When it Comes to Love, Could You Have it All Wrong?

on June 19, 2011 | in Relationships | by

love web

In college, I dated a bright young man named Will.

Will was caring and attentive, silly and adventurous. He was my first real love.

I remember how he used to smile at me and say, “You are just the most precious little thing.” He filled me up; he made me feel complete. He gave me what I couldn’t give myself.

“I love you,” I told him time and time again.

When he didn’t fill me up in the ways I thought I needed, I felt as if the life had been sucked out of me without warning. I was suddenly incomplete, unwhole, unfilled. My heart ached; I scrambled to be filled back up again at any and all costs.

“I just love you so much,” I told him. “I don’t know how to live without you.”

In February of this year, Will decided to leave this earth.

For reasons I will never understand, he ended his own life with a leap from the edge of a Portland bridge.

We’d been broken up for years, but Will’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. I had truly known him; he had known me. Even after our breakup we had spoken often, telling each other of our lives without each other and of our hopes and our fears and our trials. Will had been one of my very best friends over the past eight years.

It took something so tragic and intense for me to realize a very deep truth:  In my entire life, I had never really known what love was. In fact, for 27 years, I’d had it all wrong.

* *  *

“You’re so beautiful,” Will told me as we sat on the edge of his family’s dock, our feet dipping into the murky lake waters. It was the summer of 2004, one of the many that we would spend together at this lake. He gave me one of those intense Will-smiles before wrapping his arm around me and pulling me in tight. I collapsed into his embrace; I breathed in his essence. I was home. I was safe. I was loved.

It was in moments like these that I felt most intensely what I had imagined was love. My heart would swell; it was filled with all those things that he gave me: security, comfort, warmth.

At other times, his affection was withdrawn. It was in these moments that I felt panicked, as if the world might come to an end. The fullness of my heart was emptied as quickly and intensely as air escaping from a ruptured balloon.

“This must be love,” I thought, “or else why would it hurt so bad?”

But in fact, neither of these feelings was love. The filling up, the emptying—  this was the only love I had known, and yet it wasn’t really love.

No; this was need.

“I need you,” I might as well have said to him and to every other person I’ve loved in my life.

“I need you to make me feel whole; I need you to fill me up; I need you to make me feel taken care of and loved and adored. I need you with all of my heart.”

I had always thought this was love, but I was mistaken.

* * *

After Will’s death, I thought of him often. I thought of the person he was and of the person he might have become. I thought of his enthusiasm and his exuberance and of everything that made him who he was. My thoughts were centered around one thing only: how precious of a person he was.

This, I came to realize, was love.

It was a love that was completely, simply, solely… delighting in who he was.

It was completely separate from my need to be filled up or known.

It did not depend upon how he did or did not make me feel.

There was no need here— no sense that he completed me, nor that he had left me empty.

In fact, this love had nothing at all to do with me.

It was a type of love that I’m not sure I’ve known before.

* * *

It began to dawn on me that just as I had never known how to give this real love, I had also never known how to receive it.

Beneath my awareness, I had always imagined that the other person needed something from me and that I must give this to him or her in order to be loved.

“I need you to make me feel whole; I need you to fill me up; I need you to make me feel taken care of and loved and adored. I need you with all of my heart.”

The words that I had been relaying to others were the very same words that I imagined others were saying to me. Underneath the surface, there was the constant unexplored feeling that “who I am, just as I am, is not enough. In order to be loved, I must give someone what it is I think they need.”

And so for my whole life I gave, but it was a begrudging sort of giving, the kind that took from my soul and squandered my sense of self. It, too, was tempered with need: the need to receive someone else’s love.

Yes, I gave—but did I ever truly give?

Yes, I loved in the best way I knew how—but did I ever truly love?

I looked up to the sky with tears in my eyes.

They were tears of sadness, but also of gratitude— gratitude for knowing, after all these years, what it truly meant to love without condition, without need.  Like a bird flying for the very first time, I was freed from a cage of falsity.

