Expanding Our Love Definitions

Does heartbreak and loss make you think you will never love again or does it propel you right back into the game? We are taught that love looks a certain way, that we can only have one “great” love, one soulmate, that romantic-sexual love “completes” us, and that we must obtain it by any means necessary. But what if all of those things are wrong?

In 2016 I finally and completely ended a passionate, but emotionally damaging, on-again-off-again relationship. When we first met it was love at first sight. I had thought I would never love again and resigned myself to permanent singledom, while only in my 30s. And then I met Pinnochio* and they changed me, quite fundamentally. I went from bitter Evil Queen to singing Snow White. Four years of abuse and infidelity later, I still woke up in the morning so happy to hear them in the other room, happy to see their face when I handed them a cup of coffee. Despite all the drama, the arguing, the gaslighting, the accusations, the threats, and the assaults, yes, I still loved them. But I couldn’t continue to live with a Pinnochio in my life.

We lived together for a year in 2013/2014 before they moved out one day while I was at work. I came home to the surprise of an empty house, and a friendly neighbor filling me in on what they had heard. Over time they weaseled their way back into my life off and on, and last February when I had a major injury that left me homebound, they moved back in to take care of me. While I was in a wheelchair, stuck in the house for three full months, they found ample ways to be controlling, and for the first time they hit me in the face. They moved out in June, trying to sneak out again but I knew the signs, and I was tired of their games by that point and happy to have them go. On Halloween I found out Pinnochio had remarried after the first time they left me, and gone back to their newer wife after the second time too. I’m 42 and thinking, again, that I should probably resign myself to being single, at least for a good long while.

But that doesn’t mean I’m all alone in the world, or that I’m lonely. This is where kind and gentle readers may reassure me that there are good people in the world and I will surely find one, but let me tell you about the better things that during my singledom I have found that we can do with our precious time and hearts rather than seeking out The One.

It’s 2017, so let’s talk about what “love” means, and how we can expand our definition and expectations of love so that we find more ways to meet our emotional needs.

Platonic Romantic Love:

I have had people in my life that I have been “in love with” but one or both of us were not available for a sexual romantic relationship. There can be a variety of reasons to engage in a platonic romantic relationship, including one or both parties being asexual, one or both parties being polyamorous but in a relationship with someone else who expects sexual fidelity, being romantically but not sexually attracted to a particular person, health issues that limit or preclude sexual activity, simply wanting to “wait,” and more. The lack of sexualization of the relationship does not make the love any less real or valid. In U.S. culture we scoff at a relationship that isn’t ready to or interested in “taking it to the next level.” We view romance as only valid if it has the intention of leading to sex. We refer to “consummating” the relationship, meaning to “fulfill” the relationship and “bring it to a state of perfection.”  Before sex, the relationship is considered imperfect and incomplete. What if we looked at the relationship as complete when the people in it feel complete, instead of emphasizing that something is missing?

Friendship Love:

The love of good friends is important and often misunderstood. No one has all of their emotional needs met by one solitary person in their lives. We all have multiple relationships that we cultivate, with our family members, partners, friends, mentors, coworkers, acquaintances, and more. The nature of those various relationships varies, but acknowledging that deep and meaningful friendships are essential to our emotional well-being in no way detracts from our other relationships. My closest friends are just as valuable to me as any partner. As the old Spice Girls song says, “if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” It is part of a healthy romantic relationship to have other relationships and interests separate from your partner. We don’t necessarily need to always like or want to hang out with our partner’s friends, and vice versa, but we do need to respect them and encourage our partner to maintain those friendships that are good for them. The love of a best friend gets you through all of life’s ups and downs – including loss of romantic and sexual partners. Not all friendships last forever either, but the chances that it will be a loving friend who holds you through the loss of a partner are higher than a partner holding you through the loss of a friend. I can live without romance or sex, but I can’t survive without my closest friends.

Unconditional Pet Love:

I recently read advice that you should intentionally look into your loved ones’ eyes every day. I’m currently single, and the only loved one I have contact with daily is my dog. Sage is my emotional support animal and a rescue. I laughed when I read the advice because I realized I actually DO THIS with Sage every day – she is my beloved. Now, I’m not saying you have to stare into your pet’s eyes every day. I am saying that your pet loves you, unconditionally, and there is value in that relationship that can meet some of your emotional needs. Studies show that cat purrs lower our blood pressure and stress levels.  In fact, pets improve our health in several ways, but what is not discussed as often is the simple friendship that they provide. We mourn them when they die, and that alone should tell us how important they are to us. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and enjoy that love and devotion pets can offer is one way to embrace love in our everyday lives.

Self Love:

Don’t sleep on the value of loving yourself! One of the most damaging aspects of our culture placing emphasis on romantic sexual love is how it makes us feel empty, unloved, invalid, and like failures for being single. Sorry to sound like an affirmation meme here, but while we are told that we are incomplete people without a partner, the truth is two incomplete people do not make one complete person, much less two completed people. You have to be completed by yourself, and then if and when you go into a relationship with someone who has done the same, you uplift each other instead of draining each other. Find your passions, hobbies, and interests. Build non-romantic relationships that meet some of your emotional needs. And look after yourself with the same love and care you would devote to a partner.

Love bites so frequently because we are asking one person to be too much for us. The problem isn’t with love itself. The problem is how narrowly we define love and how we try to fit into that small definition, so that we fail to see all the love available to us in our expansive world. We want things to look a certain way that we have been sold by Disney and romantic comedies, even though we can look around us and see how idealized and false those visions are.

When we insist on small visions of what love is, we make ourselves smaller and we miss out on so much potential happiness. But we can start to broaden who we allow ourselves to love and be loved by, and how we express that love. Then we will find we have everything necessary for a fulfilling life.

* Name changed so no one can accuse me of ruining them and they can’t sue OTV.

Art by Aaminah Shakur. “Blessed Heart” is available for purchase at Shakur Arts


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artist, art historian, culture critic, editor, healer, poet, writer, a force of nature

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