Here at Autostraddle, we love to help. In fact as you may know, we have an entire column titled YOU NEED HELP that runs every Tuesday, where you write us questions and we answer them! We answer lots of questions about lots of different subjects: family, gender, work, friendship, sex, life… but the questions we get more frequently than any other are about love. We get questions from people after breakups wondering if they were ever in love, people who wonder if they’re in love with their BFF or just having regular friend emotions, people who are perpetually single and wonder what love even is and if they never date will they be doomed to not find it, people starting relationships wondering when to say “I love you” and how to know if it’s a true feeling, and people who are just confused and lost and overwhelmed and wondering: what is love?
Recently we received one version of this question in our YOU NEED HELP submission box that spurred a lot of internal conversation, and as editor of the column I decided that it would be useful to run a roundtable sharing multiple perspectives on our most popular query: what is love? So I present to you, the day after Valentine’s Day, some of our thoughts about love. Thank you, as always, for trusting us with your hearts when you write in to YOU NEED HELP. We love you. — Vanessa, Community Editor
PS: You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.
danijanae , Writer
This is such a big question and is intensely guided by the fact that I’m currently reading All About Love by bell hooks. I truly believe that the definition of love we find in dictionaries and such is so! limited! It’s very much focused on romantic love, and even a minimal view of that.
I do like the definition hooks cites in the book, a love that is about wanting spiritual growth and wellness for another person. In romantic relationships, a definition like that takes the pressure off. We have this idea that to be loved you have to fully love yourself and have all your wounds healed, but I don’t believe that. You can love and be loved when you are hurting and sore.
I’ve only been in love once so I’m a novice in some ways. Even though that relationship sucked, it was a beautiful thing to feel that heart swell feeling. I really would like to have it in my life again but if it doesn’t work that way for me I know I have the love of my friends and chosen family.
If I’m alive and there is no love in my life, then I don’t want to live that life. Dramatic I know but you’ll forgive me because I am a poet. I have lived a life void of love and that was the closest I was to suicide. I don’t want to go back there so I find love wherever I can and hold on to it.
Drew Burnett Gregory, Senior Editor
For me, love has been as much about the person I’m with as it is my own capacity. I think I had to do a lot of work on myself to get me to a place where I could love the way I do currently. And that’s not to say the previous times I was in love weren’t love! I was just loving at the capacity that I had at the time.
I think people should be less worried about whether or not what they are feeling is love and trust their instinct when it feels right to use that word. Not all love has to feel the same.
I’m a year into a relationship and I’ve kind of circled back to my more adolescent notions of love. For a while, I really thought sparks and butterflies were better left in the past in favor of things like compatibility, maturity, and commitment. But what I’ve learned — in doing work on myself and then meeting someone I really love — is that there’s a version of sparks and butterflies that can exist alongside AND BE HEIGHTENED BY self-love and self-respect and all the mature adult relationship stuff.
Everyone is different, and what everyone is looking for is different, but I’m really glad that I didn’t give up on my romanticism.
Abeni Jones, Contributor
At the end of a relationship, a lot of us doubt whether we had actually been “in love.” I’ve essentially felt that after – and sometimes during – nearly every “serious” relationship I’ve been in. I’ve said “I love you” to a handful of people over the years, and always meant it in the moment, but usually doubted myself later. For years, I’ve chalked this up to the concept, present in both “fairytale” romance and approximately 90% of the conversations I’ve ever had on the topic with friends, that when you’re in love, you’ll “just know.” But I’ve never “just known.” People talk about that “spark” of chemistry or romance or whatever, and about “falling in love,” and about the indescribable pull toward another person that feels otherworldly and often uncontrollable. I’ve… never really felt any of that. Hence my doubts.
I’ve pondered for years if I’m just asexual or aromantic, or on the autism spectrum, or, in darker moments, just simply unable to love, and broken as a human, destined to be single forever. Which, it should be said, I’d actually be pretty okay with? Like Mary J. Blige said, “I’d rather be alone than unhappy.” I think the idea that romantic love is what makes life worth living is a trap that leads a lot of us to do and or put up with really unhealthy things.
And I’ve thought a lot about what I mean when I say “I love you.” I mean that I care about you, and commit to treating you with honesty and empathy and integrity. But I don’t mean “I feel a particularly discernable or commonly-understood set of feelings for you,” or that I commit to feeling a particular way forever. I think feelings are fleeting. But love isn’t? I think love is a decision you make to prioritize someone and care about them even when it’s hard or inconvenient or when you don’t feel like it. I believe love is a set of actions, not a set of feelings. I believe that the love I have for my best friends is essentially the same love that I’ve had for my past and current lover(s). A lot of people I’ve dated have felt hurt when I say that I love them like I love my best friends. It feels to many of them that romantic love should be somehow more or better than that. I’m still wrapping my mind around what that means and if they’re right, or if we somehow both are. And it seems like the issue is that we talk about love like it’s this particular thing, but it’s not just a particular thing? The disconnect could be because “love” is so commonly understood to mean feelings, and sparks of chemistry, and lustful, otherworldly pulls towards another, and it’s never really meant exactly that to me. But I also wonder if it’s more complex than even all that.
