03/23/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stephanee Killen : My Love Is Not a Circus Act: Drop the Big Top and Live From the Heart

By Stephanee Killen

Being in love shouldn't feel like I've run off with the circus. That's what I tell myself every time I start jumping through hoops, walking a tightrope, or spinning plates on my head from the saddle of a unicycle. Love's only task is to undo me. Simple? Yes. Easy to accept? No.

Why? Because I want love to do something. I'm waiting for it to perform magic! It's not a rabbit from a hat I'm waiting to see, either. It's happiness. It's the end of my suffering.

I'm 36, single, and resigned to joining a nunnery. Not really, but that's what I tell my friends, who all roll their eyes because they know I would last precisely seven seconds anyplace where I have to renounce sleeping in. But they are just as disappointed in love. It's hard to maintain faith. True love is that illusive unicorn -- and by this age, I'm wondering whether I'd better just find a pony and stick a cream horn to its forehead.

Deep down, I know it's not my feelings of love that are to blame. It's my ideas of what that love should be doing.

Loving someone doesn't mean I am owed anything beyond the beauty of recognizing what is special in them -- and, more importantly, what is special in myself. Love says, "Ta-da! In truly seeing someone else, I see myself, too!" That is its magic. It's not a rabbit from a hat. It's just me -- but a really super awesome me.

What else can I expect from it? Since you asked, I have a list: intimacy, security, understanding, passion, family -- happiness! (Never mind the mortgage, my dear, we're saving each other!) Somewhere along the way, my very pure and heartfelt appreciation gets buried beneath the needs of the ego. When that happens, that list of expectations turns "I love you" into "I want you for a hostage." Or, "If you wouldn't mind, would you put on this tutu and dance? Entertain me. Make me feel good."

That isn't love. That's need. Of course, it's hard not to protest this fact. I want my love to move mountains! Have purpose. And I want to be the one in charge of saying what that purpose is. I want to make sandwiches, have lots of great sex, and debate the state of the world. I want to make music together and then compare March Madness brackets (I will win). I want to fall asleep in your arms. I want to show you, every day, that no one believes in you the way I do...

And would you mind dragging the trash to the curb, paying half the rent, and fixing me a cup of tea? Also, please prove you love me by completing these various tasks and assignments I have set forth for you. M'kay? Thanks! When I can't do or have these things, my love feels thwarted -- or useless.

What good is my love if I can't make it perform? What good is my love if it doesn't buy me something? With this mindset, relationship partners turn to ringmasters or menageries. In the end, I'm bound to get trampled.

Strip away the circus. Love's job is simply to reveal and transform. The manner of that transformation is something I cannot dictate. I can't make someone else feel my love -- let alone force them to return it. All I can ask is this: "Does some energy of mine keep transforming me in a way that feels useful?" Great! If some energy of yours also happens to transform you in a way that feels useful, great! If not, what are we doing?

This kind of freedom allows my presence in any relationship to be a choice, not a contractual obligation. Trading on love immediately removes me from it. When I trade on love (I'll give you affection if you do what I want), it costs me the freedom to be authentic, because then I have to jump through certain hoops and wear certain masks. I have to go on doing cartwheels just to keep the show going. If I can say, "My love for you requires nothing in exchange," I move closer to giving genuine affection and appreciation without manipulation because I don't need something back. Conversely, I can walk away when I need to walk away. I'm not a hostage -- and I'm not taking any.

Here's my new idea of romance: "I should be with me. You should be with you." It doesn't mean we can't share ourselves! In fact, maybe it's the only way we can share. It means we're on the same page about being on our own pages. It means we're doing for each other what it feels good to do, without obligation. If I'm doing any cartwheels, it's because I love them -- no one else even has to be there. I can play with the unselfconscious abandon of a child.

This also means that no matter the yard in which I'm playing, I know how to find my way home. My fraidy cat GPS will lead me straight into a swamp. I'll end up pretending I actually like it there just so I can feel secure and accepted -- but at some point, there's going to be a problem. Any acceptance I receive is going to be of the performer, and how lonely is that?

I never have to feel trapped. Home is where the heart is -- and that heart is always within me, never in someone else. I used to swoon over that oh-so-romantic-movie sentiment, "You complete me." But the truth is that I complete me. You complete you. I can't be responsible for anything more than that. It's impossible. And I can't give you my heart. It doesn't come out of my chest without killing me. That's the way this works -- even if you promise to cherish it forever. In your hands, it dies. It comes out of my chest, and then I become someone else trying to get it back so I can feel the love that was within me all along.

I once saw a Cirque du Soleil act where a man hanging upside down by his legs supported a woman with one hand while she did fancy flips high above nothing but unforgiving floor. I don't want all that -- or sword swallowing, fire walking, and aerial acrobatics hoping that love will stick around where there's a grand enough performance.

Besides, The Greatest Show on Earth is always the one where I get to be myself.


Stephanee Killen is a poet, entrepreneur, and the author of Buddha Breaking Up: A Guide to Healing from Heartache and Liberating Your Awesomeness. In her spare time, she plays percussion, dances on her coffee table, and shares poems about the meaning of life with her very smart dog. Visit Stephanee online at,, or