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Love, Growth, Fear & Other Kinds of Big-Scary-Wonderful

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pixie9000 asks:

Can you explain to me what love is please? How does one feel? Can you describe the effects for me? or, is it the kind of thing you just have to know? Does it go away? Or is it something permanent? I think that I am falling in love with my boyfriend.

He is a senior, and I am a junior. Next year he is going off to college, most likely a really prestigious one far away. We have been going out for only about 4 months, but we have known each other for a few years, and in the last 4 months we have spent so much time together (pretty much every minute) it feels like it has been much longer.

We recently had sex for the first time (first time for me, not for him), and several times since the first time. I have to say, I'm not crazy about it yet, but what I am crazy about is the connection it makes me feel between the two of us. He is extremely considerate of how I feel during sex, and he wants me to figure out what I like. He is so caring and sensitive to how I feel, and we have talked about sex and our relationship a lot, and how sex will affect our relationship and emotions. I like having sex, and I love the time we spend together. We have talked about love, and how we don't really understand what it is, but agree that we definitely have a deep connection. But I'm afraid that my feelings for him are going to become too intense, and I am going to fall in love with him, and then he is going to go off to college and my heart will break (I know, that sounds cliche).

We have talked about love, and I think we both said we feel like were falling slowly, even if we don't completely understand it, like, what it really means. He says "lets fall, but not fall too hard," and I agree, I don't know if I can handle the raw emotion of love. After we have sex, I feel elated, but later, when he leaves, I feel depressed because I know that he is going to leave the city after high school, and then our relationship will be over and I wont feel this connection any more. Am I just overthinking this whole thing?

Heather Corinna replies:

I wish that I could give you one simple, short and objective answer for what love is, but unfortunately, I can't. That's a question people have been asking for probably as long as there have been people, and as of yet, while there have been millions of answers, I don't think anyone has arrived at one that we all can agree on or that we all feel sums up every experience of love or being in love.

Here are a few basic things I have to say when it comes to defining love, and I'm talking about the capital-L kind, from a piece here on the subject: "bell hooks said, "Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust." It may be obvious (which may be why she didn't say it) but to her list I'd add connectivity: I'd say love is about connecting and being connected to ourselves, to who we love, to everything. There's an energy to being deeply connected that once you feel, you'll recognize ever after.

"Thich Nhat Hanh said "Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself - if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself - it is very difficult to take care of another person...to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is truly a practice."

Love is active: it isn't this disembodied thing that's out there floating around we either get or we don't. It's something we and others feel because we actively and intentionally create and enact it. It's something we nurture, grow, practice and refine. It's something we make and do, not something we are given or take. If we lose it, it's not like losing our keys: rather, it's about one or more people no longer choosing to love; no longer actively loving.

What are the effects of love? That's highly individual and situational, but on the whole love tends to make us feel more deeply connected to ourselves and to those whom we love, even more connected to people as a whole. Love leaves us feeling good about ourselves, that other person and life in general. It also can bring up fears, because love tends to challenge us to grow, and growth is change. Sometimes love can leave us feeling afraid, or, perhaps more accurately, worries about a lack or loss of love, an actual loss of someone we love, or a change in a love relationship can leave us feeling afraid, like the feelings you're expressing about "falling too hard," or when it comes to your boyfriend going off to college. For the record, I don't think your fears sound cliché, I think they sound valid, real and are common feelings people have in relationships.

If you're also asking about what in means to be in love, generally that's a term people use to express they have romantic feelings, sexual feelings, passionate feelings and/or the start of feelings of love with someone, all or any of which can tend to feel heady and dizzying, especially when those feelings are new. "Falling" in love makes it sound like love or relationships are passive, and that's a misnomer. They're not: whatever kind of love we are taking part in and feeling is active, not passive. It's far more a jump than a fall.

I think it's important to recognize that while they can be interrelated, love and attachment aren't the same. I think some of your worries are more about attachment than love. You express a concern you will "fall too hard" in love, but that sounds more to me like a concern you will become too attached to those feelings, this other person or this relationship. You worry his going to college will mean love is lost, but a distance doesn't mean love stops or gets lost. It can, however, result in the model of a relationship changing, in seeing a given person less often, or in people feeling or being less attached to one another.

I hear you talking about attachment, rather than love, when you express how you feel when you're together versus when you're apart. When we feel love for someone, us feeling it isn't dependent on whether they are present or not. When we feel attached to someone, or to a relationship, on the other hand, it's normal to feel more secure in that when we are actually together, or when we have some promise we will be, then when we are separated, or when being together, or being in a certain relationship, is tenuous.

