Get Real! How Do I Know If I Am in Love?


This column is published in partnership with Scarleteen.org.
pixie9000 asks:

Can
you explain to me what love is please? How does one feel? Can you
describe the effects for me? or, is it the kind of thing you just have
to know? Does it go away? Or is it something permanent? I think that I
am falling in love with my boyfriend.

He is a senior, and I am a junior. Next year he is going off to
college, most likely a really prestigious one far away. We have been
going out for only about 4 months, but we have known each other for a
few years, and in the last 4 months we have spent so much time together
(pretty much every minute) it feels like it has been much longer.

We recently had sex for the first time (first time for me, not for
him), and several times since the first time. I have to say, I’m not
crazy about it yet, but what I am crazy about is the connection it
makes me feel between the two of us. He is extremely considerate of how
I feel during sex, and he wants me to figure out what I like. He is so
caring and sensitive to how I feel, and we have talked about sex and
our relationship a lot, and how sex will affect our relationship and
emotions. I like having sex, and I love the time we spend together. We
have talked about love, and how we don’t really understand what it is,
but agree that we definitely have a deep connection. But I’m afraid
that my feelings for him are going to become too intense, and I am
going to fall in love with him, and then he is going to go off to
college and my heart will break (I know, that sounds cliche).

We have talked about love, and I think we both said we feel like
were falling slowly, even if we don’t completely understand it, like,
what it really means. He says "lets fall, but not fall too hard," and I
agree, I don’t know if I can handle the raw emotion of love. After we
have sex, I feel elated, but later, when he leaves, I feel depressed
because I know that he is going to leave the city after high school,
and then our relationship will be over and I wont feel this connection
any more. Am I just overthinking this whole thing?

Heather Corinna replies:
I
wish that I could give you one simple, short and objective answer for
what love is, but unfortunately, I can’t. That’s a question people have
been asking for probably as long as there have been people, and as of
yet, while there have been millions of answers, I don’t think anyone
has arrived at one that we all can agree on or that we all feel sums up
every experience of love or being in love.

 

Here are a few basic things I have to say when it comes to defining love, and I’m talking about the capital-L kind, from a piece here on the subject: "bell hooks said, "Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust."

It may be obvious (which may be why she didn’t say it) but to her list
I’d add connectivity: I’d say love is about connecting and being
connected to ourselves, to who we love, to everything. There’s an
energy to being deeply connected that once you feel, you’ll recognize
ever after.

"Thich Nhat Hanh said "Love is the capacity to take care, to
protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of
energy toward yourself – if you are not capable of taking care of
yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself – it is very
difficult to take care of another person…to love oneself is the
foundation of the love of other people. Love is truly a practice."

Love is active: it isn’t this disembodied thing that’s out there
floating around we either get or we don’t. It’s something we and others
feel because we actively and intentionally create and enact it. It’s
something we nurture, grow, practice and refine. It’s something we make
and do, not something we are given or take. If we lose it, it’s not
like losing our keys: rather, it’s about one or more people no longer
choosing to love; no longer actively loving.

What are the effects of love? That’s highly individual and
situational, but on the whole love tends to make us feel more deeply
connected to ourselves and to those whom we love, even more connected
to people as a whole. Love leaves us feeling good about ourselves, that
other person and life in general. It also can bring up fears, because
love tends to challenge us to grow, and growth is change. Sometimes
love can leave us feeling afraid, or, perhaps more accurately, worries
about a lack or loss of love, an actual loss of someone we
love, or a change in a love relationship can leave us feeling afraid,
like the feelings you’re expressing about "falling too hard," or when
it comes to your boyfriend going off to college. For the record, I
don’t think your fears sound cliché, I think they sound valid, real and
are common feelings people have in relationships.

If you’re also asking about what in means to be in love,
generally that’s a term people use to express they have romantic
feelings, sexual feelings, passionate feelings and/or the start of
feelings of love with someone, all or any of which can tend to feel
heady and dizzying, especially when those feelings are new. "Falling"
in love makes it sound like love or relationships are passive, and
that’s a misnomer. They’re not: whatever kind of love we are taking
part in and feeling is active, not passive. It’s far more a jump than a
fall.

