local man. The connection was immediate: we met, chatted, and fell in love within the course of a weekend. I had been restlessly single for six years prior, and had built up the fantasy of what being in love should feel like: intense, perfect, visceral. It was a long-distance relationship, so our every meeting took on a dreamy tone. We walked on the beach, laid in bed for hours listening to music, and talked about traveling, spirituality, and having meaning in life. We looked calm and beautiful in every photograph.
But after a while, we crashed. He got a new job and couldn’t visit or call as much. I started getting jealous and needy for his attention. The more I wanted him, the more he pulled away. We spent the next year rotating through a painful series of breakups and reunions.
When I went on my first date with my current boyfriend, Adam, we ate cookies and took a humid walk in the park. We chatted the whole time, but it didn’t feel like much more than a nice conversation. I had finally started feeling good about my single life, and every date contender had to face off against my ability to stream 30 Rock on Netflix.
He sent me a sweet text message later in the evening to tell me he had fun. I decided to give him another chance. On our next date, over a big bowl of noodles, I felt a quiet stirring in my heart that maybe this was something. It was such a small voice that whispered “this one!” that I am surprised I even heard it.
Get uncomfortable. I’m coming up on two years with Adam. He is stable, supportive and fun to be with (he is also tall, passionate, and deeply sensitive in the goofiest way imaginable). But our relationship is so far from what I had imagined love to be. We have lots of sweet times, but we also have the moments where I feel bloated after eating too much dessert or he is withdrawn and worried about money, or we sit across from each other at dinner with nothing obvious to say. These feel hard to deal with and always make me afraid that something is terribly wrong. But they pass.
A few years ago, two wise, married yogis gave me a piece of advice. They told me that while it’s essential to have honest intimacy in a relationship, it’s just as essential that your partner earns the right to see your struggle. Before Adam, I thought it was good luck or good breeding or even good karma that led to being in a satisfying relationship. It didn’t occur to me that loving another person is essentially an exercise in being ok with being uncomfortable with someone you care about, and not holding a grudge about it.