Looking for Love: Lessons Learned

Advice from someone who found what he was looking for.

“To want to be with someone all the time is infatuation. To have to be with someone all the time is obsession. To feel you are with someone all the time whether you are or not is love.” —Jana Girard

 “Anyone who thinks he understands love is kidding himself.” —Anon.

Countless books and articles have been written about the wonders (and horrors!) of love. Nevertheless, as someone who experienced two dozen romantic relationships early in my life, followed by a long-lasting, happy marriage, I think it’s worth sharing a few of the things I’ve learned about finding a partner who will stand the test of time. If you’ve already found the love of your life, congratulations! If not, perhaps what I learned from the journey can be of some assistance.

The crux of the matter, I believe, is that we’re likely to find exactly what we’re looking for. That’s not necessarily a recipe for success, because the world we live in is full of different kinds of relationships that are all casually referred to as “love.” If your idea about what you want is based on a popular — but mistaken — idea about what love is, you’re going to end up with something that’s a long way from what you really want. That can lead to a long series of unhappy endings. To find the right kind of love, you have to be looking for the right kind of love.

Here are five different experiences that many people would think of as being love:

Exhibit A: Back in 1975, when I first moved to Manhattan, I was looking for a household item I needed in a small corner deli. I happened to look down the aisle and I saw a young woman who simply radiated positive energy. Every instinct said “Go meet that person!” So I walked right up to her and introduced myself. She smiled right back and told me her name. Instantly we were best friends, and we remain so to this day.

Exhibit B: Walking across 42nd Street one day I saw a young woman who might have stepped out of the pages of a magazine. She was tall, shapely, and wearing a sexy black dress and high heels. She had long, wavy blonde hair, and impeccable makeup. Like every other guy on the street, I couldn’t help looking at her.

Exhibit C: After college I began dating a young woman I’d met in school. She seemed like everything I could possibly want in a woman, and I was determined to marry her. I wrote love songs about her, I idolized her, I thought if she didn’t stay with me I’d die. As it turned out (fortunately, in hindsight!), she had other plans.

Exhibit D: Many years ago, when I was already in a relationship, I went to a club one night to hear a friend perform. I sat at a table with a young woman and her male friend. I took one look at this woman and my heart nearly stopped. The instant attraction I felt was overwhelming. I had a hard time maintaining my composure. After we left, my mind raced. I could tell that I was in trouble. (What did I do about it? More on that later.)

Exhibit E: When I first met my wife, we got along very well and we were very happy. Then, several years later, all hell broke loose. It seemed we had built up a sizeable backlog of resentment about some of the day-to-day things we each weren’t all that thrilled about in each other. We spent a year doing some serious re-negotiating. Since then, we’ve been very happy we get along very well, just like before. The difference? Going through that crisis period and working out our issues has left us happier than before, and there’s a sense of commitment and permanence that wasn’t there at the beginning.

The point of all this? The Eskimos have something like 200 words for snow, but a lot of people would refer to all five of these situations as “love!”

A crazy little thing called love

When it comes to emotions, people always have trouble explaining exactly what’s going on, and why. And out of all the emotions, feelings of “love” are probably the most difficult to understand.

If you need proof, just look at the variety of ideas about the meaning of love that are passed around in our culture in popular books, songs, magazines and TV shows. My personal favorite is the time-honored use of “I want you, I need you so desperately” as equaling deep feelings of love in popular songs. In reality, as I myself discovered, trying to build a relationship on the basis of desperate longing for your partner is a recipe for disaster.

The five “exhibits” I listed earlier are examples of five different ways in which I’ve seen people become attracted to each other:

1. “Recognizing” the other person — feeling like you already know them (Exhibit A);

2. Reacting to culturally learned gender stereotypes (Exhibit B);

3. “Romantic feelings” such as needing, longing and fantasizing (Exhibit C);

4. Individual emotional “hot buttons” (Exhibit D); and

5. A deep understanding and appreciation of the other person because of time spent with them (Exhibit E).

Naturally, these types of attraction can, and do, overlap, so they might be considered as “potential contributing factors” in any given relationship. However, only the last one on the list is a good basis for a long-term, loving relationship — the kind of love that makes an entire lifetime together feel justified.

In the spirit of aiming for the right thing, let’s look at each of them more closely.

1. The déjà vu in you

The first “attractive force” is recognition (illustrated by Exhibit A). This is a very strong sense that you already know a person, complete with pre-existing feelings (positive or negative) about him or her. However you choose to explain it, this can be a very intense experience, packing considerable emotion. In the case I described earlier, I’d stake my life that my friend and I have known each other in many other lifetimes. (Yes, my experiences have convinced me that reincarnation is not a myth.) The fact that we were instantly best friends, and remain so to this day, certainly indicates that something out of the ordinary was at work when we met.

