When you’re growing up, it’s easy to assume that everyone experiences life the way you do. All families have the same idiosyncrasies yours does, and all schools are very similar to the one you attend. Once you start visiting friends’ houses or move to a different school, some of those assumptions start to fall away as you realise that everyone’s upbringing is different (even that of siblings) and you slowly begin to appreciate how our lives are shaped by our experiences. It’s easy to see how behaviours around food, appearance, education, following rules and timekeeping can be shaped by upbringing as well as personality, but there are many more aspects of our lives that can seem universal but which are in fact not. One of these is love.
The way we accept love into our lives and give it to others may seem like it’s only affected by the stories our society tells us about love, but that’s not the full picture. I grew up in a very affectionate household and so expressing love is something that comes very naturally to me, but that also means I had a somewhat naive opinion of love. I thought that giving it and receiving it was relatively straightforward – you work hard to get to know someone, building trust and intimacy, then you tell them you love them when you feel it and when the time seems right to say it. They either love you back or they don’t, and you both work out how to move on from there. I genuinely didn’t think there was any more to it than that, but I’ve now realised that being able to accept love is not as simple as I first thought, and not everyone has the same definition of love either.
To me, ‘love’ refers to more than one thing, but I only use one word for it because a) English is rubbish like that, and b) all the types are of equal importance to me so I don’t want to use other words which may imply that one particular kind of love is of higher value than others. I feel a strong love for close family, close friends, metamours and partners. I say “I love you” to my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephew. I say it to my friends too, but sometimes the phrase needs clarification in this situation, as it’s not a usual declaration in a society obsessed with romantic love.
One evening last year I was having dinner with a friend and was talking about someone I wanted to become a romantic partner, but who would probably never be able to take on that role in my life. Talking about changing my expectations, how I could love this person deeply and still be their friend, made me realise just how much I love my friends. Since then, I have told my closest friends that I love them, and they have understood what I meant by that. My metamours understand perfectly too without much need for explanation, perhaps as that is a bond with people who have a different understanding of love anyway (polyamory isn’t exactly society’s default when it comes to love!) and often involves having built a connection based on conversations that are much deeper than small talk.
When it comes to romantic love, however, I have only recently realised that I still had one pattern for how this plays out. One of us says those three little words and the other expresses joy, or freaks the fuck out. When the other is pleased by the declaration, then we can proceed towards ‘happily ever after’ (or whatever the hell we want this thing to be), together. That’s how it works, right? Well, it shouldn’t have to be the only way.
There’s an excellent episode of the Meg-John & Justin Podcast from 2019 where they mention the ‘script’ that we have for saying I love you. If you’re following it, you simply expect the other person to say it back but, actually, we should be inviting a conversation rather than just making a declaration. Meg-John refers to the concept of plural selves, saying that love can come from different parts of yourself, and also reminding us that people fall in love at different points in a relationship – we should see love as ‘in process’ over time. A comment from Justin really resonated with me as it’s what I have tried to do in recent years: ‘Being able to say “I really love you” and for it to be clear that it doesn’t have to be reciprocated means that you are really able to hear it.’
If I say it, it’s not because I want you to say it back – it’s because I feel it and I think you ought to know. However, if one person falls hopelessly in love and the other is completely and utterly terrified when those three little words are uttered, is there a way forward that doesn’t involve running away or burying our heads in the sand? There is, but it’s scary. It involves lots of open and honest communication, discussing what love means to you and, I guess, agreeing that it’s different for both of you right now. It involves letting go of expectations, but being open to all possibilities that love can exist within can be tough when you think you want a particular path.
The space before you get to that place of truly honest communication can be tough, both as the amorous subject and as the other – phrases used by Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. He begins by explaining that the book is necessary because, ‘the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude. This discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), but warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages’, which is perhaps why the fragments of love I glimpsed within its pages left me feeling so… seen. All these things I feel and think are rarely spelt out in such a way.
But even though it can seem like a universal language to those who feel it so deeply, there are many dialects. If we can get the basics right, however, we can at least be on the same page. As Meg-John and Justin expressed in their podcast: we can’t expect one person to be everything for us; we need to love (or at least be kind) to ourselves; and it’s important to feel the love in lots of moments with others (including friends). If we value ourself and others equally, and remember that love is about doing rather than saying, perhaps our love can be less about falling and more about feeling fulfilled?