What follows is a list of expounded love aphorisms, documented here both for your own potential benefit and mine, as a way of demarcating my personal progression towards a self-led bachelor’s of love <3 I don’t expect you to agree with my views, this is just how I currently see it.
NOTE: since this is quite an exposition, I understand that reading it all in one go is a daunting task. Every aphorism can stand for itself so feel free to scroll and read whichever one(s) call out to you. And if you do read it all at once, then props to you and a huge hug of appreciation from me 🙂
I’ll begin by setting up a little humble scenario:
You’re at the store shopping for food. You turn an aisle just as somebody is turning it too in the other direction. You catch their gaze and stop abruptly. Your basket swings forward a smidgen, theirs to the side. You lower your gaze quickly and barely perceive the color of their shirt – better than holding eye contact – but they’re still in your line of sight, so you look down further. You look down even more because from what you can tell out of the corner of your eye and the lingering afterimage of their face, they’re supposedly really cute. Maybe they do the same, but you can’t tell because you’re looking down. A quick scuttle and the fragrance of a smile, and you pass each other.
A few minutes later you turn back, realizing you forgot the apples on your way to the milk. They realize they forgot the milk on their way to the apples. So you bump into each other again. This time you both laugh.
And again. Another laugh, more drawn out and hearty but also a tad surprised.
Some more times and you notice a pattern; you scuttle each time but always end up going right. Huh, interesting. You’re in sync. You don’t remember the store being so small and your laughs turn into curious questions.
Also, damn, they really are that cute.
When it happens once more, one of you breaks the cycle and turns around just as you let the other pass. You makes a witty remark about fate, or maybe it was them, and you begin talking.
Neither one of you breaks eye contact.
A few weeks later, you find yourselves asking if it really was fate as you’re sitting next to each other on a Ryanair flight headed somewhere closer to the equator. You had to finesse a bit to manage to sit together, an expression of your young, audacious, all-or-nothing love. Actually paying for reserved seats comes much later, but you don’t think about it now.
Eventually you find yourselves at the same food store again but there’s no more scuttling this time around. This time, you’re shopping for food together.
And then you lived happily ev…..hooooold on a minute. The horse neighs to a stop, Zorro style.
Finding the 'perfect' one is only the beginning
Upon meeting the greatest person, or the greatest relationship (assuming that is even possible), we think that our work is done. We’ve got it on lock, we say. Ain’t nobody taking my baby, said the rapper Russ.
And then somebody comes along and takes your baby…
They were just a stranger you bumped into at a store. Then they’re a deity. Then they’re a stranger again. It don’t take long for a fallen angel to forget about heaven. I’ll reserve this and the halo effect for another post…
…but so far they seem perfect. And so we get careless and the lock breaks or was never even clicked fully closed. Maybe it’s because you were talking about locks in the first place and who likes to be caged?
But who can blame us? We are always told that the goal is to find the right one, isn’ it? And then it’s over, no?
No. Once you home in on the stars, you then have to track them.
Love and life are the same, constantly shifting in position and shape. This means that once we find the ‘right’ person or the ‘right’ relationship, less than half of the work is done. After that, we have to actively keep at it; we have to constantly refine, constantly mold our actions and expectations (or the world around us to fit those actions and expectations).
Like a ship, love has to be steered because the waves never halt, constantly tweaked and constantly nudged to keep it from going off course.
That doesn’t mean that you have to remain in a constant limbo of doubt or skepticism. No, not at all, but it means that you have to wake up every day with an awareness of what you are doing, what it takes and what the stakes are. In your hands are the life lines of another person. And they’ve got yours. How do you want these life lines to be woven? Into a noose or a scarf? You choose.
Only then, with that mindset in place, can you be as wiiiiild as you want.
Love is a skill, not a given
Emerging from this fact is that love does not arise simply by sitting around and waiting for it, nor does closing your eyes and pretending you’ve been asleep for millennia work. That’s only for the (fairly frail) fairy tales.
