What is love and what the heck is it all about? A personal reflection at a particular point in time

Why am I writing this?

“I write to find out what I know.” – Virginia Woolf

Writing to me is a form of therapy, a chance for reflection, and an opportunity to learn.

The ramblings below will focus on romantic love between two people – think Noah and Allie in The Notebook (which I enjoyed).

Love’s a powerful feeling; when you’re in love, you’re living in a new world infused with energy, meaning, and sunshine. When love ends, that world is shattered. Science has shown us that your brain reacts to heartbreak just like physical pain.

By writing this post, I’m hoping to better understand my own feelings about this whole love business.

Frankly, it hasn’t worked out well for me, and the older I get, the harder it becomes to recover the childlike open-ness that you need to truly fall in love.

So what is love and what the heck is it all about?

Here’s a definition I like:

“True love is the soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another.” – Wedding Crashers (not a movie widely known for its wisdom)

As a teenager, my smart-assed definition was “you’re in love when you can say that word and feel like it’s true.” At that point, I thought love was so diverse, such a deeply personal experience, that your perception of love created the reality of it.

The 28-year old me holds a more nuanced view.

The nuance? For me, it’s the belief that romantic love has TWO BIG PIECES: the first piece is passionate love, that feeling of falling head over heels for someone who seems to physically merge with your body, mind, and soul. That’s the love we mean when we say we’re “in love”, and I’d argue it’s the only love we know how to feel until we’re 21…or maybe 30. Depends on the person :)

Passionate love is Hollywood love: the person you can’t stop thinking about, whose every incoming call makes your heart beat faster and whose “I miss you!” text makes your shitty day go by that much faster.

The second piece – the piece that you learn as you start & end relationships, make mistakes, and generally get older – is work love (I know – what a boring and unappealing phrase). I chose that word because it creates the right mindset. It’s more than just work, of course: it’s the love of commitment and sacrifice.

It’s the love of saying “we’re in this ride together, it’ll have tons of ups, but also lots of downs; as long as we commit to each other, enjoy growing old together, and constantly work at our relationship, we’re going to be just fine.”

Remember how in He’s Just Not That Into You, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck have a HUGE FIGHT because she wants to get married and he doesn’t? They even take a semi-break (if I remember correctly). Later in the movie, she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown caring for her selfish family and her ailing dad, comes back from running errands, only to find Ben WASHING THE DISHES, looking after the family, and generally being awesome? That’s work love.

(On a side note, I don’t particularly like Ben Affleck but this was a touching scene)

Work love is the love that lasts forever. The love that will help you fight the battles you cannot win: those of aging, sickness, and death.

It’s the love that you see when you spot an elderly couple peacefully reading books on a bench by the river. It’s the love that enables you to raise a child, or four. Remember that cute scene from Love Actually where the elderly couple keeps finishing each other’s sentences as they describe how they grew up on the same street but NEVER KNEW?? That is work love.

Work love is the love that gets better with time (because yes we all want ridiculously hot wives, but beauty gets old much faster than what’s inside; it’s like buying a brand new BMW M3 only to quickly lose that new car “feel” and even the new car smell).

As I’ve gotten older, and seen promising relationships fail (including my own), I’ve begun to appreciate the importance of work – of commitment and sacrifice. A love that nurtures and glows. A love that’s worth the phone fights, the occasionally boring dinner, the little insecurities.

A CliffNotes of my relationship history, without names

Let me provide some context. I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, so I’ll go light on details. It’s interesting for me to write this in a public way, because as I’m typing these words, I have no idea what I’ll say…

Here’s a 1-sentence summary (with about 5 minutes of thought):

I was lucky enough to experience passionate love, made a shitload of mistakes (root cause: selfishness), but ultimately I failed to find “the one” because I wasn’t ready to spend the rest of my life with a particular person. I wasn’t ready to work for love, to commit and sacrifice my bachelor goals.

Random bullets:

  • I’ve had 3 long-term relationships, each averaging 1-2 years (including dating and then being “exclusive”)
  • My first was the most intense (isn’t everyone’s?) and my last was the most sobering (it really made me take a few steps back and reconsider what this whole relationship business was about)
  • My emotional low came when I initiated a breakup, asked for a second chance, and was told “no”. Just shows you how big my ego is – the “no” hurt more than the end of a loving relationship
  • All relationships were with Asian girls. I’m open to – and have dated – non-Asian girls, but it’s the exception. I’d like to change that
  • I went through a phase where my goal was to hookup with as many girls as possible, and I rarely thought about another person’s feelings. I still make this mistake from time to time, but it’s really slowed in the last year…it started to feel like I was in a bad re-make of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day

My outlook from here

So I’ve just said how I feel like real love is based on work. But ironically the root cause of all my relationship failures is an obsession with another type of work – career success.