I’m sure this kind of recognition is often interpreted as “love at first sight.” (That was actually my thought at the time, although we ended up being fast friends instead.) However, whatever it is that’s triggering that intense sense of recognition, the fact remains that true love between two individuals always involves knowing the other person well. That kind of knowledge can only come after substantial experience with the person (in this life!). That’s why sometimes, the initial feeling of recognition —based on something other than knowing the person — ends up being overpowered by other considerations as you spend time with them.

The bottom line is that a strong “instant” emotional bond is no guarantee of a successful love relationship. Indeed, many relationships in my life began with this kind of “recognition,” and some of them turned out to be primarily “educational.” (That’s a euphemism for “a disaster.”)

2. Centerfold love

The second kind of attraction (illustrated by Exhibit B) is, in my opinion, mostly a learned response to gender stereotypes we pick up through cultural training. A good analogy — though not a pretty one — is Pavlov’s dogs salivating when the bell rings for dinner!

There may be some genetically encoded attraction to the female shape that men felt even thousands of years ago, but a lot of what gets a man’s attention if you’re a woman in our culture is learned. Any genetic programming for long red fingernails, spike heels or “big hair” has got to be a lot more recent than prehistoric times! (I suspect the same is true even for those attracted to people of the same gender.) Most men are taught from an early age that our value as a man is proven, among other things, by how many women who fit the cultural definition of “sexy” we can win over. The price of not learning to play this particular game is high — including social censure and humiliation — so boys usually pick up this belief system and learn to “salivate” long before puberty.

Of course, I’m not letting women off the hook; they’re taught to play a similar game. Instead of physical attributes — though they do, of course matter —  women for centuries were encouraged to look for signs of success and power in a man.

As beliefs about what’s desirable in a partner go, the ones taught to either gender can be equally bad. Basing your desires on what you read in romance novels, for example, is every bit as unfortunate as men seeking out partners based on what they’ve “learned” from Penthouse magazine.

One point worth noting: When I refer to a person who is going out of their way to be stereotypically “sexy,” this doesn’t mean someone who would simply be considered good-looking (symmetrical facial features tend to be considered “good-looking,” for example). I’m talking about the bare-chested guy with the 6-pack abs and the expensive sports car, or the woman with the low-cut little black dress, spike heels and perfectly coifed blond hair. Ironically, as most women quickly learn, the kind of attraction this produces is a double-edged sword at best. (In fact, some men actually avoid women who are working to look stereotypically sexy; they see it as an invitation to a certain type of game they’re not interested in playing!)

Just remember: if you find yourself experiencing this kind of learned response when you see a stereotypically attractive person, at least don’t confuse it with love!

3. The dance of romance

Exhibit C is a classic case of “love” that’s really just romance, which is definitely not the same thing. Romance is all about passionate feelings — feelings that can sweep you off your feet, carry you to heights of ecstasy and drop you to the depths of despair. This has everything to do with lowering your defenses and letting someone else in, feeling that the two of you “are one.” It has everything to do with feeling that you can really be yourself around this person, rely on this person and be honest with this person.

Unfortunately, it may not have much to do with knowing the other person very well.

Romance is where all of the “I need you so desperately” stuff comes in. If you put being alonebehind door number one and romance behind door number two, nobody in their right mind is going to pick door number one. So of course people need their “true love” desperately. Romance feels great, and the alternative, well, sucks.

Alas, while true love can involve ongoing romantic feelings, romance isn’t love. When a romance ends, the pain is usually palpable. Real love, on the other hand, never ends, even when the romance fades for a while. In fact, real love doesn’t end even when the relationship does.

4. Having your buttons pushed

The fourth kind of attraction (illustrated by Exhibit D) has to do with personal cues — things about the other person that push your particular “buttons.” A classic example is being attracted to someone who looks like your mother, or (maybe more typical) someone who looks amazingly like the last person you had a relationship with. (I’ve observed that very few people ever pick up on this themselves. It’s usually a friend who feels compelled to point out the similarity.) If we were onlyattracted to people based on cultural training, we’d all be lusting after the same person. In actuality, everybody’s “buttons” are a little different.

That’s why my reaction to the woman in the club was so much different than my reaction to the woman on 42nd Street in Exhibit B. The woman in the club — for whatever reason — pushed all my buttons, bigtime. Some might say she was “my type.” Maybe she looked like my mother. Who knows? Either way, this kind of reaction is very personal and intense. It undoubtedly leads to love affairs galore. (It may or may not involve any of the other types of attraction.)

Either way, it’s all about attraction, not love.

Just in case you’re wondering what I did about that rush of feelings . . . I managed to track the woman down and have lunch with her a week or two later. She had pushed all my buttons so intensely that I knew I’d spend a lot of time fantasizing about “the great love of my life that got away” if I didn’t get a little reality. Fantasizing — especially about love — is fun sometimes, but it can also undermine the real thing. When it does, there’s no better medicine than a little bit of reality.

