A failed attempt at rejecting true love

When I teach memoir writing we spend a lot of time talking about truth and Truth. Memoir, unlike some other forms of nonfiction, allows for a bit of negotiation between verifiable facts (truth) and larger, more abstract notions of How the World Works and What it Can Mean to Be Human (Truth).

Because memoir is based almost entirely on memory, things can sometimes be True without being verifiable. If I’m writing, for example, about a conversation I had with my mom when I was ten, I’m aiming to accurately capture the spirit of that conversation even if the dialogue can’t possibly be exact. But even when the class gets to a pretty good working definition of these two concepts, truth still feels a little slippery. Even in a genre nominally and practically dedicated to the investigation of truth, creative nonfiction, it still isn’t always obvious what qualifies as true. And maybe this is why I find myself increasingly resistant to notions of Truth in Love.

We throw around references to “true love” pretty casually, but what exactly is it? Seriously. I do not pose this as a rhetorical question. I’d love to know how people define true love and how(/if) they separate it from other forms of romantic love.

In my own efforts to process the idea, here’s what I’ve come up with in terms of our collective notion of true love: it happens once and with one person; it’s mutual; it lasts “forever”; it’s selfless. But when I investigate these ideas they all break down pretty quickly.

  • True love happens once: Often the phrase “true love” is preceded by the word “one.” We are, at best, a serially monogamous species. Most of us will love (in ways that are deep and devoted and serious) more than one person in our lives. Which of those experiences is the one true love? The person you were with the longest? The one you had the most intense feelings about? The one you’re with now?
  • True love is mutual: If you have never been in love with someone who did not love you back, you’re missing out on a profound (and profoundly miserable) human experience. Most of us would agree that unrequited love feels far from trivial. Many people have made major life decisions based on feelings that weren’t wholly reciprocated. It seems short-sighted to dismiss those feelings as less legitimate than feelings that were returned. And even in mutually-loving relationships, individual investment in the relationship is not always perfectly equal.
  • True love lasts forever: I put “forever” in quotes earlier because I find this concept as shaky as “Truth.” Not to be a total literalist but nothing lasts forever, not the earth or the sun or the universe or your feelings. I don’t mean to imply that love isn’t valuable or even sometimes profound. I just want to point out that the ways that we fetishize love in our culture don’t always make sense. Endowing love with mysticism requires putting ourselves in positions of willful ignorance and passivity. In general I am annoyed by willful ignorance, in love I am particularly annoyed.
  • True love is selfless: Can anything requiring reciprocity to be legitimate still be selfless? (again, not a rhetorical question.)

I’ve been thinking about this idea of true love as I’ve been catching up on all the Valentine’s-related stuff I ignored while on vacation last week. A lot of the criticism of Valentine’s Day (at least on my various social media streams) is that it’s too commercial. And, yeah, advertisers definitely use the holiday as a way to equate expressions of love with giving material gifts, but it’s pretty easy to reject the consumerism of the holiday while still acknowledging the sentiment. I really like the idea of having a built-in reason to tell the people you love that you love them—and of extending the celebration of love beyond romantic love. This year I spent the holiday eating mahi-mahi and drinking beer with twelve of my closest friends and I had this abundant, totally joyful feeling of love (though I acknowledge this is an easy feeling to summon while slightly sunburnt and totally tipsy and very far from rainy Vancouver.)


See what I mean?

So I don’t want to reject Valentine’s Day but I do want to rethink the concept of true love. Still, I get that it’s difficult to separate the practice of loving someone from the mythos of love. I just spent an hour listening to love songs on YouTube as I’ve been writing this and I’ll be the first to admit the mythos of love—that insistence on mystery and ineffable Truth—is seductive. I love the way I feel  while listening to John Legend’s “All of Me” and watching two improbably beautiful people make out underwater in soft-focus black and white. While I’m watching it, I have an overwhelming desire to feel that way indefinitely.

The counterpart to true love is “real love,” which tends to be a little less mystical but still annoyingly prescriptive. I know our culture will not stop suggesting what expressions of love should look like or how they should feel any time soon, but abstract notions of what’s “true” or “real” in love are my least-favorite part of Valentine’s Day.

For all my research and reflection on love, I still don’t think I can reconcile the part of me that thinks fetishizing love is destructive (because overvaluing the ineffable and the mysterious often means making not-so-good decisions—and, side note, this is one thing polyamorists do really well since they tend to reject the rigid assumptions we tie to “one true love”) with the part of me that wants love to feel profound and slightly beyond my comprehension. I’m not a scientist but I take a fairly evidence-oriented approach to the world; I like learning about the subtle forces that shape our experiences—but I also see the narrative power of mystery and not knowing.

Last week I was lying on the beach listening to my partner read me a story he’d just finished and particularly loved. He started it in bed the night before, reading until I fell asleep. And then, after we got pummeled by some giant Pacific waves (and saw a sea turtle!) he read the rest while I stretched out wet and weary on the sand. I know this is such a small thing and it probably doesn’t necessarily match up with your personal image of True Love, but it totally matches mine. I can think of almost nothing I’d rather do than lie in the sun, eyes stinging with sunscreen and salt water, and have the man I love read to me. How did I find someone who is excited about doing this—who is equally awed by literature and whose first impulse is to share it with me?? I don’t think it was fate, but it still feels profound. It feels True in the capital-T sense of the word, as in This is What Love Looks Like to Me. But of course love also looks like other things that are less romantic and much more prosaic (or even gross) as Heather Havrilesky articulates so well at the Cut.


