For a long time, I thought love was an emotion. I had learned that we fell into it, not that we chose it or fed it intentionally. As a result, the process of falling in love felt vastly out of my control. It was all-encompassing. It ignored logic and reason. It had to anticipate and fulfill all of my needs. To be considered a success, it had to last a lifetime. Those ideas seem so foreign and absurd to me now.
I had other, more terrifying ideas about love as well — that my jealousy was someone’s responsibility to fix, that explosive fights were actually passion, that romantic love was more powerful and important than any other kind of love. Love is often described in very linear terms; we’re told to get over our ex before starting over with someone new and that once you’ve dated someone, friendship is nearly impossible. I used to demand that my partners sever ties with their exes to satisfy my fears of them leaving. And if they no longer wanted to date me, I translated it as them devaluing the relationship we’d once had. After all, if love didn’t last, it wasn’t real.
In retrospect, I was incredibly disempowered by these popular narratives around love. I was allowing love to happen to me rather than actively seeking it out and working to make it grow. I believed someone was predestined for me, which excused me from putting in actual work because the right person wasn’t supposed to require my making an effort.
Dipping my toes into polyamory this year and rereading the words of author and social activist bell hooks has entirely shifted my perspective. It has caused me to examine some of the assumptions I had about love, many of which I’d never even realized I had — I had just accepted and let them run on autopilot in the back of my brain. These ideas were so invisible to me I thought of them as common sense. I assumed they were beliefs everyone shared.
What I was failing to understand about love, what many of us fail to understand, is that love is an action, not an emotion. I used to tolerate physically abusive, controlling, and possessive partners, because I believed that their behaviors were a result of their love for me. I had mistaken the explosive nature of those relationships for passion, for something to be forgiven rather than proof that I wasn’t being loved. But if love is action, not emotion, then abuse can never exist in the same context.
My judgment was also clouded by my ideas about “the one.” Beginning to view the world through a polyamorous lens meant decentering the idea that the universe was assigning me a soulmate. And once I was no longer relying on fate, destiny, or a spark to guide me in my relationships, I began relying on my own internal compass. I finally let it steer me away from people who weren’t good for me. My capacity for logic and reasoning became important again.
I also stopped unreasonably expecting someone to anticipate my needs. I used to brag about how communicative I was, but I’m learning I actually have work to do in this area. And if love is action, communication is an expression of love. So I’m trying to do better. Rather than waiting for someone to fulfill a need I haven’t even clearly expressed, I set aside the belief in a perfect, all-knowing partner and ask for what I want. Sometime in my 20-something years on earth, I learned that women weren’t supposed to be demanding or make their needs known. It feels empowering to not feel that way anymore.
I’ve also learned that jealousy is more manageable than I’d previously realized. Expressing it to people I’m dating almost entirely removes its power. And now that I am having objective conversations around jealousy, it’s not something I use to control my partners (or partners use to control me). Usually, it speaks to a greater need for validation or reassurance, and expressing it starts that conversation. With love reframed as action, responsibly managing my jealousy becomes an act of love.
Whatever your dating life looks like, consider viewing love as something active and intentional, and see what shifts for you. It has led to so many gains in my romantic life and level of self-awareness. I’ve established firmer boundaries and even when I’m down in the dumps, I feel less like love is kicking my butt and more like I have the power to change my circumstances.
If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.