So we had lunch. And you know what? She was a nice, regular person. That lunch saved me from years of comparing partners to my “dream woman.”

Of course, there is no “ideal woman” (or man), though some things that we loosely refer to as love sure can make you think so. Having lunch with this woman helped me get past my fantasies about her — whatever the reason they were triggered — and preserved my existing relationship.

 One important note: This strategy worked because I really wanted to preserve the relationship I was already in. If you have an unhappy or shaky relationship and you try having lunch with your fantasy person, you can probably say goodbye to your other relationship! (Hopefully, after reality sinks in and the fantasy fades, you won’t spend the rest of your life regretting that you blew off the other relationship!)

Getting to the real deal

The last example in my list (Exhibit E) is the kind of love that most people are really hoping to find. What makes this kind of relationship, based on years of getting to know each other and working through our differences, so special? Here are just a couple of things:

Mutual appreciation. When you love someone in this way, you don’t try to change the other person; you like them the way they are, flaws and all. You might wish that they would change certain aspects of their personality or behavior — no one is perfect — but you don’t have it in your mind that them changing is a prerequisite for your acceptance.

Note that mutual appreciation contrasts with “needing” someone, or even being attracted to someone. When you really love somebody, you’re delighted to have them around (at least most of the time), but you know perfectly well that you don’t need them. You just enjoy being with each other, and you know you can count on each other for moral support. Which brings us to . . .

Freedom. You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you love someone, let them go.” The point is that putting requirements on the other person — even the “need” requirement (which essentially means “my love for you is conditional on you giving me what I want”) — backfires. Real love isn’t about clinging to the other person, no matter how scary the prospect of losing the other person may be.

Yes, allowing the other person this kind of freedom can be scary. (It’s especially scary if it’s your first time being in love and you think you may never fall in love again. That’s what happened when I became so determined to marry that young woman in Exhibit C; I was intensely attracted to her, but I was even more afraid that if she got away, that would be the end of my love life. Forever. Scary stuff, kids.)

Of course, the reason this is scary is because if you give the other person freedom, you could, in fact, lose him or her. The thing that’s less obvious is this: Clinging puts limitations on the other person. It guarantees that your relationship will be limited, and that you’ll eventually lose the other person.

It takes courage to resist clinging to your partner, but in the long run the payoff is well worth it.

Honesty. Honesty leads to two things that are hallmarks of real love: knowledge and trust. If you can’t be honest with your partner, he or she will never get to know you, and worse, he or she will eventually realize that you can’t be trusted. That’s why, if you can’t be totally open with the other person, you’ll never develop long-term love, no matter how much attraction you feel.

Knowledge resulting from experience. Love between two people involves a deep understanding and respect that grows as you spend time with each other. The better you know someone, the more you understand their strengths and limitations, and — assuming you still have mutual appreciation — the easier it is to be with them, and to provide each other with moral support and encouragement. (It also makes it much easier to have fun with the other person, and that’s a big part of what makes a long-term relationship satisfying!)

Perhaps the bottom line is this: real, long-lasting love isn’t something that magically appears when the right person shows up; it’s a process of creation that you undertake with another person. The thing that makes it the best kind of love is that it’s not all about need, or attraction, or recognition, or even romance (even though these may be a part of the relationship). It’s about knowledge, trust, comfort and freedom.

In search of “happily ever after”

So: How do you look for this kind of love? The key lies in the element of time: Long-lasting love is partly based on really knowing the other person, and that only happens after you’ve spent time with someone. So there’s nothing wrong with being initially attracted to someone for any of the reasons we’ve discussed. The key is, do you feel comfortable enough in the relationship to let it continue and become a positive learning experience? Can the relationship survive a rough patch and come out the other side with a stronger connection?

When you find someone that you know is willing to work through challenges with you, you’re on the right track. Of course, there are no guarantees; even relationships that start out strong sometimes don’t last forever. But the ones that do spring from that kind of foundation.

To paraphrase the Beatles, the love you find over the course of your life will be the love you create. So, if you want to create real love, be sure you’re aiming for the right thing: Finding a person with whom you can share mutual admiration and respect, honesty, a willingness to allow each other freedom, and a mutual desire to stay together and get to know each other while you offer each other companionship and moral support.

On the road to this kind of love, you’ll encounter all those other kinds of love — people who push your personal buttons, people who are stereotypically attractive, people you recognize at first sight, and people you think you “need.” You’ll probably have a romance (or three) along the way. The truth is, you might end up in a long-term, wonderful, loving relationship with any of those people. But you’re much more likely to end up with the kind of long-lasting love all of us ultimately want if you remember that those other things — so often called “love” — aren’t really what you’re aiming for.

Copyright 2022 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.