What I’ve been working on in therapy for the last few years is trying to pry myself open to vulnerability and trust and intimacy. I fear that the reason I’ve so often felt “I guess I wasn’t really in love” is because I’ve never fully given myself over to something that’s always felt constricting, instead of freeing. And because I was afraid, as I had dark parts of myself I was ashamed to expose. And because my lack of self-esteem has led to self-sabotage. The thing is, I’ve really, really tried. And I’ve given and sacrificed and exposed and compromised and revealed and yet I’ve often still felt this way. There have been flashes of transcendence, though, most of them recently, that give me the feeling I’m on the right path, so I’m still pursuing it. But I’m also open to the idea that whatever most people mean when they say “love” just isn’t in the cards for me.
I guess the big idea is questioning what “being in love” even means. I’ve come to peace with the fact that, whether or not I’ve ever been in love, I do know that I have loved. I have acted in a loving way to people I care about, and done my best to always treat them with dignity and respect and caring and integrity as well as I’ve been able. And if that’s what love is, then I guess that’s what it is. And if there’s something else I’m missing, that kind of sucks, but maybe it’s not the end of the world.
Meg Jones Wall, Writer
I’ve been in love a few different times, and one thing that often gets lost in the love discourse is how many different types of love there are in the world, and the ways that even the truest, most powerful love can change and grow over time. I don’t just mean platonic vs. romantic vs. community, I mean that love can have all different shapes and sensations and desires and fears associated with it, and that can look (and feel) incredibly different based on our comfort level, our desire for a relationship, our chemistry and compatibility with the person, and the intimacy of the connection, as well as our support systems and pressures that we have outside of the relationship. I don’t think falling in love is always a bolt of lightning or sweaty palms or a racing heart, because sometimes it grows slowly, sometimes it pops up out of nowhere, and sometimes it fades into something else.
Unrequited love is a thing, falling in love with a friend is a thing, breaking up with someone you still love is a thing, but I think that the ways we engage in relationship with people has a big impact on how we understand the concept of love. And as Himani so wisely says below, when the love-y feelings that we expect to have or wish we were having don’t line up with what we actually experience, I think it’s comforting to say that what we felt actually wasn’t love at all, but something else entirely. It can feel like reclaiming control, changing the narrative, even offering ourselves some tenderness and compassion. If we weren’t in love, it’s okay that things ended. If we weren’t in love, we didn’t fail.
To Abeni’s point, I think it’s easy to blame ourselves for not giving enough, for not allowing ourselves to love or be loved — but if we don’t feel safe, if we don’t know that our love will be cherished and appreciated, if we aren’t sure that the other person will receive our vulnerability and offer theirs in return, it can be really scary to take the chance, to acknowledge our love in its fullness. And if one person in the relationship isn’t interested in deepening intimacy, isn’t able to be vulnerable, I really think that it limits the capacity for vulnerability for the other people involved in the relationship, in a way that can translate to really sticky, confusing ideas about what love really is.
I know that I loved my ex, for a long time — and I still do! But I have felt so many different versions of love for him over the years, and the love that I hold for him now is a wildly different thing than the love that I felt when we got married. The love I feel with and for my current partner isn’t like anything I’ve experienced before, and while it’s tempting (and may be true) to say that she’s simply a better fit for me, I think it’s more accurate to say that my capacity for love has expanded, that my willingness to be vulnerable and open and authentically myself has grown, and that I am willing to do the hard work to maintain our relationship in a way that younger versions of myself simply couldn’t. The Meg that fell in love at 22 is a completely different person than the Meg that fell in love at 35. But I don’t think that my younger self wasn’t really in love — I think that she just expressed and understood it very differently, and had a very specific idea about what relationships, love, and marriage could or should be.
Also, therapy! What a gift!
Himani Gupta, Contributor
As recently as five years ago, I would’ve been ashamed to admit that I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking about love. And yet, after all this, the best answer I can come up with is that love is whatever we make of it and, at the same time, this abstract nebulous thing is as critical to our lives as the air we breathe.
Perhaps, love is a lens through which to uncover our own identities. Reflecting on the quote Dani shared from bell hooks, perhaps that’s another way of considering what hooks wrote. (Or maybe she goes there explicitly, I don’t know — I have not read All About Love.) But, I’m also thinking broadly here, not just in terms of partnered, romantic love. I mean the love through which our friends and family see us that allows us to see ourselves, and also the love we have for the things that move us or the activities that come to define us. I go back and forth between thinking that I throw around the word “love” far too casually (as in, “I loved that book”), but maybe not?