Doing so supposedly means that you believe you will be well equipped to receive that eventual love without any prior knowledge or experience, knowing exactly how to approach it and what to say and what to do. But that works only in the realm of fiction, and even then not so much.
Just as waves come, so do they recede. Similarly, love has ups and love has downs, arising and falling based on the physics of your own particular niche. Knowing how to stay afloat within these currents and tides – and eventually riding them – takes practice. Even knowing how to handle the good part of love takes skill, the skill of being appreciative and ready to learn from that love. The same goes for sex, which I’m sure many of us had to learn the hard way…
Love, like sex and everything else that is meaningful in our lives, takes effort. We need to shape ourselves in such a way that we come to deserve the partner we are so desiring each and every day, being thankful nonetheless for our efforts so that we don’t come to ask the futile and deprecating question “What did I do to deserve you?”
We should be able to answer this question, just like we should, if we see love as something that we must put work into, be able to answer the question “What does it mean to love somebody?” and “What does it mean to be loved?” I’m not saying that we have to know the answer fully or clearly from the get go, but if we remain baffled, then that means we haven’t really been learning.
The ability to love and be loved is in all of us, but the knowledge that we start with is rudimentary and greatly influenced by what society tells us, which we already know too well is not a good thing.
Thus, our partners won’t just come to us. And if love can’t be found by actively seeking it or forcing it to occur but must instead arise naturally or serendipitously then, if what Louis Pasteur said is true that “chance favours the prepared mind” (McDonald, 2004, p. 77), preparation is key.
Note: the prepared mind, not the slacking mind or the entitled mind.
We have to prepare ourselves both to love and to be loved since being loved is not just about what we can gain. To be loved requires us to open up to that love, willingly and with trust. If not, we will only be reaping the benefits while hurting the benefactor, and you don’t always have to bite so hard for the hand that feeds you to erode. In fact, you can just keep licking it, giving nothing in return.
This also explains why love cannot persist smoothly unless we love ourselves, for learning to love ourselves is the most fundamental of preparations. It teaches us both how to give and how to receive all in one, a win-win in the name of love. On how to achieve that another time, but I don’t think it is so far removed from the necessary steps to love a stranger.
In addition, it implies that there is something to gain from having different partners in your lifetime, falling in and out of love. Each person will give you a totally different scenario with its own challenges to test yourself in and learn. I’m not saying that one person isn’t enough. If you can create the type of relationship full of diversity and learning experiences and opportunities for you to expand yourself, then you’re set. It’s just that having experience with different people makes that diversity easier to come by.
What’s really nice about this is that we shouldn’t have any problem learning about somebody’s exes! Okay, maybe not on the first date or encounter but eventually my claim is that we should be thrilled to find out! This is because their stories with their exes are immensely valuable to us. It tells us so much about our partners, namely who they’ve become and what skills they have acquired so far in the course of their own journey with love. It tells us about their needs and what cards they’re bringing to the table, therefore informing us on what to expect or how to move forward. You can’t properly keep your eyes on the prize without remaining aware of the previous losses and gains. Plus, as Alain de Botton (who for me has been a mentor as such when it comes to inversions of thinking with regards to love) claims in the following video, our ex-lovers are a vital source of knowledge regarding what is wrong with us:
Funny enough, I watched this video years ago and watching it again right now makes me realize how much of what I’ve laid down in this post and learned is precisely what he teaches. Please watch. He’s mesmerizing. And so annoyingly right.
Anywho, it’s important to realize this and to stop fussing over exes. It brings about a lot of undue tension and drama. No wonder the person you’ve met had a life before you and no wonder they’ve had important people in their lives that are probably still important to them. You most likely do too. Love isn’t black and white. And those people, those stories, have nothing to do with you, so embrace the fact that regardless of whatever history has gone by, you are with your partner now and they are with you without reigning over their past or shaming them for it.
We’ve all played our games and might have many more to play for the night is long, but right now you’re at each other’s table and it don’t seem like they’re footsie-ing anybody else, does it? 😉
Relationships are not just about vulnerability
Bear with me. Sharing our vulnerabilities is essential, yes, but it can be overdone.