I thank Will every day for the valuable gift he has given me: for the ability to see the precious nature of each person in my life; for the capacity to detach my conditional feelings of need from the unconditional quality of a love that is realer and truer and deeper.

* * *

We all live different lies about love, and I’m not naïve enough to imagine that yours is the same one as mine. Your story may very well be different— it may not be about need; it may be about perfection or detachment or fear.

But no matter what your story might be, try asking the most important question of all: is the story I’ve been telling myself true?

You owe it to the people you care about to ask this question. You owe it to your parents and to your spouse and to everyone you’ve ever loved and ever will love. You owe it to your children or to your future children. Most of all, you owe it to yourself, because as you learn to give this love, you’re also learning to receive it— you’re learning that it’s been right here all along.

So ask yourself today:

Is the love that I’ve known really love at all?

Have I ever been able to truly delight in someone exactly as they are, and for no other reason?

Have I ever loved completely, freely, without condition?

Could it be possible that when it comes to love, I’ve had it all wrong?

# # #

[Image credit: Neal. ]

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  • So so beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • therese

      Thank you Rachel :)

  • SO true! Amazing how life creates situations so we are able learn these lessons.
    Great post. Thanks.

    • therese

      That’s so true about life… I heard the quote today, “You will be graced with the disasters your soul requires to find its way home”. —Martha Beck

      Thanks for your thoughts, Cathy.

      • Great quote. Absolutely true…but why does it always take disasters??? Ugh.

  • This was wonderful, Therese. And it really hit home for me… I know the feeling of need all too well, and have finally started understanding what the meaning of actual LOVE is. I look forward to finding it and creating a healthy relationship with someone someday based on love, not need.

    • therese

      If you’ve already realized this, then you’re well on your way. I’m glad it resonated with you. Thanks Kelli.

  • Hey Therese, wow, very thought-provoking post and thanks for sharing something so personal. Will’s physical body may be gone now, but I think your memories of him will live on and express themselves through your new-found knowledge, and how you act on this knowledge. Loving without attachment is truly one of the best feelings. It is pure appreciation, without needing to validate yourself or have someone else validate their self.

  • therese

    Hi Steven. Yes- it is a great feeling, and it’s weird to think that I didn’t understand it for so long (and I don’t think I’m alone in this). Thanks for reading :-)

  • I always liked the idea that true love is falling in love with the same person over and over again.

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  • Wow. This speaks to me on so many levels. Thanks.

  • Alexandra Laura

    THX! you are great! I think you have to write a book in order that more people see all this

    • :) Thanks Alexandra! It would be pretty cool to write a book… maybe one day!

  • Thanks for holding this much needed mirror to our faces, Therese. We’ve been raised on fairy tales and sold on the Hollywood version.

    ‘Love means never having to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘You complete me.’ BS.

    Love not only means having to say ‘I’m sorry’ coupled with ‘Please forgive me.’ from time to time.

    And if someone else completes you, then that means you didn’t bring a whole ‘you’ to the relationship in the first place.

    I’m bless to now know Love in All it’s attentive, caring, sweet and supportive glory with my Best Friend in the Whole Wide World, my husband, Steven.

    I know its truly the first time I’ve ever fully known Love, but it was SO worth the wait.

    I Love and Adore him. He’s as cute as he is handsome. I love waking up next to him as much as I am thrilled to falll asleep next to him.

    Yes, I am ‘able to truly delight in someone exactly as they are, and for no other reason?’

    And it’s utterly delightful. It’s wonderful and wonder-filled. I wish everyone in the world was able to experience the kind of relationship we have.


    • ” And if someone else completes you, then that means you didn’t bring a whole ‘you’ to the relationship in the first place. ” Absolutely! Well said. So glad you & Steven have found happiness! :)

  • Nick Lucas

    wow….this piece is so wonderful and powerful. Made me realize I have been lieing to myself about what love really is……

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