Because fetishizing romantic love has not served me well in the past, I’m much more likely to err on the side of pragmatism these days. But then I think about the research on the value of having positive illusions about your partner and I remember that too much resistance to the starry-eyed side of love doesn’t serve us all that well either. Also, feeling good for the sake of feeling good is just really nice sometimes.

Right now my favorite love songs aren’t from John Legend but Father John Misty. I Love You, Honeybear is an album about marriage that is, in turns, dark and earnest, and cynical and weird, and sexual, if not always sexy. I don’t particularly like the persona of the narrator but I like Tillman’s voice and I like his insistence on love as an incoherent experience: at once True and profound and falsely sentimental.

16 thoughts on “A failed attempt at rejecting true love

  1. Interesting article. True love is what, and who, you choose it to be. It is not perfect. It goes through various stages in life….ups and downs. You hope there is only one, and forever, but that is up to the couple. I think it’s really important that both parties agree on what true love is. It’s a feeling. It’s a belief. It makes you excited to share your future with the other person and not look back.

  2. I love your description of the man you love reading to you and how this connection feels profound.

    I feel that. I feel it when my boyfriend and I are playing a board game together, laughing and having a blast. I think about how lucky we are that we can share something we love together, and that there are a multitude of these experiences that we share, not just the compromises we make in the action of love.

    Maybe True Love is a connection where the joyful yes moments are so plentiful that when the hard moments come up we work through them, together, gratefully.

    • Hi Rebecca! Thanks for the comment. It’s funny how such seemingly-mundane things can feel profound when you stop to notice them. I love this: “the joyful yes moments are so plentiful that when the hard moments come up we work through them, together, gratefully”–beautifully put, and worth aspiring to.

  3. Do you have an actual definition of love?

    It’s one of those things where a lot of assumptions and eliding goes on.

    I like Scott Peck’s definition from a Road Less Traveled, as an action, a practice, a verb of (losely … ) “the effort or activity to create spiritual growth in oneself or another.”

    Now that can apply to efforts big and small, ongoing and transient. If you dial in/up two people as mutually mindful creators like that, you might arrive at true love… and maybe even Truth.

    Seems incomplete to talk about love without really defining it (yeah, I’m a guy 🙂 , but that rather concrete definition definitely launches the ephemeral.

    • An “actual definition of love” varies a lot from one discipline to another–or even within disciplines, as I know some clinical psychologists define in differently from social psychologists, who define it differently from neurobiologists, and on and on.

      I’m all for definitions (despite being a woman 😉 ) and yet I’ve done enough reading and research on the topic to know that, while there are a lot of things we can generally agree are fundamental components of love, our expectations of how love should look and feel vary significantly across cultures and generations. So I won’t try to offer my own definition, but luckily I have a friend–a philosopher–who’s tackling this in her own book right now, which you can read about here: http://www.themetaphysicsoflove.com/

      If nothing else, the goal of this post is to make some of those “assumptions and eliding” more visible, and think about why they might not be so useful.

      • When you get a chance, it would be really interesting to hear how “clinical psychologists define it differently from social psychologists, who define it differently from neurobiologists”. Thanks.

  4. I think of “True Love” as a person, for me that would be my husband of 30 years, the same man I may feel annoyed and impatient with at times, but still my True Love, difficult to put into words, Thanks for invoking my thoughts on the subject.

  5. Can you tell I have just found your blog and I am massively fingerling all over your posts?

    I have been having this conversation with myself lately. Two years ago, I had a very short, very intense love story with a man who was in London for 8 months, let’s call him G. I met him early on, when he had just arrived. We started dating even though we knew we had an expire date. It was very casual at first, but, maybe because of the romantic idea of him leaving, it got very intense very quickly. We travelled together during his last week in Europe, and it were the little things about him that made me fall for him. Him reading Isabel Allende while I was getting ready to go out. His lack of sense of style. His dorky jokes.The way he hugged me. The way he got scared when I whispered ‘I think I love you a little bit’ in a dark room in Barcelona. How he whispered it back to me the morning after, when he thought I was still asleep.

    On one of our first dates he asked me what scared me the most. I knew the answer straight away: seeing my beloved ones grow old and die.

    When he went back to the states, we spent the summer doing the long distance thing. I went to visit him for a month and the feeling was still there, if not stronger. The way our bodies locked together, the way we made each other laugh. Talking about books, watching Harry Potter movies… Being next to him, or in any way in contact with him, made me less scared about that future where I would have to say goodbye to my parents. I felt that being with him, the ride would be worth it.

    At the end of my month visiting, he decided he didn’t want to do long distance anymore. I understood, the chances of me moving to the states were very slim. He was scared. I was scared. But I guess my feelings were stronger than his. That’s not to say he didn’t love me. But I would have done practically anything to be with him (quite a dangerous statement).

    It was hard. The year after that was the worst one of my life. I debated for a long time what was real and what wasn’t. I dated other guys, most of them I could not sit in front of them for longer than an hour. Until I met Sam. Sam was fun and easy to talk to. We ended up having a great relationship together. And some nights, at concerts or when we were intimate we would say we loved each other. And at the time I meant it.

    With time Sam and I decided to limit our relationship to only friendship and when I think of the time we had together I feel blessed. He helped so much to get better. But when I think of the ‘I love you’ I told him, I feel like it was a bubble that erupted from me and exploded against the ceiling. It was real, but it only lasted its trip to the end of the room.

    It’s been a while since I last saw G, but when I think of the ‘I love you’ I told him, I know that bubble is still going around somewhere in the universe. And I have come to learn that probably it will always be. And I need to be at peace with that.

    So anyway, again, I went on for too long. But that for me was real, true love.

  6. I hope to feel and find this someday. My past relationships didn’t provide me with that sense of forever. Your writing is very eloquent. Thank you.

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