Shrouding a relationship in vulnerability is more detrimental than is often assumed. Wanting to know and possess everything of the person, all of their secrets, all of their fears, reading all of the footnotes and appendices to their story, and equally giving up all your own vulnerabilities and insecurities all at once and all the time does more harm than good. It’s a lot to handle, both for you and your partner. And it can have a dulling effect, akin to a movie spoiler.
A relationship can’t be cascadingly all-vulnerable, for then desire is lost. It has to be gradual, starting by building a consensual and compassionate safe space each time. Or better yet, a ‘safe atmosphere’, since there is no such thing as a permanent safe space. Spaces change, time goes by, contexts shift. It’s a lot to expect of people to always be ready to get down and dirty into the nitty gritties of our psyches. Thus, you have to build and rebuild, easing each other into the conversation.
In other words, just like you have to set the mood for lovemaking, you also have to set the mood for serious conversations, whether they’re about vulnerabilities or criticisms or anything along those lines. The nice thing is that with enough practice, you as a couple get better and more efficient at setting these moods, and before you know it it’s like second nature, to which you’re both equally tuned.
With that said, such vulnerable talk is immensely important and it comes as a consequence of the sort of aforementioned awareness that you need to wake up with every day in your relationship, so don’t get me wrong. It just has to be balanced, as with everything else. If not, we naturally become burdened and our interest wains. Our partner’s get rigid and we get soft.
For that reason, distance can be crucial, and I don’t just mean of the physical kind, nor do I mean of the petty, drama-seeking kind (not at all).
I’m referring to the kind of distance that you had when you first met each other. Remember that time at the food shop? That original mystery is what you want to foster.
I’m talking about the kind of distance that kept you wanting, kept you curious. The distance that made you turn around and dare to cross it. People often speak of hormones when they speak of love, and they assume that once the hormones are gone, they take the excitement with them. It is true that hormones play their role. In Psychology, love is deemed to be divided into two, with a narrow wave of passionate love followed by a more drawn out wave of compassionate love (Schacter et al., 2015, p. 583) which ideally keeps going up and up, and hormones do participate in mediating between the two.
However, we have to keep in mind that those hormones emerged as a consequence of the environmental factors and mindset that we had at the time of our rencontre with our partner. And the awesome thing is that with enough ingenuity and teamwork, these conditions can easily be recreated!
(Figure 1: Love’s Curvatures (my coinage), from Schacter et al., 2015, p. 584)
Sometimes, though, actual physical distance can serve to do the job best.
In fact, being separate might be greater proof of authentic closeness than being so irreversibly clung to each other to the point of nuclear fusion. And there’s a reason why nuclear fusion isn’t a liable method of energy generation. Because it’s uncontainable.
This also implies that it is perfectly okay in a relationship for the separate parties to experience intense emotion or happiness or spiritual revelation without it having to be in relation to or in proximity of their significant other. In fact, it is more than healthy. We aren’t only allowed, but should have our own private moments and ‘meanwhiles’.
That is the very food from which the spark feeds to stay alive.
Love is determined by how much we keep our promise of integrity
There are short-term love skills and long-term love skills. This is one of the latter.
Unfulfilled promises are one the greatest evils that we can inflict on each other, whether it be to our children, to our partners, or to whomever has their trust in us.
Theses sort of ‘ogbanje’ promises (to borrow a term from the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe) lead to many expectations and assumptions. Sure, expectations and assumptions are our cognitive way stations as we drudge through life, they are the meal we make from our bread and butter, but they are also the source of a lot of moral degradation.
They set the stage for disappointment, is what I mean.
Therefore, if you say you’re going to do something, do it. Start small and go big. Take your time to learn how to make and maintain promises instead of risking the trust and jive of your relationship for the sake of temporary thrills. And if there is something ‘off’ in your relationship that makes you unhappy, something you want to change, a certain je n'[aime] pas, then be open about it. Ask questions. Pour your heart out. Speak to your partner. It’s all you can really do at the end of the day, the only true remedy.
