A couple weeks ago an attendee at our annual Think Better, Live Better conference asked me an interesting question:
What’s something real love never does to you?
And just now I received almost the exact same question in an email from a reader. So this seems to be a topic worth discussing…
Over the past decade, Angel and I have coached hundreds of incredible students who were struggling to find real love in their relationships, and we’ve also spoken to hundreds of happy couples that were willing to share their “real” love stories with us. All of this has given us keen insight into the beliefs and behaviors that both help and hurt people’s relationships.
So today, I want to publicly reply to both our conference attendee and reader (with their permission of course), and take a close look at one key thing real love absolutely never does to you.
But before we get to that one thing, let me tell you a quick story about a happy couple that’s still together, and deeply in love, nearly twenty years later…
The Girl in the Mirror
She looks at herself in the full-length mirror that hangs from her bedroom wall. Completely naked and exposed, yet confident. She’s older than she was five years ago, but feels much younger. And she thinks momentarily about the different men who held her in front of this mirror.
They thought they possessed her. They thought she was theirs. Because she was in their arms, so delicate and sweet. But really she possessed them. Because she possesses the space in front of the mirror. And the moments that occur there too.
She gazes down at the man lying naked in her bed. But he’s not just another man. For the first time in years, this one sleeps differently. With a subtle smile, a dash of poise, and a history free of envy. And she smiles and giggles to herself.
Just then, he stirs, slowly lifts his head, squints his eyes, and looks at her standing across the room, naked in front of the mirror. His movement startles her and she jumps. Not because he sees her naked, but because she isn’t ready for him to be awake. Not yet.
This is her time, the early morning, when the world is quiet and she can hear the sound of her own breathing. It’s a sacred time when answers and insights aren’t as hard to come by. A time when her mind is at peace and her heart beats slower. And it begins beating slower again. Because he closes his eyes and falls back asleep.
She slips on her robe, tiptoes into the kitchen, pours coffee grounds and water into the coffee maker, places two slices of bread in the toaster, and opens the window curtains. The warm, early morning sun floods into her home. A few minutes later, the toaster pops. She spreads strawberry jam on the toast, pours a cup of coffee, opens the front door, and sits down on the doorstep.
And she thinks about how happy she is. Happy to simply be. To be free. To not be tied down by another person or have another person tied down by her. She stares up at the morning sky for a prolonged moment and smiles.
“I’m in love,” she says aloud.
The Guy in the Bed
He hasn’t fallen back asleep. When he lifts his head, squints his eyes, and sees her standing naked in front of the mirror, he senses that she isn’t yet ready for him to join her. So he closes his eyes and pretends to sleep.
He listens as she giggles, slips on her robe, tiptoes into the kitchen, and rattles the toaster, the coffee maker, and the curtains. He loves these little noises… Noises he calls music.
Like the music of last night, when they talked and laughed for hours over a bottle of wine. Until unexpectedly, she kissed him. And then he kissed her back. Because of her philosophy and her beauty.
She took off his shirt. He took off hers. And it went on like that for what seemed like hours until they were together in bed, naked. He thought he could love her. He wondered if he did love her already. And he wondered if she felt the same way.
When the kitchen noises stop, he gets up, slips on his boxers, and tiptoes into the living room where he sees her sitting peacefully on the doorstep. She’s completely bathed in the sun’s light. As she eats toast and drinks coffee, she seems to be laughing… a sweet, silent laughter.
He wants to bother her. To tell her that he’s hungry too, and that he wouldn’t mind sharing a slice of her toast. But he doesn’t. Because she seems so happy and free… the way it should be. So instead he stands in the doorway and admires her from a distance. And he thinks about the fact that she isn’t his… that she will never be his. And that it’s OK.
Because she just said, “I’m in love.”
The Thing Real Love Never Does to You
Perhaps the story above makes it clear, or perhaps not, but in either case it’s important to remember that…
Real love never limits you… it doesn’t restrict you… it doesn’t try to change you… it doesn’t entitle you, or anyone, to anything.