I think it’s important to recognize that while they can be
interrelated, love and attachment aren’t the same. I think some of your
worries are more about attachment than love. You express a concern you
will "fall too hard" in love, but that sounds more to me like a concern
you will become too attached to those feelings, this other person or
this relationship. You worry his going to college will mean love is
lost, but a distance doesn’t mean love stops or gets lost. It can,
however, result in the model of a relationship changing, in seeing a
given person less often, or in people feeling or being less attached to
one another.

I hear you talking about attachment, rather than love, when you
express how you feel when you’re together versus when you’re apart.
When we feel love for someone, us feeling it isn’t dependent on whether
they are present or not. When we feel attached to someone, or to a
relationship, on the other hand, it’s normal to feel more secure in
that when we are actually together, or when we have some promise we
will be, then when we are separated, or when being together, or being
in a certain relationship, is tenuous.

I really like what this therapist said
about love and attachment:"Attachment is a state of binding oneself
with personal ties and bringing oneself into association with another.
I believe it occurs in all relationships, when there is discomfort and
fear of simply being in the moment- a fear of the unknown and of losing
the love we feel. This fear propels us to attach to our partner. As we
attach emotionally, we rely on our partner (what they say or do) to
make us happy. Even though we think we are becoming closer, we are
losing who we are in the context of our partner. I sometimes think of
attachment as proximity. If relationship were a camera, with love we’d be in focus; when attached we are so close that we become blurry.
Attachment manifests as grasping, controlling and being jealous. When
we feel attached, we usually act and speak negatively to our partner.
Attachment fuels emotional dependency on our partner, making us
enmeshed and codependent.

"To love someone is to set them free, to wish them well, expecting
nothing in return. Love is not self-absorbed, but allows us to extend
to others without feeling drained. When we love someone and something
happens to him or her, we are very sad but we know that in the end, we
will be okay. We need to experience this confidence so we do not expect
on our partner to save us and make or keep us happy."

Do you get the difference? There’s nothing about love itself and
loving that’s bad or that can deeply hurt us. No one would ever really
feel like they could have too much love in their lives, or love too
deeply. Love isn’t what would cause us pain if someone we love is far
from us: it’s attachment or the circumstances around a love
relationship that causes that pain or longing. Love isn’t what would
cause us pain if we loved someone who didn’t love us back: it’s a lack
of love that would create that heartache. Love isn’t what would hurt us
if we lived with someone who we loved who abused us or treated us
poorly: it’d be that person (who most certainly would not love us if
they were doing those things) hurting us, as well as our sticking
around someone who wasn’t safe for us and didn’t treat us with love.

People most certainly could be worried they have too much
attachment, are too deeply attached or have become so attached it’s
codependent; worried that they become attached to someone who doesn’t
share that attachment, or even worry that they are too attached to
needing or wanting love or love relationships. But none of that is
actually about loving itself: that’s about attachment.

If you don’t really grok the difference between love and attachment,
that’s okay. Understanding that well is something that can take a long
time for many of us. It’s something we learn over time and with life
experience. One of the reasons it can take a while is because many of
our initial experiences of love are within our families, where, as
small children, we necessarily have a dependent relationship, so love
and dependence and love and attachment are very much inseparable. You
certainly couldn’t suggest that a child who loves their mother, father
or guardian could experience the kind of love where they could be fully
comfortable loving a parent and letting them go in any way: that’s just
not possible for children who need the adults they love to be present
to take care of them. As we grow, become more independent and begin to
have elective relationships outside those of the family, that’s when we
start to learn about loving with less attachment, because relationships
we choose with any measure of autonomy, which aren’t about getting our
most basic needs for survival met, are the ones where we can love
without attachment automatically being part of the picture.