I really like what this therapist said about love and attachment:"Attachment is a state of binding oneself with personal ties and bringing oneself into association with another. I believe it occurs in all relationships, when there is discomfort and fear of simply being in the moment- a fear of the unknown and of losing the love we feel. This fear propels us to attach to our partner. As we attach emotionally, we rely on our partner (what they say or do) to make us happy. Even though we think we are becoming closer, we are losing who we are in the context of our partner. I sometimes think of attachment as proximity. If relationship were a camera, with love we'd be in focus; when attached we are so close that we become blurry. Attachment manifests as grasping, controlling and being jealous. When we feel attached, we usually act and speak negatively to our partner. Attachment fuels emotional dependency on our partner, making us enmeshed and codependent.

"To love someone is to set them free, to wish them well, expecting nothing in return. Love is not self-absorbed, but allows us to extend to others without feeling drained. When we love someone and something happens to him or her, we are very sad but we know that in the end, we will be okay. We need to experience this confidence so we do not expect on our partner to save us and make or keep us happy."

Do you get the difference? There's nothing about love itself and loving that's bad or that can deeply hurt us. No one would ever really feel like they could have too much love in their lives, or love too deeply. Love isn't what would cause us pain if someone we love is far from us: it's attachment or the circumstances around a love relationship that causes that pain or longing. Love isn't what would cause us pain if we loved someone who didn't love us back: it's a lack of love that would create that heartache. Love isn't what would hurt us if we lived with someone who we loved who abused us or treated us poorly: it'd be that person (who most certainly would not love us if they were doing those things) hurting us, as well as our sticking around someone who wasn't safe for us and didn't treat us with love.

People most certainly could be worried they have too much attachment, are too deeply attached or have become so attached it's codependent; worried that they become attached to someone who doesn't share that attachment, or even worry that they are too attached to needing or wanting love or love relationships. But none of that is actually about loving itself: that's about attachment.

If you don't really grok the difference between love and attachment, that's okay. Understanding that well is something that can take a long time for many of us. It's something we learn over time and with life experience. One of the reasons it can take a while is because many of our initial experiences of love are within our families, where, as small children, we necessarily have a dependent relationship, so love and dependence and love and attachment are very much inseparable. You certainly couldn't suggest that a child who loves their mother, father or guardian could experience the kind of love where they could be fully comfortable loving a parent and letting them go in any way: that's just not possible for children who need the adults they love to be present to take care of them. As we grow, become more independent and begin to have elective relationships outside those of the family, that's when we start to learn about loving with less attachment, because relationships we choose with any measure of autonomy, which aren't about getting our most basic needs for survival met, are the ones where we can love without attachment automatically being part of the picture.

The way our cultures tend to frame or idealize romantic love also can make it seem like not only are attachment and love the same, but like attachment is what strengthens love, though relationship experts and theorists usually claim (and I'm in agreement with them) the opposite. In healthy love relationships, everyone needs room to be their own person, to have their own lives and to feel free in love, not trapped in it. That isn't to say people who love each other who make commitments to one another are killing love, I don't think that at all. But commitments people make need to leave room for each person to still be their own person, including sometimes being apart, and people need to recognize that a commitment or attachment all by itself doesn't keep people loving one another. To boot, love can exist without a given relationship being long-term or permanent, without a relationship always being the same model or kind (like it always being something sexual or romantic) and without people who love each other even being in close proximity at all.

A lot of people also don't know that the way western culture idealizes romantic love (being "in love") in such a way that suggests romantic love -- not the same as love as a whole -- is eternal, is what people must strive to try and sustain lifelong in a committed relationship, or IS love, have only framed it like that for less than a thousand years. Being IN love, romantic love, was historically not a factor at all in most long-term relationships, sexually exclusive (monogamous) relationships or marriages. Our western idea of romantic love, or being "in love," once called "courtly love," only seems to have originated around 1000AD. Then, it was usually about either totally unrequited romantic or erotic/sexual feelings and about extramarital or nonmarital love affairs: not about marriages, moving in together or making a life or family with someone. Our conflating romantic love with marriage or long-term relationships is very new in the grand scheme of things -- 500 or so years at the max -- and isn't universal even now.

So is it love? Are you in love? Do you and this person love each other? That's really something you're going to have to figure out over time on your own, considering the kinds of things I said up there and others and honoring your feelings and your own truths and ideas. But it most certainly sounds to me like you're in a super relationship. You two obviously really like being together right now, you seem to communicate a lot, you both feel very connected to each other and you feel cared for and treated with respect. By all means, you two may not feel identically about one another: given that you're not the same person, that'd hardly be surprising. We can certainly feel a given way about someone who feels similarly, but someone who feels identically at any given moment and certainly over time, is unlikely.

It sounds to me like a lot of what you're grappling with here is just being new to elective love relationships, new to sexual relationships, and also new to... well, some of the parts of life that are outside our control. In other words, some of what you're feeling is about love and attachment, but also just about growing up, becoming an adult and living life, particularly around the impermanence that's part of it all whether any of us likes it or not. It's hard to really like or love something in our lives or our hearts -- a person, a relationship, an achievement, a social group, a school, a job, a creative project -- and know that either those feelings or those situations are not likely permanent, as most are not and will not be. It's also very easy to assume that if only we or someone else would stay in the same place, if only we could control how much of our feelings we meter out on some kind of perfect schedule, we could assure something we enjoy or value know will be something we have, in every respect, for always.

Alas, one of the few certainties we have in this life is that absolutely nothing is permanent, not even this life itself. Change, in all things, including our own hearts, minds and bodies, is one of the few things we can be sure of.

I'll share something personal with you on that: my first huge love relationship, the one I'd probably say was my first big, big love, ended when I was only 16 with the violent death of the person I was in that relationship with. While I really wish I didn't have to learn that while love can endure, the people we love, the relationships we're in, and life itself are very impermanent in that way, and certainly wish that person had not died, it most certainly was a big lesson on the subject. We both said "forever" in it, as plenty of young people do given how eternal and huge those feelings do often feel, and I found out in a painful way that there was no forever to be had. But after the strongest pain of it subsided, it left me with some valuable understanding about love, attachment and im/permanence. The love I had for that person didn't end: I carry parts of it and them with me still, even though I have loved others in the decades since then and have loved or do love those others strongly. What the love in that relationship gave me as a person also wasn't lost: it's part of who I am. What my loving in that, and being loved in that, taught me also remained. Love didn't die, it's just that that person did, and obviously, that active relationship ended.

Can knowing or feeling the impermanence of everything, including love relationships, feel frightening and unstable? You betcha. When it comes to existential crises, I'd say it's one of the most universal ones there is. But that is what it is. Life is frought with impermanence and so are relationships. I'd say, however, that love has permanence even though it and the relationships it exists in are changeable. If we enact and experience love, if we feel love, often even when the situation those actions, experiences and feelings happened in changes, some of those feelings often remain, and we also certainly retain the memory of those experiences and whatever impact our actions of love and experiences of love had or continue to have.

On the sex bits, it's typical for emotional connectivity to be a big motivation for being sexual with someone else. I'd also say it's common for many young women to find that they get to that as an enjoyable aspect before they get to higher levels of physical/body enjoyment, especially younger women who don't a) have a lot of experience with their own sexual response via masturbation or b) have not had a good deal of sexual experience with partners in general before. It sounds like the sexual dynamic you two have is good overall, leaving plenty of room for you to discover what you like and be an equal partner, and an equally-considered partner, in your sex life together. It may just be that you need to spend more time together over time sexually to experiment more with sexual activities (together and alone) and develop a sex life that you enjoy physically as much as you enjoy it emotionally. But there's no one right "order" for that to happen: if the great emotional connectivity and response happens before the great physical connectivity and response, that's just fine, just like it'd be fine if the opposite were the case. It's also okay and not atypical that both of those things aren't happening at the same pace or time.

So, here's my advice for you, which may sound really hokey. I confess that I have a bias about love and love relationships: I think love is of incredible value to all of us, whether we're talking about love that happens in the context of romantic or sexual relationships, in friendships, in family relationships or in the wider relationships groups of people have in communities or that we all can have for every single person and living thing on this planet. In short, I'm a love junkie, make no mistake. If you want a more cynical view, you'll need to ask someone else (like Laura Kipnis, who in my most cynical moments about romantic love, and most certainly when it comes to ideals around love and marriage or monogamy, I adore), because even several loads of heartbreak over many years hasn't altered my love of love. Even being scared shitless of getting close to other people has rarely stopped me from doing it anyway.

You're in something that sounds wonderful and valued by the both of you. By all means, it's sound for any of us to protect our hearts in ways that make sense, like extending trust gradually, rather than trusting another person full-stop all at once, and protecting ourselves and others by not making promises we can't keep or don't know if we want to. It ma ywell be that when he goes off to school you two find a long-distance relationship isn't workable for you: it is for some people or relationships, it isn't for others. One or both of you may find that whether there is physical distance at some time or not, that your feelings about one another change, or the nature of your relationship changes. Passionate romantic relationships sometimes become platonic friendships, and sometimes even simply combust and go utterly kablooie. It also is pretty rare that even when no one moves away, someone's first romantic, sexual and/or love relationship winds up being a relationship they stay in, in one model, for decades. No matter what either of you do, it's more likely you're not going to be partners in this way 20 years from now than it is that you are. The feelings you are having also certainly can be very overwhelming and a person may not always feel up to handling them. So, if any of what's going on now or what could happen feels like you truly could not survive it, or like a risk you just do not want to take, by all means, maybe you're not emotionally ready right now, and it is best for you to sever this relationship and hold off on romantic or other intimate relationships until you feel more equipped to handle them and all they can entail.

It also may be that none of those unwanted outcomes happen. And if you think too much about what might happen, you can miss what is happening. I'd be more concerned about getting so caught up in what could happen that you miss out on fully experiencing and participating in the awesome relationship and feelings that you have here and now. It can be so easy for us to make a mess of a relationship or miss out on the good stuff we have by getting preoccupied with or afraid of what might happen sometime down the road. It's a bit like going for a walk in the park on a perfectly beautiful day, and being so concerned with possibly being mugged that you spend the whole walk focused on awful thoughts instead of on the gorgeous day. You wind up having an experience of feeling unsafe and fearful instead of an experience of enjoying the beautiful outdoors and a feeling of peace.

If you do want to keep going with this relationship, save both of you doing the best you can to stay in honest and open communication, to treat one another with love, care and respect, to make choices about your relationship that feel and work best for you both, there's little to nothing you can do to control the future. There are things you can do to manage your fears and worries about attachment. For instance, you can invest some energy in getting a clearer sense of where those feelings are coming from and what might bringing them up. Are you worried this person will simply abandon you? Are you worried you want things from this relationship that just aren't possible, like you two always being in the same place or living in the same area? Are you or your partner worried that if you "fall too hard" you'll each lose yourselves? Once you have a better sense of what your fears are and where they come from, you can both talk them out and make sure you're both making choices and creating a relationship model that supports what you want, rather than likely resulting in what you don't. If you're worried about losing your separate self, or totally falling apart when he leaves, you might want to start spending a bit less time together, since you say you're together almost all of the time: it may be that spending SO much time together is the root of those concerns.

There are things you can do to manage how you'll feel and deal when he goes away to school, too. You may want to try and sustain the relationship in various ways, or if either of you chooses to just say goodbye, there are ways you can do that which leave you both feeling resolved and okay, even if it's hard or sad. But it's February, not August, and this is still a fairly new relationship. Why don't you cross that bridge when you get to it?

For now, I'd just enjoy yourself, relishing even the intense and scary feelings. Even hard big feelings are still big feelings, and big feelings are one of the coolest parts of really being alive. Appreciate that you have what may well be love or developing love in your life, and open yourself up to expressing it, enacting it and fully experiencing it. Try and accept that the feelings you are having and the relationship you are experiencing them in will likely change in some ways over time no matter what you do, both in ways you may want and ways you may not want, and that your control over either is limited. Why not just see where this goes? You express feeling a bit overwhelmed by love, feeling like you might not be ready for love, but love is one of those things where if and when it is what you're feeling and doing, ready or not, there it is.

It might help to remember that while love can certainly trigger or uncover our fears, fear really is kind of the enemy of love. If we're deeply afraid -- either of a person, of love itself, of a relationship or of ourselves -- those ingredients of love I mentioned up top there are going to have a tough time developing or growing. I understand being afraid of having your heart broken, especially if you haven't yet had it happen and don't know that it is something you can or will survive, which you likely will. I understand being afraid of being abandoned. I understand being afraid of "loving too much," especially when you're confusing love with attachment: we really can't love too much, but we certainly can become too attached, and can also certainly become too invested in something that really isn't love or isn't good for us. But I think it's a good thing to face those kinds of fears and work through them.

When I was a kid, I thought Judy Blume was one of the smartest, wisest people in the whole world. And she really is. Judy -- or rather, one of her 15-year-old characters -- said something great that is so pertinent to all of this, which is that, "Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it."

I take back what I said about wishing I could give you some perfect, pat answer on what love is and is like. I'm glad I don't have that for you, because I'm glad it's something each of us gets to experience for ourselves, have be uniquely about us and our relationships and have our own uniquely navigated journeys with. If we didn't get to do all that, we'd probably grow a lot less in love and love less richly. If we didn't get to do all of that, love wouldn't be the great adventure I think it can be if we let ourselves embark upon it. If you feel afraid, nervous or worried about it sometimes, that's absolutely okay and something everyone will struggle with, but see if you can't acknowledge those fears but still go ahead and take a fierce and fearless leap, including talking about your fears with your boyfriend. So, I say have this adventure and make it a great one. It sounds like you've got yourself an excellent traveling companion for that voyage right now and like the open road awaits you.

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