The reason why I’m single (at least, I THINK the reason) is because my career is in a state of flux.

This is important for a lot of high-ambition guys, who simply feel UNMANLY (and thus, not ready for marriage’s added responsibilities and sacrifice), until they have achieved an internally acceptable level of career success and the stability of knowing their career path for at least 5-10 years.

I don’t even know where I’m going to live next year, much less what I’m going to do in five!

That, coupled with a growing desire to find the “right” sort of girl – one who can fire up passionate love but also deeply values work love – seems to put me in a romantic Catch-22.

On the one hand, I don’t have time to pursue a deep relationship until my career stabilizes. On the other hand, I don’t want a string of easy hookups. wtf, right

When I started writing, I hoped to end with a clear conclusion about what I should do and where I should go from here. But this piece has arguably left me where I started. I guess it’s an appropriate metaphor.

There’s a good Chinese quote, which my crappy Mandarin translates as: a good man does not eat the grass that’s behind him.

In essence, look ahead, and focus on the future. That’s what I’ll try to do.

Thanks for reading! Do you agree that love is fundamentally based on work? Any personal stories or advice you’d like to share?

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

9 thoughts on “What is love and what the heck is it all about? A personal reflection at a particular point in time”

  1. From someone who has been married 6.5 years, you are absolutely right. Love is work and I’m convinced that this is why the divorce rate is so high these days. Hollywood has made us all believe that love is made up of butterflies and roses when really it’s made up of bruised egos and sacrificed dreams. With the dreaded “seven year itch” approaching (believe me, it’s real), I am fortunate to be getting a reminder of the kind of man I married. I’ve been sick to the point of being bed ridden for the past ten weeks. My husband goes to work, comes home, plays with our son, makes dinner, does the dishes, and on weekends, he cleans the house. He’s taking care of us and doing alot of MY work without a complaint. At the end of the day, I know I could never find that kind of love anywhere else, despite what my libido calls to. I love him more today than ever.

    1. Caroline, thanks for your comment. I love it. I can’t even begin to understand what it’s like to be married, but I hope it happens at some point and I can continue to reflect on and update my understanding of love and this whole adventure :) Best wishes to you and your husband!

  2. I definitely agree that love takes a lot of work but maybe the word “work” doesn’t truly encompass what it is. Love does take a lot of work to be considerate and giving but doing that for the person I love brings me a lot of joy as well.

    Also, being grateful to be with that special person helps. Yes, it may be a numbers game in meeting the right person but recognizing how special that person is when you do meet him or her is important. I think one is able to recognize this when you do keep an open mind and shift the focus away from the typical “all about me” mode. There’s a number of studies how being grateful makes a person happier.

    1. Agree 100%. Being grateful – whether about something big (like a promotion), something small (like a piece of gum when you need it), or something that we just take for granted (like being healthy) – is a HUGE part of being “happy”. And you’re right that “work” is just a part of it…especially the element of giving to another…

  3. Thoughtful post Kev! ‘Work love’ is a great way of putting it. Because you absolutely do have to….and not to discredit those that try and decide not being together is better for them…but a lot of folks give up easier because divorce is actually an option to them. There’s actually a whole thought behind the concept of ‘starter’ marriages. In contrast, to our parents and generations past divorce wasn’t an option, not really.

    A couple quotes you might appreciate (paraphrased):
    A perfect relationship isn’t perfect. It’s just one where neither person gives up.
    You make a choice to marry someone. And you make that choice again every day.

    I think it’s awesome you’ve taken time and found insight into your history. I coulda told you 10 years ago…and then 5 years ago…you weren’t ready for anything past the fun part of love. Did you forget I know everything? Okay none of us were. But hopefully that’s not the case now/going forward.

    And don’t wait for the timing to be right…especially not with work. Make it fit into your love life, not the other way. She’ll love the ambition or the passion you have for it, not the level of success you have yet to achieve – you can do that together.

    Can’t wait to meet the love of your life!

    P.S. Screw 6th, next time you’re in town we’re watching rom-coms apparently.

    1. Haha yes, down for rom-coms anytime…but can’t let go of the boozing quite yet :P

      And thanks for the reminder about not waiting for the timing to be right. I agree. Just like love requires dedication and sacrifice, making it fit into your life is a choice you consciously make.

      >A perfect relationship isn’t perfect. It’s just one where neither person gives up.
      >You make a choice to marry someone. And you make that choice again every day.

      I love that quote.

Thoughts? Questions?