It’s been 40 years since mom warned me to be careful with the word “love.”
“You know what you mean, but others might have a different interpretation,” is how I remember her counsel to the curious teenager that was me.
At the time, I wondered what she could possibly know of love. Her 17-year marriage to my father had ended before I remember being able to speak. Boyfriends and lovers had dramatically come and gone. Yet her life was deeply immersed in work as a devoted marriage and family therapist daily committing body, heart, and mind helping others protect what she, until then, could not.
Yet her counsel remained.
In relationship skills classes I’ve taught to many thousands over the past two decades, I rarely missed the opportunity to ask, “What does love mean to you?”
As my own marriage unraveled when my first two sons were youngsters followed by girlfriends and lovers who dramatically came and went, I became far more comfortable asking questions than offering advice.
What I’ve realized as witness to seemingly countless definitions as unique as each speaker, by seemingly countless children whose lives have been turned asunder by parents bungling along a search for lasting love, by seemingly countless signs of pain, anger, and despair more often than not deeply related to stories of love lost, betrayed, withheld, squandered or never present, is that it’s time to stop lying about love.
For much of the last century, the ruse about love woven into the psyche of baby boomers and the generations they reared wrought havoc that forever altered the landscape of America’s families and neighborhoods. The descendants of the greatest generation have increasingly found themselves mired in mine fields of cynical despair fueled by expectations for a magical destination at the end of a lonely trek over dark, desert highways.
Chart topping lyrics of Johnny Rivers (“Baby I Need Your Loving”), Perry Como (“And I Love You So”) and dozens by the Beatles (“All You Need is Love,” “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Love Me Do,”), Dylan (“Love You Too Much,” “Watered Down Love,” “Love Rescue Me,” “Abandoned Love,” “Love Sick”), Zeppelin (“Whole Lotta Love”), Whitney (“I Will Always Love You”), Lionel and Diana (“Endless Love”), Beyoncé and Jay-Z (“Crazy In Love”) and many more seduced generations to love as an ultimate destination with no road map for the journey.
“Love is a feeling. Marriage is a contract. Relationships are work.”
That understanding, a foundation of relationship skills training that my mother began developing 40 years ago with the launch of the first course on the “practical application of intimate relationship skills,” more commonly known as “PAIRS,” and which I’ve actively continued, is central to helping couples navigate an odyssey that begins with falling in love before fast dissolving or evolving into a marathon challenge for which few are prepared.
“If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like,” Thich Nhat Hanh asks in How to Love.
The truth about love can be found in its very root: The Latin word “libet,” meaning “it is pleasing.”
It’s not love we can honestly promise when we forever unite our lives with another in traditional marriage vows. How can we promise a feeling that naturally waxes and wanes through the normal transitions, chapters and passages of our lives?
It’s commitment we can promise, including the commitment to a marital contract and the work of a relationship.
Remaining a partner who is “pleasing” is the formula for lasting love. What’s pleasing, or a pleasure, changes with the progression of life.
If love is to survive, the ruse must not.
The most precious seeds will never flourish without the attention they need to fulfill their potential and neither will relationships that begin with falling in love – that’s the easy part — and are sustained through perhaps the most meaningful work of our lives: learning and acting to remain a pleasure to those we cherish and who we want to cherish, be drawn to, and love us back.
That truth about love offers opportunities for experiences of intimacy and happiness that can touch the world for generations.