What Is And Is Not Love? A Valentine’s Day Wish For All The Lovers, With Or Without Someone To Love

What if love, or at least the “love” depicted in love songs and romantic comedies, is not actually love? What if what we typically refer to as love is an intoxicatingly intense boundary-less merging, a blissful brew of emotions concocted from a mysterious and often irrational attraction, sexual desire, eroticism, the false promise of unmet childhood needs, possessiveness, love addiction, control, novelty, idealization, the glorification and exulting of exiled qualities in ourselves, the fantasy of someone who will rescue us from all our pain, the familiarity of the ways in which we were first wounded by our parents, and the ecstasy of being the one chosen by the object of our affection? What if this chemical tonic tells us “We’ve got each other now” and fools us into believing that all of our pain will finally go away forever?

Yet this feeling is fleeting and highly conditional, based upon whether or not the agenda of the lover is getting fulfilled and whether the object of such love is cooperating with this agenda. This addictive honeymoon suite of hormones waxes and wanes, depending on whether the beloved is coddling our childhood wounds or needling them. When the object of our affection wakes up to the con of the manipulative transaction- as they always will in time- this constellation of intense emotions can turn on a dime, souring the lover on the beloved and turning love to hate in a New York minute, unmasking the anger, frustration, and vulnerable dependency built into such a toxic agreement. When the attachment of such a fusion is threatened or breaks, the nervous system brew shifts from ecstatic intoxicant to disabling poison, filling us with stress hormones and activating our core wounds. Suddenly, the beloved becomes the enemy, and we might even become sick or lose our sanity, proving that there never was love to begin with, for true love is neither so fickle nor so unforgiving.

But THIS is not love. Any love that can turn to hate in the blink of an eye stems from pride, not love. When we care more about being right or feeling chosen or getting all our outrageous desires met than we care about the actual vulnerable human being on the other side of our affection, we are in the territory of exploitation, not love. The minute we stop getting what we want from someone, the moment we don’t feel special or chosen or wanted, is the moment real love has the chance to begin to blossom. When two people quit cooperating with each others’ agendas, when conditional approval inevitably shatters, we face a vital choice point. Can we still love someone when they are no longer giving us what we want? Do they still love us when our efforts to find a rescuer fail? Are we on board to open our hearts, even if someone else closes theirs? 

Of course, real love adores boundaries, because it is never loving to enable an abuser to violate another human being, nor is it loving to allow oneself to be repetitively abused or exploited. This is big love, because it may not feel loving to the one you’re saying no to, but it is love nonetheless, a love big enough to stand up to a bullying abuser and say “Brother, sister, beloved, I love you too much to let you get away with something so unkind, and I love myself too much to ignore the soul violence of what you’re doing.” Real love knows that some behaviors are deal-breakers, and even if we really love someone, we might have to love them from the other side of the world or the other side of the veil of death. The mantra “Unconditional love; conditional access” is an act of self-love, protecting the sanctuaries of your tender heart and promising to gift yourself the same generosity of heart you might give other beloveds. It is also a gift to the one you’re walking away from, since heartbreak can be a potent catalyst for transformation and healing, one that can wake up the abuser with the clutching ache of regret.

Short of tolerating abuse and without failing to hold others accountable when they hurt us, can we not only tolerate but actually feel a kind of unconditional affinity, intimacy, awe, and gratitude for someone who breaks the intoxicating spell and crashes us back to reality with the grit and gristle of who they really are? Can they tolerate seeing and accepting what we might find utterly unlovable in ourselves? Can we love someone not just for what we like about them, but for all of who they really are- adorable and deplorable, light and dark, desirable and undesirable, perfectly imperfect in the wholeness of their humanity? Can they grant us the same gift? If so, we are at the portal of love, one that still requires us to walk through it, to say with a vulnerable, splayed open, quivering heart, “I choose you, just as you are. Do you choose me?” If anyone ever says yes and means it, let your heart rejoice with wild abandon. Even better, if you are able to say that to yourself, you have received a priceless blessing, a love that nobody can ever take away from you and which will follow you, even in death.

Because that which is not love is more of a high than an unwavering steady state of being, like an addict, we can be easily vulnerable if the high wears off. Should we decide we cannot choose to love someone so unconditionally- or should someone else reject us for our imperfect humanness, the lure of boundary-less fusion may beckon us and impel us to reach out, jonesing, for the next fix. But real love is unconditional in its care, if not in its access. Real love is not so fragile as to disappear when it gets harder to love. Yet this unconditional affinity for the object of our tenderness means that access to our inner gardens must be highly conditional.

As such, love is not an emotion. Emotions wax and wane, as impermanent as waves in the ocean. Yet loving is a state of being, a permanent, unwavering connection that may outlast death and even continue once someone else becomes intolerably abusive to the point of breaking all ties. Love does not fluctuate- because that within us which loves is unchanging, steadfast, and compassionate. It does not depend on whether or not someone is cooperating with our agendas, and it does not flip to hate if our agendas are thwarted. Instead, love might change forms because circumstances require it. But it does not end just because we might have to limit access to the inner sanctuaries of the heart in order to keep our vulnerability safe.

For love is not a feeling but a field that can entrain others into it, a contagious vibration we can emanate, even to those far from our inner circles. Such a love blesses not only the beloved but the one who loves, nourishing all who are touched by that field with the sweet nectar of the open heart, like an endless and never depleted waterfall pouring forth in a looping toroidal wave that nourishes all who partake and all who give.

And so it is that on this Valentine’s Day, I wish you THAT kind of love, the love that heals, the love that connects us to the Divine and to each other, the love that is medicine. May you give it to yourself and be generous enough to share that inner affection with those with whom you can genuinely say, “I choose you.”

This Valentine’s Day is my Aunt Trudy and Uncle Larry’s 50th wedding anniversary and my brother Chris’s 51st birthday. So to my extended family- and to the family at my home Mira, April, Matt, Shannon, Gaia, and Brie- and to my chosen family- Diane, Emma, Shiloh, Jonathan, Ed, Jeff, Rachel, Doug, and Maja…I love you and I choose you. And to all of you who touch my heart every day with your ecstatic messy glorious awe-striking humanness,

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Lissa Rankin


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