The first time I remember seriously thinking about love and its meaning in my life was the summer going into eighth grade. My best friend at the time was in a relationship with a guy that was a year older than us and going into his freshman year of high school. For being so young, their relationship lasted quite a while; I think they dated for 2-3 years.
We spent that summer hanging out at my friend’s boyfriend’s house, going to local “emo” shows at the VFW or a nearby church (why did churches host rock shows in their basements, anyway?) or swimming at our friends’ pools.
I can’t remember exactly where we were or what we were doing, but my friend and her boyfriend had just gotten into a particularly nasty argument. I think he had gotten jealous over something (that was common in their relationship), and she had responded to his insecurities with anger.
Their relationship was the first time I had witnessed screaming matches between lovers or heated expressions of jealousy. At home, my parents’ relationship had its own problems. They, like many married couples, struggled to keep their love alive.
Yet, in my family, problems tended to fester quietly, insidiously corroding trust and diminishing affection. I’m not sure which was harder to witness: my friend’s almost violent eruptions of emotion with her boyfriend, or my parents’ caustic comments – tossed back and forth like a resentful ping-pong match.
Either way, both experiences clearly influenced the way I viewed romantic love. With no romantic relationships of my own to pull from, I was thirteen and trying to make sense of why something that seemed to make people so miserable also seemed to occupy so much of our time.
Anyway, I can’t remember what prompted it, but I said to my friend,
“I’m never going to have a boyfriend. They only get in the way or tie you down. No one will ever stop me from doing what I want to do with my life.”
That was my view on love: it was a threat to my freedom and happiness that needed to be avoided or stomped out, nothing more.
It’s been a long time since that summer, and my views on love (among other things) have changed. A lot has also happened in my life since then:
- I lost my virginity.
- I got my first real boyfriend.
- I broke up with my first boyfriend.
- I endured 10 months of an emotionally-volatile and unhealthy relationship.
- I ended that relationship.
- I met my current boyfriend.
- We have been together for 4 years, we got engaged, and he is now my fiancé.
I wish I could say that my views on life and love evolved naturally, that they were an inevitable progression or a normal part of growing up – but that’s not true.
Like most bouts of mental, spiritual, or moral growth in my life, the evolution of my views on love – and the way I practice it in everyday life – was a result of a lot of reading, personal reflection, and hard, emotional work.
One of the books that has greatly influenced my views on love – and taken me from a cynical, avoidant 13-year-old to an optimistic, healthy(er) 29-year-old – is bell hooks’ All About Love. In it, she challenges our culture’s dominant notions of love, including the idea that love is so powerful and mysterious that it transcends definition.
On the contrary, hooks argues, we would all be better off if we concretely defined love and used that definition to guide our actions. Defining love gives us power to create the lives and the relationships that we want.
She writes, “Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up.”
Here are some other things hooks has to say about love:
Love should be defined as a verb, not a noun.
Typically, our culture talks about love as a thing, something that happens to us or something that we “fall into.” Sometimes we talk about it as a feeling, other times a mystical phenomenon. Rarely, though, do we use love as a verb.
Love, hooks argues, is an action and a choice. Love is defined by how we engage with the object of our love – how we treat that person, how we nurture them and help them grow.
As M. Scott Peck says, “Love is as love does.” You can only love another as much as you demonstrate that love through conscious behavior.
Genuine love begets accountability and responsibility.
One of the most powerful consequences of redefining love as an action is that it presupposes accountability and responsibility. Hooks writes,
“We are often taught we have no control over our ‘feelings.’ Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do.”
It is harder to accept responsibility for our feelings than for our actions, especially when we are taught that our feelings are out of our control. Even the expression “falling in love” denotes a sort of powerlessness. Love is something that happens to us; it’s not something we choose.
When love becomes a choice, something expressed through action, we assume more responsibility for our behaviors within our loving relationships. Saying “I love you” and then treating someone poorly, or worse, harming or abusing them, is oxymoronic.
You can’t love someone and treat them poorly because love cannot exist apart from loving behaviors.
Love is a mixture of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, honesty, and open communication.
I love that hooks openly defines love as a mixture of caring and nurturing behaviors. It is so far from our culture’s typical definition of romantic love that tends to focus only on intense feelings or sexual attraction.
To hooks, love is a mixture of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, honesty, and open communication, but it is not limited to these things. Ultimately, hooks favors M. Scott Peck’s definition from his book called The Road Less Traveled:
Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
Cynicism is typically a shield for hurt and disappointment.
Maybe this one goes without saying, but hooks insists that even the most cynical among us want to believe in and hope for love. Love (as Peck defines it, not just romantic love) is one of the most powerful forces at our disposal. It is the driving ethic behind countless social justice movements. It is the primary motivator of so many of our decisions.
Yet, so many of us are pessimistic about it because we are clueless about how to actually practice it. In the context of marriage, that might be because, for most of humanity’s history, marriage was mostly a political decision, not a romantic one.
It’s no wonder, then, that most of us feel lost about how to find someone to love, let alone maintain that love for the majority of our lives.
There are no schools for love, and the cultural products that do exist to teach us about love so often lead us astray.
True love requires surmounting sexist gender roles and stereotypes.
One type of cultural product that can teach us about love is the self-help book. Unfortunately, too many self-help books about love reinforce gender roles and sexist stereotypes; think Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus or The Rules. I love hooks’ response to this:
“[These] authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women – that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language.
This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love.
Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking.”
You would think these authors could acknowledge that millennia of patriarchy won’t dismantle itself, even within intimate relationships. Perhaps men and women feel so emotionally disconnected because they have largely lived in separate emotional, mental, and physical universes for most our species’ history.
Yet so many self-help books about love and relationships take the easy way out. Instead of helping couples surmount these challenges, they offer “strategies” for dancing around them, preserving them, or worse, actively manipulating them.
True love, in which we foster the spiritual growth of another, necessitates transcending patriarchal gender roles because those roles are inherently oppressive to both women and men.
Most of us do not learn how to love in our families, and that’s OK.
Hooks writes in detail about her relationships in her family of origin, and how difficult it was for her to admit that the relationships she had with her parents and siblings were not loving.
She admits that there was care and affection, yes, but not love. She recounts enduring verbal and emotional abuse as a child, and how that impacted her ability to give and receive love as she got older. Remember, according to hooks’ own definition of love, abuse and love cannot coexist.
It is important for us to admit to ourselves the realities of our primary relationships, if only to have integrity as we move forward and enter into relationships and build families of our own.
If we didn’t receive love from the families we came from, that does not mean we are not worthy of love. We are capable of learning from our families’ mistakes and cultivating relationships on our own terms.
It has been sixteen years since that summer before eighth grade. I wish I could say that those feelings never creep back in – that I’m never scared of losing myself or missing out on opportunities because I have chosen to prioritize another person’s well-being and future as much as my own.
For me, the primary takeaway from hooks’ work is this: as long as loving my significant other is a choice, not an emotion that I get lost in or a feeling I “give in” to, I will always have my freedom.
Bell hooks is an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist. You can learn more about her book, All About Love: New Visions, here.