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A friend, who has been married for over forty years, was asking how I felt since my break up and presented me with a big question - what’s the difference between being “in love" and “loving”?
I took a few moments to consider this. I thought that perhaps being in love has a kind of divine quality, a constancy, a devotion and commitment on a level not found through any other type of relationship. And loving is something that happens when you are with people you care about. Being in love is sacred and what makes romantic relationships last, and loving is how you feel towards your fellow humans, animals, nature.
He threw a different light on it. He suggested that being in love is the magical thrilling thing there at the start, appearing in moments along the way, but loving is what you do. Loving is the work, the daily task, the thing you commit to; loving is what keeps you going. There will be flashes of being in love, but the longevity of a relationship comes through a commitment to loving.
A few days later I was reflecting on my recent relationship ending. My ex had said how much he loved being loved by me. And I know he loved parts of me very much. But perhaps he wasn’t able to love the more complicated parts of me. And perhaps it was because he hadn’t learned to love the more complicated parts of himself.
Now we are not together I feel calmer and more empowered. It was as if my energy used to pass through the filter of him, rather than existing in a constant flow around myself. His needs and perceptions of me confused my needs and my perceptions of myself. I was eager to please, eager to ‘fit’, eager to find a way to coexist with him yet somehow we both lost track of how to be settled in our own skin.
Did his feelings change for me or did his feelings change for himself? Perhaps he came to realise that in order to build a nourishing, sustaining and friendly relationship with himself he needed to be free from the complications I presented him with. Perhaps he was seeking to love the more complicated parts of himself and it was an act of self love to set us both free.
I fought tooth and nail for us to accompany each other on our journeys, wanting to learn and grow alongside him, wanting to evolve through my relationship with him. But perhaps he saw that his journey could be walked faster and with more ease without me tripping him up and distracting him from paths he knew he had to walk alone.
And perhaps our parting is an essential part of my journey. Perhaps learning to watch someone walk away from me and not stop walking but instead explore a new direction, without accompaniment, is exactly what I need.
Scientific studies show that people who sleep with a partner live longer and hugging someone for more than 20 seconds releases oxytocin in the brain which reduces anxiety and depression. This could make me worried and sad to not have a partner right now, but instead I have chosen to find it reassuring.
There’s a part of me that feels like I was disempowered in my last relationship; that I clung to hope, blindly focusing on the positives, terrified of what it would mean to let go. Even though I recognised the issues we had, I am not sure I could have ended it. I am able to see now that it was the right thing and I am healing and moving forward, but it made me question myself. If I was not strong enough to end it, does that mean I’m weak? Do I cling to loving another because I am not confident and relaxed enough to walk away if it’s not right? Do I prioritise someone else’s needs and give away my love because I find it easier to love another rather than to give that love to myself? Am I a failure because I couldn’t find the courage to walk away? Or was I brave because I had the curiosity to keep learning and growing with a partner?
And then science comes along and helps me wash these murky questions clean. As humans we have simple urges; we seek comfort and shelter and connection. I stayed because when we cuddled and held each other and made love, it felt good. It released oxytocin and I liked that. I wanted more of that good feeling chemical and I was deeply and passionately in love with him for more reasons than I could ever write down. I saw him, I loved him, I adored him, I believed in him and I believed in us. So, yes, I did not want it to end.
We are not “cooked", we are not finished products, we are learning all the time. I have learned that I prefer to stay and work at a relationship if it feels right to me and I have also learned that if a relationship ends I can see the benefits of it ending and gather these discoveries up like little berries, place them in my basket and be nourished by them.
Berating myself for not ending it isn’t kind or helpful. We are each such complicated, hopeful and frightened things and we are learning all the time. Let’s not hold ourselves accountable to the highest possible standards. You do not chastise a child for not being able to read before they have learned to read.
And I am learning to read this language of love. I am learning to read and understand my own needs. I am learning to hear and interpret the quiet gentle hopes of my precious, tender heart. So I forgive myself for not leaving and I celebrate myself because, although there is sadness and loss and missing him profoundly, I am also feeling hopeful about what the future will bring. And I am learning that it takes two people to commit to loving. And that it is the loving, not the being in love, that offers enduring comfort, shelter and connection.
And meanwhile, thank you Science, I can now ask my friends to hug me for over twenty seconds and get that lovely oxytocin fix. Get your arms ready guys, I’m coming in for a cuddle!