From time to time, a reader asks me, Is it love? Or, How do I know it's love? Or, How long does love take? Or some variation of that. A good many of my readers are younger and haven't experienced love yet–not romantic love, the kind you feel toward someone other than a family member, for example. I've done my best to answer their questions over the years, but I've never felt totally comfortable with what I've said. After giving it some thought lately–and inspired by a recent email correspondence with a new reader (thank you, Chad)–I want to give my answer another try.
I begin with a little about my own experience of love. Before I'd met my partner, Chris, just over twenty-two years ago, I'd never been in love. I was thirty-two at the time and thought, if I keep going like this, I'll never know what love is. I knew I couldn't accept that, and I'd keep trying until I found someone to love and to love me back–even if it took the rest of my life. I would never give up, not about something as important as that. (I'll say a little more about the experience of learning to love oneself in a bit.)
So I met Chris on a beautiful, warm late spring evening in June 1992. I knew he was special from the start, and I knew he was different from all of the other men I'd met over the years-different in a good way, different as in, I could see myself with him. We complimented each other. We clicked. Our rhythms were the same, if that makes sense. Was it love at first sight? No, I don't believe in that. I believe in infatuation at first sight and lust at first sight, but there was none of that with Chris. It was all very level-headed, and tentative. I'd been down this path with a few other guys before, and it had never worked out. With Chris, I planned to be cautious. But I was also hopeful.
And needy. Yes, I'll admit it. I needed a man in my life. I needed not to be alone anymore. I needed not to feel like it was just me against the world. I needed someone to come home to. I needed someone to talk to about the day I'd had at work. I needed someone to spend evenings and weekends with. I needed someone to share some of my interests. I needed someone to hold me. I needed someone to kiss me. I needed someone to want me. I needed someone to care. That's what I needed most of all–someone whose very presence in my life told me I mattered. Sound familiar?
I told Chris I wouldn't play games with him. If I wanted to call him on the phone–this was before cellphones, smartphones, and the like–I would. I had no intention of waiting for him to call, just to stroke my ego, to prove to me he was genuinely interested. I owned how I felt about talking to him or being with him, and, if I wanted to, I'd do something about it. In other words, I would not wait for him. (What I'm trying to get across here is, don't play games with someone you're interested in, or you might play yourself out of the best thing that might have ever happened to you. Don't be insecure, and don't be a fool.)
I'm a shameless question-asker. I will literally ask anyone anything, given the opportunity. The worst he or she can do is tell me to mind my own damn business (it's never happened, by the way, because I'm convinced most people like to talk about themselves, if someone is genuinely interested in what they have to say). So, when Chris and I spent time together, I asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. Never once did he tell me it felt like I was interviewing him for a job, but he could have–the job of being my partner. I needed to know everything about him. And Chris being Chris, he told me what I wanted to know. And I knew what he said was sincere. I knew I could trust him. That way key.
Okay. So back to love. My recent reader asked me, how did I know when I loved Chris?, or something to that effect. It's the same as asking, Is it love? Or, How do I know it's love? And my answer was, I didn't. Not really. I kept waiting for the fireworks to go off, but they didn't? I kept waiting to feel head-over-heels for Chris, but I didn't. I knew I felt something toward him, but I wasn't sure what. I knew I felt connected to him. I knew I felt invested in him, the more time we spent together. I knew I didn't want to lose him. But were all of those facets of love? I had no idea. I'd never experienced love before. I hoped I'd recognize it, but I wasn't sure I would. I just went along, because I'd never felt better than when I was with him.
Ten months after we met, Chris and moved in together. A big step. A big change in my life. Was I ready to make it? Oh, yes, I was, if it meant I'd be living with Chris, if it meant I'd see him every day, get to share everything with him. Was I in love with him then? Maybe. I still wasn't sure. But what I'd felt toward him at the outset had certainly gotten stronger. It was undeniable. And I felt less cautious about feeling it. I was pretty sure Chris wasn't going anywhere, and it was safe to invest in him completely, but I still wasn't certain how he felt about me. I mean, people say and do all sorts of things, but do we ever really know exactly how they feel? That's where faith comes in. And hope. I had the faith and hope that Chris and I were the real deal, that what we had would last. So we rented a new, beautiful apartment in Vancouver's Yaletown, and began our life together.