Set one or two enduring promises that you will maintain in order to achieve the goal you’re aiming for. You want to be more intimate, for example? Then sit down and make a plan for imbuing more intimacy into your relationship and stick to that plan. Maybe even ‘fake it ’till you make it’ if there are too many interferences blocking your vision of the light. When children speak their first words, they don’t really know what they’re saying (to the dismay of their blissful parent’s pride). Comprehension emerges later, as a process of ever overgrowing competences. If nothing else works, then try that.
And if the matter is not about wanting change but instead about wanting escape, if there is no light at all to be seen, then that’s another story. But if you want to be happier, then one definite way to go about it is to set a goal and define the steps you need to take to get there. And remember, you’re not alone! It takes (at least) two to make a relationship.
We set reminders for all sorts of things in our lives, but when do we set reminders for the people we love?? I’m talking daily reminders of tasks, even very simple ones, that we have to complete in order to uphold the relationships that we care about.
A simple “good morning baby!” can go a long way.
Don’t be afraid. Just because you’re in a rut and it seems like your love isn’t ‘loving’ enough for you and your partner to naturally emerge from that depth of despair (because if it’s meant to be then it’s meant to be, right? It should fix itself, right? wrong), that doesn’t mean you need to give up or that your love is any less love than it really is.
It’s normal. Potholes are meant to fit wheels.
Therefore, it’s okay not to see the way out.
(Just kidding). In this case, you’ve got to do the heavy lifting yourselves.
The first step begins by looking within, not without. Stop asking yourself how much there is to blame about your partner or the circumstances you’re in for a second and instead start demanding of yourself, start thinking about what you can change in yourself. That’s ultimately the only thing you can change. And ideally, your partner should do the same.
Within is where the springs await to nourish your mutual would-be (will-be) forest. The abyss you’re in may be more informative than you think, with the answer to the way out paradoxically waiting at the very bottom. Think of cenotes and the worlds they hide beneath if only you could muster the courage to face your fear (not suppress it) and pop underneath the surface of the water.
Sometimes, just like young children, we lack object permanence, in this case regarding love. A lil’ peep under the rug may be all that it takes.
The beauty of love is that nobody knows how to do it.
You’re at the shop. They like unsweetened soy milk, you like it sweetened. Your fridge shelf is already full with ketchup, which you hate and they love, and mayo which you love and they hate, so you can’t fit both cartons. For a second you both hesitate. The seed of tension is sowed by the sidelong glance of silence that pervades. You avoid a tiff and give in, buying the unsweetened milk. It’s better for you, you convince yourself. All is good, you say. You can always add honey. But the seed has been planted and over the days and weeks and months it grows. You forgot what it is that planted it and you no longer know what is making you feel bad. All you know is that you feel bad. She’s got her own bean-stock too, and is also in the same situation. But instead of facing the towering herb and climbing over it, you dig beneath it and follow the roots to the epicenter of relationship hell.
You’re both sad. You’re both hurt.
BOTH of you. See what I’m saying? At least in this you have something you share, and you can both find solace and comfort in it. You’re both human in the end, and your feelings are both equally valid.
It’s therefore ok to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing.
It’s ok to say you’ve messed up.
It’s okay to say you’re also hurt even if the other person has said it first as long as you are responsive to them and it doesn’t become a competition.
Screw society who tries to promote the idea that love is only one thing, pure and righteous. If we accept this misleading fact that love takes only one form, then we might find love and not even know that we’ve found it simply because it doesn’t fit the definition that we’ve been conditioned to believe in. So don’t be victim to what others say or think or expect. The love story that you’re writing with your partner is your story. Indie and independent.
Similarly, every individual has their way of experiencing and expressing love. You know, the cliché love languages which we can all attest to. It is crucial to recognize where you and your partner differ in the spectrum of love’s representations. BUT note: this is not a reason for neglecting the possibly very different needs of your partner. Read the next aphorism for more about what can be done if your ‘love languages’ are in fact very different. Let me just say that in itself, that difference is not a sign of incompatibility. Relationship sciences do in fact confirm that there is some truth to be extracted from the phrase “opposites attract,” (correspondence with Dr. Sarah Stanton).
Love is first and foremost a feeling, alongside a decision and a course of actions meant to fuel that feeling, not to substitute it.
At first, this aphorism was simply “Love is a decision”. Would’ve been more catchy, but irresponsibly incomplete.
After some more thought and experience, I realized that this is only half of the story. You need the feeling to be there too or the desire for it. However, keep in mind that this means that the feeling is also just half the story, namely, the other half 🙂 Sounds obvious but it’s a perspective we seldom consider. What this reveals is that the feeling is not enough by itself, but neither is the decision. You need both.
But let’s look at the decision aspect of it for a hot sec.
Think of all the people you’ve said “I love you” to and all the people to whom your partner has said the same. Think also of all the people you might say I love you too in the future. What is there that connects all those people with each other? Nothing. The fact that they may all fit your ‘type’ is what connects them to you, but apart from that, they are all unconnected strangers (unless you fell in love with your partner’s best friend or something like that). They’re all people with their own lives and identities.
I think back to that passage in Milan Kundera’s wonderful achievement, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“She had nine suitors. They all knelt round her in a circle. Standing in the middle like a princess, she did not know which one to choose: one was the handsomest, another the wittiest, the third was the richest, the fourth the most athletic, the fifth from the best family, the sixth recited verse, the seventh travelled widely, the eighth played the violin, and the ninth was the most manly. But they all knelt in the same way, they all had the same calluses on their knees,” (my emphasis, Kundera, 1984, p. 39–40).
And like Tereza who had to choose between her suitors, albeit in a degrading way, thus we too have made various decisions with all the lovers in our lives, each decision separate and distinct from the other.
Think also of the fact that if you hadn’t met the current person you’re with, you would’ve probably, down the line, met somebody else who would’ve filled that role, met your needs, and to whom you’d be saying “I love you” right now instead and believing it too! In addition, that person would most likely be somebody very close to you in terms of physical proximity (Schacter et al., 2015, p. 578). Quoting a quote from that textbook: “Cherished notions about romantic love notwithstanding, the chances are about 50-50 that the ‘one and only’ lives within walking distance,” (Kephart, 1961, p. 269).
So it can’t just be about a feeling. We’re also very much deciding who to be with and who not to be with.
Am I being a killjoy? I’d say I’m being realistic, and if you look at it a certain way, it’s quite reassuring. There is still loads of space for romance to abound.
Firstly, I don’t mean any of this to devalue the partner you’re currently with and the relationship you have with them. Both are meaningful in their uniqueness. There is a reason you are with them as opposed to somebody else, after all. I don’t mean to deny that.
But the point of this consideration is to say that love is more of a decision we make (part conscious, part subconscious) than we tend to think, and it is one that we should learn to be aware of. We need to gauge the pressures and consider the costs and benefits, possible compromises, possible ways it might not work and ways it will. No matter who we meet, we’ll come to a point where we’re going to be confronted with their imperfections and also our own, and each time we’ll have to make a crucial decision (after first accepting and respecting those imperfections of course). The ‘feeling’ in these cases won’t help much. Will the puzzle pieces still fit well enough on the same frame for a picture to emerge that you are both overall happy with? It doesn’t have to be world-acclaimed art. As long as you value it. As long as you appreciate it.
For this reason, we can never love just out of the blue. Love is the blue.
Why this is reassuring is because it has various implications. Among them is the fact that it’s okay to break up.
What? Isn’t this counterintuitive? How is it good?
Because it relieves a lot of the pressure. Similarly, it also means that it’s okay not to feel the same intensity of ‘feeling’ all the time. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is something wrong with you or that your relationship is doomed. The feeling is only one of the parameters of your decision. There are many other factors involved, many other constraints, and many of them you can directly control while others you can’t without it being anybody’s fault. It’s never as crystal clear as assigning blame. Again, pressure is relieved.