I’ve written here a few times about what it can mean to grow up starved for love, about how that constrains our ability to know ourselves (before we can even get into loving ourselves) and how it leaves us longing for some ever unattainable more. For a long time, though, a lot of the love and joy I found in my life was through reading fantasy novels because so much of my day-to-day was so bereft of affection. But over time, I realized that also meant I was losing the ability to recognize the love that did exist in my life.
Of course the ability to be vulnerable is a big part of that, as others have written here, and as Drew and Meg shared, our capacity for vulnerability and for love are also things that change over time. But perhaps, part of having that capacity for vulnerability and for love is also a reflection of our capacity for not only accepting but also understanding who we are. It can feel scary to admit that you love something or someone. It can feel scary to really confront who you are within your deepest self. The stakes in both cases feel high if we make a mistake; maybe, some of those stakes are even the same. At the very least, this feels like it’s been my experience.
It’s so easy to rewrite the past, to say that love wasn’t there, because I think that’s harder than confronting that the love was there and it was a complicated love, or it wasn’t a complete love, or it’s a love that can no longer sustain us. Feelings ebb and flow, and as we grow the things we want can change, but that doesn’t make any of those feelings less real. And I’ve also learned, the hard way, that when we deny our pasts we deny ourselves; I think this is no less true of our past loves.
Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor
Earlier this week one of our cats BIT THROUGH HER OWN TONGUE and so of course she was in a lot of pain and having trouble eating, even on pain meds and antibiotics. She’s already a very persnickety eater who needs things to be just so for the four — yes four! — small meals she gets every day. She’s also feeling very jumpy due to the fact that she BIT THROUGH HER OWN TONGUE, and so she keeps darting away at every sound that startles her which is basically every sound. And so, every day, many times a day, my wife sits silently on the floor and waits for Quasar to come out of hiding, and then feeds her one piece of food at a time until she’s eaten her whole scoop. It takes… a good while. She praises Quasar when she gets in a good chomp, coos sweetly if she dashes under a chair, and pets her little head for as long as she wants after she’s done.
If you know my wife at all, maybe this story surprises you, because she’s like that kind of crunchy shell lesbian TV character everyone knows and loves, all deep sarcastic drawl and fire poker wit, unflinching in the face of adversity or any man, won’t back down from an argument when she feels strongly about a cause, won’t give up an inch of space on the subway. Everyone says she’s intimidating, and I understand why. She’s beautiful, she’s literally brilliant, she’s unbelievably talented and successful at her career, she knows who she is and what she wants and she’s gonna get it. She suffers zero fools and zero bullshit.
And right now she’s been on the floor for half an hour, quietly feeding Quasar, bit by bit.
The world’s Stacy has to be tough to survive and succeed, but my Stacy, she only buys soft clothes because I have sensory issues and can only wear soft clothes, and she wants me to be able to touch her all the time, any time, and feel good in my own body about it. My Stacy makes up songs all day, and every time she eats jam on her toast, she sings that bananas Carol Channing “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday” ditty from Alice in Wonderland. My Stacy only wears pants and shorts with pockets because I like to stick my hand in her pocket when we’re watching TV together, or reading beside each other in bed. My Stacy cries over beautiful art, even when it’s not sad, and watches so many TV shows and movies twice — once by herself to scout out any blood or gore or jump-scares, and once with me so she can warn me about that stuff. My Stacy never walks past my desk without brushing her hand over my back or neck, slides up behind me and hugs me nearly every time I’m doing dishes, and eats Mexican food multiple times a week because I want Mexican food multiple times a week. She has a special nighttime tuck-in routine for each of our cats, has adopted all my sports teams as her sports teams, and keeps abreast every day of any breaking Dolly Parton news because Dolly Parton is my pretend mom.
The older I get, the harder it is for me to make broad declarations about what is and isn’t love, and about what makes relationships work, and about what causes relationships to crash, and about what to do, specifically, before and during and after every kind of little crush or all-consuming love affair. I think what I know for sure, for now, is that every pair of people has their own alchemy, and sometimes, through sheer luck or hard work or a zillion combinations of other factors, two people find forever in each other. And whoever they are to everyone else, who they are to you is the most precious thing in the world, the main thing, and it is the greatest gift I can imagine.
If you had asked me, before I met my wife, what I wanted in a woman, I would have listed off a whole litany of things — but the truth is, what I really wanted was the kind of person who would sit on the floor and feed our cat one piece of food at a time, with deep care in her eyes, and a silly song in her heart.
That’s love to me. I’m so lucky — so fucking eternally and wholly lucky — that it’s mine.