Every night before we went to bed, I told Chris I loved him. I made a point of telling him that. No one had ever told me he or she loved me. We weren't that sort of family. So, when I got to know Chris better, I told him I'd tell him that I loved him. Again, no games. If that's how I felt, I'd say it. The problem is, I still didn't know if what I felt toward him was love. We'd been together a year or so by then, and I still wasn't sure that's how I felt. When you have no experience with love, how do you know if what you feel is the real thing, is what all the writer's write about in great literature, what the recording artists sing about in great songs? How do you know? Love is exalted to such a level that, unless you can relate exactly to what you've read and heard, you have no idea if what you feel is the same thing.
Some time between then and today, I fell in love with Chris. To put that into perspective, some time over the past twenty-one years, I fell in love with the love of my life. Can I narrow it down from that? No, I can't. Did I fall in love with him closer to the time we met than to today? Of course. I know in my heart I've loved Chris for many years. But do I know exactly when it happened? No, I don't. All I know is, it happened. And that's good enough for me. I have what I've always wanted, and it's everything I ever thought it would be. I've experienced great and deep and abiding love, and, even if Chris were taken from me today, at least I can say that. My love for him wouldn't end. I'd continue feeling it until the end of my days. In that respect, I'm a lucky man.
So, where does that leave us in our discussion of, Is it love? With the very best answer I can give you. Perhaps with the very best answer anyone can give you: What's the hurry? Why do you need to know right now?
Sure, I'll admit that when I told Chris early on I loved him but I didn't know for sure, there may have been a part of me that thought, if I tell him I love him, maybe it'll happen. Maybe if I say it, say it often enough, my feelings will match my words. In other words, maybe I can will myself to love this man. And maybe there was an element of that.
I know for sure there was an element of, if I tell him I love him, he won't leave me, thereby guaranteeing the success of our relationship. Remember, I was needy as hell. Did what Chris had to offer satisfy that neediness? Absolutely. But did my telling him I loved him guarantee we'd stay together? Of course not. I see that now. Lots of people are madly in love with each other and break up, for a variety of reasons. Just because you love someone doesn't mean you'll be together for the rest of your lives. But I thought, if Chris doesn't really love me, but I tell him I love him, then maybe he'll come around, feel the same way I do, and everything will be great between us. Delusional, for sure. But, hey, you do what you've got to do, right? Or what you think you have to do at the time?
Love. It's the experience of a lifetime. It's what we're here to do. There's nothing else like it. Life is meaningless without it. And I believe the greatest tragedy is when one dies and has never known true love.
But, if you've just met someone, and you're having fun together, and you can't wait to see him, and your days are filled with thinking about him, and you wonder if what you're feeling toward him is love? Don't. Don't wonder about it at all. What's the hurry? Why does it need to be love right away? Like is just fine too. Or strong like. Or whatever you want to call it.
There is no need to fall in love right away, or to know you've fallen in love. Frankly, if you have to ask yourself if you're in love, you probably aren't. Because you'll know. You'll know when you're in love. The knowing won't come from your head, from intellectualizing it, it'll come from your heart, the center of love. Your heart will tell you when it's love. And I doubt you'll look up one day and realize you're in it. I don't think it happens that way. You'll just feel it. It'll be there. The ground beneath your feet will finally feel solid. And you'll know.
So, take the pressure off. Just be with that person. Do things together. Have long conversations. Go for walks. Laugh a lot. Then laugh more. Spend evenings at home. Enjoy nice meals at restaurants. See a good movie. Dance. At this point in what you have together, you're doing exactly what you should be. There's no reason to complicate it by asking yourself, Is it love? Give it time. Let your feelings work on their own timetable. Don't rush anything. Be sure. Relax. Just enjoy yourself. If it's meant to happen, it will. It will.
And, in the meantime, if you haven't already, fall in love with the most important person in your life: You. That is the person you should ask if you're in love with, because he or she is the greatest love of your life. If you don't know that yet, I pray you will. Because that love is the source of all great love. Don't believe me? You will. At least I hope you will.