And once the pressure subsides, how truer your experience of your relationship can become! How much more authentically romantic it can be! Romantic and equally humane, compassionate.
Decision making also plays a role when our love languages are seemingly irreconcilably different. Again, nobody’s fault, nobody’s in the wrong (just watch how many negative emotions this perspective can help you #skirt).
I believe it was Robert H. Schuller who said that when you can’t solve a problem, you can mange it. So work to see if managing the discrepancies in your relationship is more plausible than resolving them, and if ultimately you and your partner can live with that, then great!
Thus, it’s okay not to meet the ‘right’ one because there is no such magical being. In fact, we want to meet the right wrong person (Boyd, 2001). Somebody with whom our decisions align. Alain de Botton has often urged for a perspective along these same lines.
You be you, your partner be them but maintain awareness and constant supervision. Don’t forget about your feelings, desires and needs. Don’t forget about theirs. Don’t forget about the decisions involved as opposed to the stereotypical hand-waving that love is often portrayed as. In this manner, there should be no fear of being oblivious for too long, no fear of falling painfully, of pursuing harmful relationships, no fear of confusion, because by maintaining awareness, staying true to yourself and to your partner, you will catch what feels wrong and address it faster and faster each time.
Whether those decisions are invariably rational, ahh, now that’s another matter.
Beware of the sunk-cost fallacy
But what about when your options run out and you don’t feel like you have any agency over the decisions in your relationship anymore?
The sunk-cost fallacy is the phenomenon by which our decisions are affected by how much we’ve invested in the past (Schacter et al., 2015, p. 293). If we’ve invested a lot, even though the consequences are detrimental, we will most probably decide to remain in the same situation. This applies to relationships, especially when we’ve invested years of our lives, countless tears and effort and money. Even if that relationship is toxic, we will be likelier to stay and stick through, albeit heaving breathlessly through it until our legs give way.
At this point you’ve taught yourself to like unsweetened milk. Or well, you think you like it. You’ve also moved countries and changed jobs and started washing your teeth after every meal like you partner. You’ve taken on many other habits and dropped others without looking back. Relationships obviously come with changes, you think, changes for the better. Yes, but only if you make the ultimate decision for change yourself – something that deserves its own aphorism – and you suddenly realize that maybe you might have slacked a bit in that regard. Are you washing your teeth more often so that they respect you? To quench your shame? Because you want to? Would you stop doing it if you broke up? You don’t feel fully yourself anymore. Your partner consequently loves you less without knowing, so you feel loved less. This makes you resent them and the cycles loops around. But you don’t know who you are so you depend on them and it’s too late to leave.
Too late? Not if you look at it this way:
If you stay, all you’ve invested is already lost, but you’ll remain miserable.
If you leave, everything you’ve invested will still be already lost, but you’ll be happier, or at least have the chance to become it.
Identity can be lost, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrecoverable.
So the only difference between the choice of staying or going is being sad or happy.
Easier said than done, for sure, but there’s truth in that statement.
Once we frame the problem in this way (and it’s normal for the framing of problems to affect our understanding – its a mindbug of human cognition called the framing effect (Schacter et al., 2015, p. 292)), we see that the solution is a no-brainer!
With all these aphorisms, though, here’s the one that debunks them all:
Love, and love fervently. Even if you get hurt, you'll be okay in knowing that you never faltered in your love.
This one stands for itself.
Boyd, A. (2001). Daily afflictions: The agony of being connected to everything
in the universe. W. W. Norton.
Kephart, W. M. (1961). The family, society and the individual. Houghton
Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being. Harper & Row.
McDonald, P. (2004). Oxford dictionary of medical quotations. Oxford
Schacter, D., Gilbert, D., Wegner, D., & Hood, B. (2015). Psychology: Second
European edition. Palgrave Macmillan.
Strauss, M. B. (1965). Familiar medical quotations. Journal of Chronic
Diseases, 18(5), p. 501. https://doi.org/10.1016/0021-