This week I’m writing about love. Specifically, I’m writing about what I’ve learned about love through spending most of my adult life as an unpartnered person, in a society that often seems to go out of its way to reinforce the idea that people like me are a problem, that we are unlovable and that we need to change ourselves in order to deserve love.
I think we are offered very limited definitions of love by mainstream Western culture. I think that this is a problem and that people who choose to love outside these narrow boxes (or who are deemed less desirable by society for whatever bullshit reason) are not. Love is not equivalent to having a specific kind of relationship. Specifically, love is not equivalent to having a romantic relationship. Not having a romantic relationship just means you don’t have a romantic relationship. It does not mean that you are unloved or unlovable or do not know how to love or that you are less deserving of love, care and attention than someone who is partnered or that you need to work on yourself, to take a few examples.
Romantic relationships can, of course, be loving, but that is far from always the case. People enter or stay in romantic relationships for all kinds of reasons: for the sense of security they can offer, to pool financial resources, because everybody else is doing it, to have a live-in housekeeper, to please their parents – etc. Deserving love is not one of these reasons. Even when romantic relationships are loving, they are just one possible form that love can take. Having a romantic relationship is not a measure of how much a given human deserves to be loved I learned this early on from anarchist writers like Emma Goldman and I think it inoculated me to a large extent against the idea of marriage.
Nevertheless, I have lost count of the number of times that partnered people have told me that I could not do what you do, I need a partner to live, that I just don’t know why you’re single because you deserve to be loved the way my partner loves me or I don’t know why you are single when you are smarter/thinner/prettier/etc than this other person who has a partner. I could go on.
While these comments are undoubtedly intended to be supportive, they can’t help but send the subtext that being unpartnered is a problematic state and assume that being unpartnered is something people want to change, preferably as soon as possible. Let me say it again: I am unpartnered because I have not yet happened to meet someone who I wanted to be in a romantic relationship with who felt the same way about me and who wanted the kind of relationship I want. That’s it. It does not mean that I am lonely or that love is lacking in my life. To partnered people: if you want to support your unpartnered friends, prioritise spending time with us, don’t tell us that we’re no longer a priority because you now have a partner. Don’t bring up your partner at every available opportunity. Also, don’t assume that unpartnered people are jealous, or that we want what you have. Shani Silver writes a lot about changing attitudes towards being single. Go read her writing.
We need to release the idea that we need to change ourselves in order to be loved. That is not how love works. Love is simply a feeling we can feel towards ourselves or other beings. We don’t have to work to earn other people’s love (or our own). We don’t have to improve ourselves in order to be loved. Plenty of people with perfectly shitty ideals and behaviour have people who love them. That’s okay, because they deserve love too. Possibly the weirdest example of this that I’ve witnessed was Mussolini’s granddaughter getting upset because someone had described him as a fascist on Twitter, on the basis that she loved her grandpa. Let’s be clear – Mussolini coined the term “fascist” to describe his politics. Whether or not his grandkids feel love for him is unrelated to his fascism – his politics do not make him immune from love.
It is a common human experience to feel deep love for people who we have never met. Sometimes, we have never met them because they are on the other side of the world. Sometimes, they are fictional characters who we cannot meet, because they exist only on a fictional plane. We love deities and ancestors and animals and plants. We love the land. I’m the kid who got taken out of the cinema crying uncontrollably during Land Before Time because of that scene that viscerally portrayed the grief of a baby cartoon dinosaur. I can stare into the tiny vortex of a flower and marvel at its beauty and delight in the fact that it crossed my path at the exact moment I needed it to. I remember the garlic cake my ex baked me and feel a momentary spark of love towards him kindle in my heart (even if in his case, it doesn’t last long). I don’t want people in power whose views I deeply dislike to suffer or die – I just want them not to cause harm to others. I would much rather that they simply go away somewhere and play golf forever, or make buses out of cardboard boxes, instead of opening their mouths in public. My ability to love is pretty much boundless, and I’m proud of that.