People are sometimes led to have a sense of entitlement because they mistakenly believe they are owed something based solely on the social role they have chosen. For example, if someone has accepted the role of being a person’s friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, or husband, they feel entitled to get certain ‘favors’ from this person. If someone has accepted the role of being a parent, they feel entitled to being respected by their children. If someone has accepted the role of being a customer, they feel entitled to be served to their unique needs.
But, as it turns out, there are no hard-wired entitlements in life. And this is especially true of love.
Too often we associate love with limitations…
- “If he loves me, he will change.”
- “If she loves me, she will do what I say.”
But that’s not real love. Not even close.
Real love is un-limited.
Real love is freedom.
In fact, it is only by letting each other be free, that two people can be completely each other’s. When we are not forced, or tied, or pressured in a relationship, we can more easily see and remember the most perfect parts…
You might spend time with the person you love and catch yourself thinking, “He (or she) is perfect for me!”
Not perfect in their behaviors, or in their beliefs, or in their looks. Rather, perfect in the way they fit into your life, the way their rough edges fill the gaps between your own, the way their body rests against yours, the way both your voices flow together in harmony, the way you make each other feel complete, even when you are apart.
And this completeness ripples through every aspect of your lives. You both feel alive and full of incredible joy. And you are eager and excited and can’t wait to find a hundred little things that will make you feel even more alive, now that you have felt how deeply you can breathe the fresh air of freedom. You can clearly see that there are no definitive limits, and you laugh together about the fact that you both once thought there were, and then you laugh again simply because you are free to BE… together, or apart.
In this freedom, you choose to find divine perfection in each other’s humanness.
In this freedom, your happiness is vital to each other, and sacrifices are made.
And, that may not always mean you are part of the equation.
And that’s perfectly OK.
For you, that is why it feels so incredible to love, and to be loved.
Because the love you feel is a choice.
Because real love gives you that choice.
You both know deep down that to bind each other or tie each other or try to own each other in any way would be to minimize – to even kill – something within yourselves that is divine, and human, and soars and sings and keeps you both alive and free… and asks for nothing, yet gives everything.
You both know that the moment you try to own each other is the moment you both become something else, other than what was sought, and desired, and loved in the first place.
So you choose to set each other free – completely unattached – even when you’re deeply connected.
This form of non-attachment does not mean not caring. On the contrary, it means, among other things, caring so deeply that you both honor each other’s space and freedom… to simply BE. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Afterthoughts… On Real Love and Freedom
All details aside, the deepest craving of human nature is the need to simply be appreciated as is – to be free to BE. Sometimes we try to be sculptors, constantly carving out of others the image of what we want them to be – what we think we need, love, or desire. But these actions and perceptions are against reality, against their benefit and ours, and always end in disappointment, because it does not fit who they really are. The foundation of love is to let people be unapologetically themselves, and to not distort them to fit our own egotistical ideas of who they “should” be. Otherwise we fall in love only with our own senseless fantasies, and thus miss out entirely on their true beauty. So save your relationships from needless stress. Instead of trying to change the people you care about, give them your support and grow together.
It’s important to note, too, that differences of opinion (even major ones) don’t destroy relationships – it’s how two people deal with their inevitable differences that counts. It comes down to mindful communication and compromise. (Angel and I build mindful communication rituals with our students in the “Love and Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
Truth be told, some couples (and friends and family too) waste years trying to change each other, but this can’t always be done, because many of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of opinion, personality, or values based on their upbringing or distant past experiences. By fighting over these deep seeded differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and running their relationship into the ground.
So how do two people in a relatively healthy relationship deal with the disagreements and differences that can’t be resolved?
They accept each other as is. These couples understand that problems are an inevitable part of any long-term relationship, in the same way chronic physical difficulties are inevitable as we grow older. These problems are like a weak knee or a bad back – we may not want these problems, but we’re able to cope with them, to avoid situations that irritate them, and to develop strategies that help us grow through them. Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next 10, 20 or 50 years.”
Bottom line: Acceptance of one another is of vital importance to every relationship – it is a big part of the foundation – the freedom – from which real love grows.
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
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