Last night, my sister and I sat on the green steps of our grandma’s front porch, talking about everything and nothing. She brought up the time she went away to college in Florida, and left her then-boyfriend behind in New Jersey. The distance made him suspicious and controlling. To tame his anxiety, Mary skipped out on many of the typical freshman activities, and spent most of the time in her dorm room, Facetiming her man. While her roommates primped for parties, she got in her jammies, ready to prove her location. I expected her to say how much this strained them, and how resentful she became, but she caught me off guard, instead. “The funny thing,” she said, “is that I don’t think I really loved him until I did all that for him.” In dedicating herself to him so intensely, she felt more invested in the relationship. As she spoke, I realized, that’s what people mean when they say love is what you give.
Relationship coach, Mort Fertel says love isn’t a feeling you get from another person, but an experience you feel as a result of deeds you do. He says, “Consider the love you feel for your children. Is it because of everything they do for you? Is it because they’re such angels? Of course not. The love you feel for your children is a result of what you do for them.” Romantic love and friendships are no different. When Fertel has clients who say they love their spouses but aren’t in love, he asks them to list five ways in the last week they demonstrated their love. His question is usually met with crickets, because when you actually demonstrate love, you feel it.
Sometimes we’re not free in demonstrating our love, because we’re scared. For instance, in the first few years of my marriage, I focused mostly on the love I received, not because I was greedy or selfish, but because I was insecure. On some unconscious level, I worried about not being loved enough, and took constant inventory. I was cautious and calculated, rather than authentic and open. One time, before we were married, we flew to Costa Rica. I remember getting upset that he didn’t grab my hand during take off, or give me lavish reassurance when turbulence hit. When he didn’t give me what I considered ample affection, I’d sneak off in the mornings to town or yoga, hoping my distance would provoke him to give me more. I looked for constant proof that he loved me, thinking it was a feeling that would be given, or a security I’d earn. I didn’t yet realize my power in creating the feelings I wanted.
I was afraid to give too much because I didn’t want to be taken for granted, and scared to be too real because maybe it wouldn’t give me the outcome I desired. I had protective walls around myself, but in time, I realized, they didn’t only keep me at a distance from my husband, but also from myself. As I tore them down, I found my inner voice. It was no longer the muddled messages of society, telling me what I should feel or how to get what I want, but the voice of my own heart. As I got in touch with it, I fell in love with myself, and in doing so, I felt free to express myself without fear of rejection. For the first time, I loved without scrutinizing what I got in return, and I realized that up until that point I hadn’t really loved at all.
With my shift, I was no longer so sensitive. Just as I don’t get upset when my kids resist my kisses, I stopped getting mad when my husband didn’t do and say things just the way I wanted. With my new perspective, I’d simply grab his hand if I wanted it, or shrug my shoulders without offense if he preferred his own space. I wouldn’t shut down, because I’d no longer assume his behavior was personal against me. Although I was once afraid that giving freely would make for a lopsided relationship, I discovered that when love isn’t self-seeking, it’s received and returned organically. It flows, and although it’s not always harmonious, it comes with an inherent respect for individuality, and trust that love is a constant.
As I reflected on all this, I was reminded me of a YouTube video I saw of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski on the topic. In it, he tells a story about a man enjoying a plate a fish, claiming to love fish. The rabbi questioned, if you love fish why would you take it from the water and kill it? You don’t love fish. You love yourself, and because fish is pleasing to you, you say you love fish. He says it’s similar when two people fall in love. Often, they think they love each other but what they really love is the other person’s ability to meet their physical and emotional needs. He says too much of what we think of as love, is actually fish love. We love people for what they do for us. He quotes Rabbi Dessler who says, you don’t give to those whom you love, you love those to whom you give. The action precedes the feeling. Some amount of self-love is a given, so when we invest ourselves in others, we transform fish love to true love.
Am I saying we should keep giving to people who use, abuse, and try to control us? Absolutely not. An important part of what we give is our truth, which comes with honor for ourselves. In fact, we can’t be free to love selflessly unless we are whole on our own, and take care of ourselves emotionally. When we leave it up to others to fill our needs, that’s when we calculate and manipulate to get what we want. Giving isn’t about being a pushover, as our own well-being is fundamental in loving well.
We feel love by putting the goodness we have inside in motion. For this reason, we should worry less about having the right partner, and more about being the right partner. Truly, the power is within to create the love we want, and we do that by giving it away.
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- Love is What You Give. Here’s Why. - June 15, 2017
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