A significant portion of my work is dedicated to debunking our beloved and dysfunctional cultural myths about love, romance, and marriage. For many people, these messages live like a sleeping serpent in the unconscious layer and are only awakened when real love is standing before them. In other words, as long as they're chasing after the unavailable partner where there's no risk of real love and, thus, no risk of vulnerability and loss, they can trot along somewhat happily, fully subscribing to the dominant cultural myths. But once they're faced with the possibility of a lifelong commitment to a present, loving, available partner -- which often occurs at the time of getting engaged but can also appear much sooner -- the serpent awakens and the messages come spewing forth in a slew of froth, wreaking havoc on their unsuspecting minds as the messages clash with their lived experience and the serpent attempts to convince them that it's time to walk away.
What are these cultural messages about love? What does the serpent say when it awakens from its lifetime slumber? It says:
• Love is a feeling. If you're not feeling love, then you don't really love your partner.
• If you have to question whether or not you love your partner, you obviously don't love him/her and it's time to walk away.
• You should "just know that it's right." If you don't have that feeling of rightness, then it's clearly not right.
• You should feel head over heels "in love", which means butterflies and fireworks.
• Your partner should make you feel alive, whole, and fulfilled.
I could go on and on; the love-myths are endless, and you only have to watch a Meg Ryan romantic comedy -- or any Hollywood romantic comedy, for that matter -- to see the enactment of these messages. Once you understand real love, these films are harmless fun. But when you grow up watching Disney stories and following glorified Hollywood romances, these films create a dangerous expectation that love should look and feel like it does on the big screen. And when the initial rush of feeling and certainty naturally wears off, as it always will, it's frightfully easy to doubt that your relationship is still a good one.
If love isn't only a feeling, what is it? Once the honeymoon wears off, love is primarily a verb, and to love someone is an active experience. Love is action. Love is commitment. Love is making your partner a sandwich even when you don't "feel" like it. Love is recognizing that intimate, committed relationships are crucibles inside which both partners will be asked to grow emotionally and spiritually and learn about the barriers that prevent them from loving. As Alanis Morissette said in a brilliant interview with Piers Morgan, "Love, to me, is a verb. Love kicks in for real when things get hard... Love, for me, is when I don't feel very loving. It's an action." And when asked how she knew that Souleye was the one for her she said, "Values being the same: family, commitment, partnership, seeing marriage as a hotbed for growth and healing. Not everyone -- including myself at times -- views marriage as the alchemy that it really can be in affording us the [opportunity for] wholeness."
My clients and e-course members often ask me, "If love isn't only a feeling, how do I know I love my partner?" Real love is a knowing, and knowing is place that lives beyond thoughts or feelings. You probably don't always feel loving feelings for your mother or father or best friend, but you know you love them. Another way to approach the question is to look for evidence that you love your partner. When the heart-thumping, stomach-churning feeling is gone but you're still motivated to spend time with your partner, when something deeper than thoughts or feelings draws you to your partner like a magnetic pull (sometimes strong, sometimes less strong), when you keep showing up in concrete, tangible ways for the relationship even when it's difficult, when there's an ease between you even when it's not always easy, this is real love.
There's nothing drug-like or euphoric about real love. On the contrary, it's grounded, honest, stable, and authentic. The deeper place inside of you knows that to commit to your partner is a loving choice, and so you act in loving ways even when you don't always feel loving. Through these loving actions, you expand your heart and grow your capacity to love. This is evidence of love.
It's a tragic reality that far too many people walk away from solid, healthy relationships with partners that they truly love because their experience doesn't match the cultural expectation. Don't you think it's time to change the expectation, to bring it down from the realm of stars and fantasy and present young, formative minds with an accurate and realistic depiction of love, romance, and marriage? It's time we change "you complete me" to "you inspire me to become the best version of myself" or "with you, I will grow and evolve in my capacity to love." It's time to dismantle the fantasy so that people on the threshold of marriage can create the healthiest possible foundation on which to begin their lives together.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of the Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity.