I had a therapist a while back who asked me to provide examples of people in healthy relationships. For seconds I sat, mouth slightly agape, eyes fairly wide open, surprised by my own rare silence. Eventually, I abdicated, failing to formulate any response. This nonanswer signaled a gap in my awareness. I'd become pretty adept at identifying love in its inverse, an "impressive" ability to highlight attributes in their absence, but I could scarcely see the positive.
For better or for worse, I have long associated love with struggle. This started early. My parents, though extremely loving, did not know how to love one another well. Being a bystander to their near-daily strife certainly colored my perception. I've been a keen observer of relationships ever since, albeit one with heavy confirmation bias. I spent the '80s pressing rewind on my pastel-pink tape-deck playing sad, sappy "love" songs like "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "I Don't Have the Heart" and subsequent decades mentally tallying relationship woes.
With that orientation, it's no wonder where I gravitated. Perspective shapes reality and self-fulfilling prophecy is just a perpetuation of subtle, subversive patterns. For a good portion of my life, I selected incompatible, emotionally unavailable partners. I hyper-focused on bad acts, barely noticing the good. I became the "nonjudgmental" friend, who people felt comfortable complaining to — facially neutral, internally judgmental, amassing evidence against this whole misguided endeavor. I refused to buy into idyllic portrayals of romance, assuming an agenda (this belief remains strong; go home #HallmarkHolidaze, you're drunk).
Equate love with struggle and endless examples arise to affirm. I've borne witness to fear-based behaviors, guised as loving, that were manipulative, abusive, passive aggressive, co-dependent and immature imitations. Seek and ye shall find.
That is until one well-timed, perfectly placed question becomes a catalyst, reorienting previous interpretations of the world. Nowadays, I still associate love with struggle, I still become disappointed by acts we label as loving, but I've developed a more dynamic framework, progressing from outright denial to moderately dubious, perhaps even over to skeptical-romantic.
I remember my momma telling me once that loving another would be the hardest work I'd ever do. I always believed her but hadn't fully heard her words left unsaid — difficult but worthwhile. Philosophers oft advise us that life includes suffering, but in choosing our pain, we create meaning. Perhaps that's why my parents stayed together?
So, everyday I'm hustlin,' still pragmatically observant but also choosing to diversify my inputs. Reading authors who investigate love, like bell hooks, M. Scott Peck and the Gottmans, questioning strong couples for their secrets of success, and letting myself be in awe, rather than judgment, of those who exhibit high standards of care, commitment and concern for their partners while maintaining self-love, boundaries and individuality.
This sundry exposure has given me a vocabulary of values to articulate New Visions (by hooks) on love. If asked the question today, I'd have a much better response — healthy couples exist but are rare. They match each others' mutual efforts and make each other laugh. Good partners remain curious, turning toward each other, answering bids for connection, rather than away, even when hurt or angry. Love flourishes when individuals are willing to extend themselves, laboring to master the tenuous balance of equity. Quality couples communicate, even information nobody wants to hear. They are paradoxical, inspiring growth alongside full acceptance. They have fun and they fight — for one another and with one another, when warranted, but always from a place of respect. They commit to the struggle time and time again, knowing — in the wise words of the (in)famous RuPaul — "you better work." ♦
Inga N. Laurent is a local legal educator and a Fulbright scholar. She is deeply curious about the world and its constructs and delights in uncovering common points of connection that unite our shared but unique human experiences.