The way our cultures tend to frame or idealize romantic love also
can make it seem like not only are attachment and love the same, but
like attachment is what strengthens love, though relationship experts
and theorists usually claim (and I’m in agreement with them) the
opposite. In healthy love relationships, everyone needs room to be
their own person, to have their own lives and to feel free in love, not
trapped in it. That isn’t to say people who love each other who make
commitments to one another are killing love, I don’t think that at all.
But commitments people make need to leave room for each person to still
be their own person, including sometimes being apart, and people need
to recognize that a commitment or attachment all by itself doesn’t keep
people loving one another. To boot, love can exist without a given
relationship being long-term or permanent, without a relationship
always being the same model or kind (like it always being something
sexual or romantic) and without people who love each other even being
in close proximity at all.

A lot of people also don’t know that the way western culture
idealizes romantic love (being "in love") in such a way that suggests
romantic love — not the same as love as a whole — is eternal, is what
people must strive to try and sustain lifelong in a committed
relationship, or IS love, have only framed it like that for less than a
thousand years. Being IN love, romantic love, was historically not a
factor at all in most long-term relationships, sexually exclusive
(monogamous) relationships or marriages. Our western idea of romantic
love, or being "in love," once called "courtly love,"
only seems to have originated around 1000AD. Then, it was usually about
either totally unrequited romantic or erotic/sexual feelings and about
extramarital or nonmarital love affairs: not about marriages, moving in
together or making a life or family with someone. Our conflating
romantic love with marriage or long-term relationships is very new in
the grand scheme of things — 500 or so years at the max — and isn’t
universal even now.

So is it love? Are you in love? Do you and this person love each
other? That’s really something you’re going to have to figure out over
time on your own, considering the kinds of things I said up there and
others and honoring your feelings and your own truths and ideas. But it
most certainly sounds to me like you’re in a super relationship. You
two obviously really like being together right now, you seem to
communicate a lot, you both feel very connected to each other and you
feel cared for and treated with respect. By all means, you two may not
feel identically about one another: given that you’re not the same
person, that’d hardly be surprising. We can certainly feel a given way
about someone who feels similarly, but someone who feels identically at
any given moment and certainly over time, is unlikely.

It sounds to me like a lot of what you’re grappling with here is
just being new to elective love relationships, new to sexual
relationships, and also new to… well, some of the parts of life that
are outside our control. In other words, some of what you’re feeling is
about love and attachment, but also just about growing up, becoming an
adult and living life, particularly around the impermanence that’s part
of it all whether any of us likes it or not. It’s hard to really like
or love something in our lives or our hearts — a person, a
relationship, an achievement, a social group, a school, a job, a
creative project — and know that either those feelings or those
situations are not likely permanent, as most are not and will not be.
It’s also very easy to assume that if only we or someone else would
stay in the same place, if only we could control how much of our
feelings we meter out on some kind of perfect schedule, we could assure
something we enjoy or value know will be something we have, in every
respect, for always.

Alas, one of the few certainties we have in this life is that
absolutely nothing is permanent, not even this life itself. Change, in
all things, including our own hearts, minds and bodies, is one of the
few things we can be sure of.

I’ll share something personal with you on that: my first huge love
relationship, the one I’d probably say was my first big, big love,
ended when I was only 16 with the violent death of the person I was in
that relationship with. While I really wish I didn’t have to learn that
while love can endure, the people we love, the relationships we’re in,
and life itself are very impermanent in that way, and certainly wish
that person had not died, it most certainly was a big lesson on the
subject. We both said "forever" in it, as plenty of young people do
given how eternal and huge those feelings do often feel, and I found
out in a painful way that there was no forever to be had. But after the
strongest pain of it subsided, it left me with some valuable
understanding about love, attachment and im/permanence. The love I had
for that person didn’t end: I carry parts of it and them with me still,
even though I have loved others in the decades since then and have
loved or do love those others strongly. What the love in that
relationship gave me as a person also wasn’t lost: it’s part of who I
am. What my loving in that, and being loved in that, taught me also
remained. Love didn’t die, it’s just that that person did, and
obviously, that active relationship ended.

Can knowing or feeling the impermanence of everything, including
love relationships, feel frightening and unstable? You betcha. When it
comes to existential crises, I’d say it’s one of the most universal
ones there is. But that is what it is. Life is frought with
impermanence and so are relationships. I’d say, however, that love has
permanence even though it and the relationships it exists in are
changeable. If we enact and experience love, if we feel love, often
even when the situation those actions, experiences and feelings
happened in changes, some of those feelings often remain, and we also
certainly retain the memory of those experiences and whatever impact
our actions of love and experiences of love had or continue to have.

On the sex bits, it’s typical for emotional connectivity to be a big
motivation for being sexual with someone else. I’d also say it’s common
for many young women to find that they get to that as an enjoyable
aspect before they get to higher levels of physical/body enjoyment,
especially younger women who don’t a) have a lot of experience with
their own sexual response via masturbation or b) have not had a good
deal of sexual experience with partners in general before. It sounds
like the sexual dynamic you two have is good overall, leaving plenty of
room for you to discover what you like and be an equal partner, and an
equally-considered partner, in your sex life together. It may just be
that you need to spend more time together over time sexually to
experiment more with sexual activities (together and alone) and develop
a sex life that you enjoy physically as much as you enjoy it
emotionally. But there’s no one right "order" for that to happen: if
the great emotional connectivity and response happens before the great
physical connectivity and response, that’s just fine, just like it’d be
fine if the opposite were the case. It’s also okay and not atypical
that both of those things aren’t happening at the same pace or time.

So, here’s my advice for you, which may sound really hokey. I
confess that I have a bias about love and love relationships: I think
love is of incredible value to all of us, whether we’re talking about
love that happens in the context of romantic or sexual relationships,
in friendships, in family relationships or in the wider relationships
groups of people have in communities or that we all can have for every
single person and living thing on this planet. In short, I’m a love
junkie, make no mistake. If you want a more cynical view, you’ll need
to ask someone else (like Laura Kipnis,
who in my most cynical moments about romantic love, and most certainly
when it comes to ideals around love and marriage or monogamy, I adore),
because even several loads of heartbreak over many years hasn’t altered
my love of love. Even being scared shitless of getting close to other
people has rarely stopped me from doing it anyway.

You’re in something that sounds wonderful and valued by the both of
you. By all means, it’s sound for any of us to protect our hearts in
ways that make sense, like extending trust gradually, rather than
trusting another person full-stop all at once, and protecting ourselves
and others by not making promises we can’t keep or don’t know if we
want to. It ma ywell be that when he goes off to school you two find a
long-distance relationship isn’t workable for you: it is for some
people or relationships, it isn’t for others. One or both of you may
find that whether there is physical distance at some time or not, that
your feelings about one another change, or the nature of your
relationship changes. Passionate romantic relationships sometimes
become platonic friendships, and sometimes even simply combust and go
utterly kablooie. It also is pretty rare that even when no one moves
away, someone’s first romantic, sexual and/or love relationship winds
up being a relationship they stay in, in one model, for decades. No
matter what either of you do, it’s more likely you’re not going to be
partners in this way 20 years from now than it is that you are. The
feelings you are having also certainly can be very overwhelming and a
person may not always feel up to handling them. So, if any of what’s
going on now or what could happen feels like you truly could not
survive it, or like a risk you just do not want to take, by all means,
maybe you’re not emotionally ready right now, and it is best for you to
sever this relationship and hold off on romantic or other intimate
relationships until you feel more equipped to handle them and all they
can entail.

It also may be that none of those unwanted outcomes happen. And if
you think too much about what might happen, you can miss what is happening. I’d be more concerned about getting so caught up in what could
happen that you miss out on fully experiencing and participating in the
awesome relationship and feelings that you have here and now. It can be
so easy for us to make a mess of a relationship or miss out on the good
stuff we have by getting preoccupied with or afraid of what might
happen sometime down the road. It’s a bit like going for a walk in the
park on a perfectly beautiful day, and being so concerned with possibly
being mugged that you spend the whole walk focused on awful thoughts
instead of on the gorgeous day. You wind up having an experience of
feeling unsafe and fearful instead of an experience of enjoying the
beautiful outdoors and a feeling of peace.

