The first time I told my husband I loved him, he told me I didn't know what I was talking about. Yeah. It lives in our marriage as one of those things, those moments one person (maybe be) keeps bringing up after the fact, like a fight about someone's mother-in-law or some other tired marriage cliche. We were making out at my place, had been dating for several months, and it felt like the right time, so I said it. He said something like,"Jess, we can't know what it means to love each other, not yet. I know you mean well, but you don't understand what you're saying."
Ooh, I was SO pissed. How dare this man--granted he was the most tender, thoughtful, open and honest human being I'd known to date, but still--how dare he tell me I didn't know what I was talking about? What kind of arrogance did it take to know what he thought was going on in my heart? Here I was trying to be vulnerable and connect with him through my major feelings, and he was tossing them back and telling me I was a kid playing with a grown-up concept I didn't understand. I felt so condescended to, so belittled. It was the first time he'd ever provoked that kind of feeling from me.
Although now, after six years together and three years of marriage, I wonder if maybe he was right.
I've been wondering what love is: if the love that a woman feels for her partner is less like a relational love and more like loving chocolate or some celebrity. Love is a feeling, but it's also a force, an energetic experience that moves us to do things: speak, think differently (maybe!), move toward or away from someone, it can even drive us to deceit, manipulation, murder. Is it a one-way stream of energy, like wind or a city street? Am I not so much in love with someone as I am in love at them? Is there a difference?
I was thinking of my parents as I was wondering about love and what it is between people. I imagine that my mother, and probably my father too, would still say that they love me, even after so much time has passed without us engaging in relationship. Even after all their pain--which, I imagine, is the only pain they are even semi-conscious of. In our most recent dealings with one another, my pain was irrelevant, and also according to them self-inflicted--and all their sacrifice and all of their tolerance of me, they still love me. I tried to imagine the scenario in which either of my parents would say to me that they loved me. Sadly, in my imagination, it felt so untrue. To love someone, you have to know them: who they are; what them believe in and want for themselves and their people, for the world; what they like or dislike; how they spend their time. Knowing all these things that you might about them, you could like them or not, but you have to know them.
If you love someone, what do you do? How do you love them? People do all kinds of jacked-up, despicable things in the name of love. A man may beat his wife because "he loves her" and wants her to behave in a way that keeps him calm. A mother may deride her son because "she loves him" and wants to prepare him early for the fact that the world is a cruel place. Parents may force a child to attend church for years, with no awareness of their child's faith journey because they "love" their child, and fear for her eternal soul. These people think that what they're doing is expressing love. Would their children and partners agree?
I think that most love, most love I know, has been one-way love. I reflect on some of the behavior I've been party to and I realize that this does not feel like love to me. You cannot love me unless you know me: adore, cherish, esteem, sure, and thank you because those are lovely. But love is an active verb, and it is not one-way. Two people in relationship agree on what it means to love each other. Sometimes love means I will let you beat me because I know that the moment I say "Jell-o", you will stop. Sometimes love means you will let me pick your clothes out for you; or you will cut my hair. You love me and I love you because we've named what passes between us as love. To love someone takes their consent. And I don't mean sexual consent here, I mean relational. It need not involve any touching at all. You can love me, and I can love you, if and only if each of us can say, "Yes, I witness what you feel for me, and I can affirm that it is love."
Consent. In love. Is that real? Is that revolutionary? Or I am I just late to this party?
In a Christian circle I used to run in, I heard the phrase "do life" a lot: as in, this is a person or community I want to do life with. Maybe that is what love is; if you love someone, you choose to do life with someone, whether it's for the rest of y'alls lives or until you decide you no longer want to do life. I read recently that the Sanskrit word for love, bhakti, stems from the verbal root bhaj, which means, "to participate". I read this and it took my breath away. Love means participation, it means buying in. You don't need to "fix" anything or "change" anything, but you are invested, you are participating actively in that person's life in a way that serves them and serves you.
Now, I suppose the other side of this is: what if the person who says they love you really believes that they love you, but you don't? What then? Yes, indeed what then. I suppose that if you two can't agree on what love is in the context of your relationship, then the relationship must be reconfigured. You treat me a certain way and you say, "Jess, I love you." I say, "I'm sorry, what I feel coming from you is something but I do not feel loved. To love me looks like this; what comes from you looks like that." This is not a fun conversation to have. It requires supernatural listening, and an enormous amount of compassion for the self and for the person you're in relationship with.
Now, maybe you can't get down with this idea of love as a shared, consensual practice. Maybe you love someone because you know what it means even if they don't. Okay. I might respectfully say that you might be loving at them, which makes them into an object, not a person in relationship with you. If that's okay with them and with you, loving them the way you love french fries and chocolate shakes, then you do you. But this is not the love I want from people in relationship with me. I want us to know each other, and I want our love to be affirming for all of us.
A love that requires so much of me, and so much of the people I am in relationship with, might mean that I love only a very few people. But I hope not. I hope love is a kind of self-charging battery, and the better we love one another--in relationship and not as objects--the more able we are to continue to love others, and the love will spread.
(I am only just now wondering if this is how Christ loves the church, an enduring model for how we should love each other, which (at least theoretically) requires a great deal of sacrifice. I don't know. I imagine Christ knows the church, with its totally messed up damage, with its struggle to stay relevant in a world that is both wrapping itself in the love of God more ardently (read (some)human rights and (some) social change) , and also so terrified of change that it is blowing itself up and shutting itself down. The more I think about Christ as a model for life, the more I wonder how realistic it is for me to be comparing myself to THE SON OF GOD, for fuck's sake. What chance do I have in arriving if that's my yardstick? But this is all just parenthetical and wondering, and not so important after the fact. Just a post-script musing.)