This is possible because the feeling of love I experience comes not from the person or flower or idea that I feel love towards, but from my own brain. When I love someone else it feels good for me. Sometimes it feels good for them too (because love and loving touch absolutely are ways that humans, and sometimes non-humans too, co-regulate each other’s nervous systems), but love doesn’t have to feel good for someone else or even to involve physical touch. As I said above, we can love people who are absent.
Spending months living alone in lockdown, followed by months living with my elderly parents, has taught me so much about how we love each other. My approach to being alone in quarantine for months was to go all-in on loving myself. In a society that prioritises romantic and familial relationships, it is quite rare for many of us to have extended periods of time alone. Prior to the lockdown, I tended to fill my time with social activities, to stave off potential feelings of loneliness. I think I was afraid that if I spent time alone, I might find out that I didn’t like myself all that much. That’s a pretty depressing thought, but it’s also a totally optional one. While we cannot control what other people think of us, though, our relationship with ourselves is the one relationship we do have more influence over. It sounds weird to say it, but our relationship with self is a relationship just like any other and if we don’t tend to it, it won’t flourish.
This is not to imply that loving myself is always easy. Loving myself felt like an act of resistance at first. In the beginning, I was motivated partly by sticking two fingers up at all the people who kept telling me how awful it must be to be alone. Loving myself is messy and frustrating and uncomfortable, because human life is all of these things. Sometimes I feel resentment towards the effort that it takes. My practices are simple and focused on the idea of loving myself whether or not I think I “deserve” love. I cultivate love for myself by making time each day to notice my thoughts and to practice thinking compassionate and loving thoughts about myself. When I notice that I am being mean to myself, I interrupt that train of thought without judging it. Brains are weird and wonderful organs and for many people, they seem to default towards thinking mean thoughts. We don’t need to give these mean thoughts any deeper meaning, they are just sentences running in our minds, but often we do, because we don’t realise in time that they are simply thoughts. I do the same thing to cultivate feelings of love and compassion towards other people every day–this is part of my spiritual practice. Loving other people makes me feel connected to them, even when we are physically apart.
I used to worry that loving myself more would turn me into some kind of soulless nightmare of a person, thinking only of myself. But this rested on the fallacy that love is a limited resource, which it is obviously isn’t, when we think about it. It is totally possible to love more than one person deeply and at the same time. As I love myself more, I’ve noticed my capacity to love others expand too. This is not some kind of “love yourself before you can love anyone else” gaslighting, I promise. Life is just so much more easeful when we love ourselves more, and when our love for ourselves is not conditional. Being alone and getting to love myself deeply in this way has changed the way I show up in all my relationships.
One corollary of holding unconditional love for myself is that conflict with others is easier. I’ve really noticed this living with family. When I love myself, I can mess up and not make mistakes or conflict mean that I am a terrible person. When I’m not busy hating on myself, I can listen to whoever I am in conflict with, I can admit when I have caused harm and seek to repair it. I can choose to disagree with someone and still love them. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to disengage. Prentis Hemphill offers a beautifully clear definition of boundaries that I think of often: “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” This is such a brilliant way to put it, because it acknowledges deeply how love acknowledges the humanity of everyone involved in our relationships.
If love is not about avoiding conflict at all costs, it follows that it is also not about controlling ourselves or others. It is not loving to require others to change in order to deserve our love, or to expect others to change their behaviour in order to please us. Likewise, it is not loving (to either self or to others) to contort ourselves in order to please. I used to think that I was being super loving by never expressing a preference for anything, no matter how small, for trying to intuit what would please someone else in order to make them feel loved. All of this was me trying to control others to elicit their love and please them. None of that was love, and it was controlling, not consensual. Fetch, by Nicole J Georges taught me this on a deep level. Fetch is a beautiful graphic novel that explores how Nicole figures out how to love and care for her unpredictable rescue dog Beija in a way that honours the consent of everyone involved (if you think consent doesn’t apply to animals, read this book!).
This all might sound incredibly obvious to you. Or not. I have no idea. Maybe I am super slow in learning these things. Either way, I’m glad I know them. For me, choosing to remain unpartnered until it feels (mutually) right actually means I am miles better at loving than when I wanted a partner just to avoid being alone. Not questioning that I am equally as deserving of love as any other being feels incredibly freeing. As always, I hope you get exactly what you need from this post.
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