If you do want to keep going with this relationship, save both of
you doing the best you can to stay in honest and open communication, to
treat one another with love, care and respect, to make choices about
your relationship that feel and work best for you both, there’s little
to nothing you can do to control the future. There are things you can
do to manage your fears and worries about attachment. For instance, you
can invest some energy in getting a clearer sense of where those
feelings are coming from and what might bringing them up. Are you
worried this person will simply abandon you? Are you worried you want
things from this relationship that just aren’t possible, like you two
always being in the same place or living in the same area? Are you or
your partner worried that if you "fall too hard" you’ll each lose
yourselves? Once you have a better sense of what your fears are and
where they come from, you can both talk them out and make sure you’re
both making choices and creating a relationship model that supports
what you want, rather than likely resulting in what you don’t. If
you’re worried about losing your separate self, or totally falling
apart when he leaves, you might want to start spending a bit less time
together, since you say you’re together almost all of the time: it may
be that spending SO much time together is the root of those concerns.

There are things you can do to manage how you’ll feel and deal when
he goes away to school, too. You may want to try and sustain the
relationship in various ways, or if either of you chooses to just say
goodbye, there are ways you can do that which leave you both feeling
resolved and okay, even if it’s hard or sad. But it’s February, not
August, and this is still a fairly new relationship. Why don’t you
cross that bridge when you get to it?

For now, I’d just enjoy yourself, relishing even the intense and
scary feelings. Even hard big feelings are still big feelings, and big
feelings are one of the coolest parts of really being alive. Appreciate
that you have what may well be love or developing love in your life,
and open yourself up to expressing it, enacting it and fully
experiencing it. Try and accept that the feelings you are having and
the relationship you are experiencing them in will likely change in
some ways over time no matter what you do, both in ways you may want
and ways you may not want, and that your control over either is
limited. Why not just see where this goes? You express feeling a bit
overwhelmed by love, feeling like you might not be ready for love, but
love is one of those things where if and when it is what you’re feeling
and doing, ready or not, there it is.

It might help to remember that while love can certainly trigger or
uncover our fears, fear really is kind of the enemy of love. If we’re
deeply afraid — either of a person, of love itself, of a relationship
or of ourselves — those ingredients of love I mentioned up top there
are going to have a tough time developing or growing. I understand
being afraid of having your heart broken, especially if you haven’t yet
had it happen and don’t know that it is something you can or will
survive, which you likely will. I understand being afraid of being
abandoned. I understand being afraid of "loving too much," especially
when you’re confusing love with attachment: we really can’t love too
much, but we certainly can become too attached, and can also certainly
become too invested in something that really isn’t love or isn’t good
for us. But I think it’s a good thing to face those kinds of fears and
work through them.

When I was a kid, I thought Judy Blume was one of the smartest,
wisest people in the whole world. And she really is. Judy — or rather,
one of her 15-year-old characters — said something great that is so
pertinent to all of this, which is that, "Each of us must confront our
own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears
will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience
adventure or to be limited by the fear of it."

I take back what I said about wishing I could give you some perfect,
pat answer on what love is and is like. I’m glad I don’t have that for
you, because I’m glad it’s something each of us gets to experience for
ourselves, have be uniquely about us and our relationships and have our
own uniquely navigated journeys with. If we didn’t get to do all that,
we’d probably grow a lot less in love and love less richly. If we
didn’t get to do all of that, love wouldn’t be the great adventure I
think it can be if we let ourselves embark upon it. If you feel afraid,
nervous or worried about it sometimes, that’s absolutely okay and
something everyone will struggle with, but see if you can’t acknowledge
those fears but still go ahead and take a fierce and fearless leap,
including talking about your fears with your boyfriend. So, I say have
this adventure and make it a great one. It sounds like you’ve got
yourself an excellent traveling companion for that voyage right now and
like the open road awaits you.

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Follow Heather Corinna on twitter: @Scarleteen