One of the things I find really tricky in talking about romantic relationships is defining what exactly it is that differentiates them from friendships, or from any other kind of non-romantic love relationship. It’s a very difficult thing to put ones finger on, though I have some ideas.
The big thing, is, of course, romantic love. Which, as I understand it, (and because I feel compelled to put this in the most unromantic way possible) is largely a chemical process in the brain that can be compared to addiction. When we are romantically in love with a person, our brain feeds us happy-making chemicals when we are around them, and that makes us want to be around them.
This, though, is obviously a bit of an over-simplification. I have no idea, for instance, what causes this kind of feedback loop to start – what makes us fall in love with some people and not others? For me, the only definite necessary elements are about me; I fall in love when I am in a mental state that allows me to be open with another person. In short, I fall in love with people that I feel comfortable being vulnerable with, and to be perfectly honest, my vulnerability may not be directly related to the person in the moment. It may have more to do with he greater context of my life and mental state related to things that have nothing to do with the person, but I do need to be in a particular mental place to fall in love. Though there’s obviously more to it than that. I suppose the other person has to be responsive to my openness an vulnerability, because otherwise the experience could be quite a negative one for me.
For me, there’s also this squishy period during the falling in love process, where I’m quite certain I could choose to shut down and abort, and not become emotionally entangled. I’m not sure, because I’ve never done this, but I’ve definitely been in a hazy place of “this is a person I could conceivably fall in love with” and made a conscious choice to lean into that possibility, and that’s how falling in love has historically worked for me. I’ve even been able to hold myself in the fuzzy, squishy potential-filled status period with some people. For these people, I don’t feel like it’s accurate to say I ever fell in love with them, just that I definitely could have.
So, for me, the ultimate difference between a really good, meaningful platonic relationship, and a romantic one, is a question of how I choose to approach it (and, of course, the other person’s inclinations). Of course, while this sounds like a really minor difference, it still has huge implications for the substance of the relationship. Being in love is exactly like how all the stupid love stories in movies and on the radio make it out to be, and all the shit that you assumed was schlocky exaggeration when you’d never been in love is suddenly so totally 100% exactly how you feel, and really, it’s not even close actually, and real love is so much bigger and better than any of those media have ever been able t communicate, you know?
It feels life-changing. And it’s wonderful and powerful and valuable, to the people who experience it. But substantially, I’m not sure how important it is. And I mean it. This kind of love, the one I’ve been trying to describe, is what I tend to think of as “Big Love”. It’s something I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced more than once in my life, and to have with my husband now, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily what I value most in my relationship with him.
The thing about Big Love, is that’s it’s volatile. And it’s actually not something that’s totally sustainable over the long-term; I believe I’ve read that the brain can only sustain it for a couple of years at most. And we’ve been together significantly longer than that now, so it’s fair to say we haven’t felt the Big Love for each other throughout the entire course of our relationship. And in fact, I can tell you truthfully that I haven’t; that at times, I have loved him no more or less than other important people in my life; an that at times, I realized that I could choose to not love him anymore, and that it would be relatively painless on my part to do so. I’ve always chosen to lean back in and fall back in love, and the Big Love has always reignited, easily and comfortably.
I mean, relationships? They do take work. But love, itself? That part, for me, is easy. It kind of always has been. And as long as I continue to choose to love him, our marriage will continue to be worth the work required to keep it going. Which looks like a weird feedback loop, where the marriage is the reason I choose to stay in love, and being in love is the reason I value the marriage, but it’s not that, really. I value the marriage because it’s something we both chose – it’s a project we have undertaken together, as partners, and as friends, and loving each other is itself one aspect of that project.
Really, at the bottom, a strong friendship is the reason our romance stays strong. So, the difference between a truly loving friendship and a romance? As far as I’m concerned, it’s what you choose, together, to make of it.
And all of this, this is why I’m able to be happy an comfortable in a poly relationship. I think that so often, when people have debilitating jealousy issues, or respond to the idea of their partner caring about someone else, it’s because we frame love as a force of nature. It’s something that just happens; it strikes without warning, and more importantly, it’s an unstoppable force. And if we believe this narrative, it’s only natural to want to prevent our partners from being exposed to people that they might accidentally fall in love with.
I mean, I used to just wonder at how little some people trust the people they supposedly love, and I never understood why people would make formal commitments to be faithful if neither one really believed the other. But I think I understand now that for many people, it’s not about whether they trust their partner. It’s simply that we’re tricked into believing that they have no control in the matter – that even if we trust their intention enough to accept their promise of fidelity, when it comes right down to it, they don’t get to choose whether they will fall in love with someone else and break our hearts.
But, I know that I chose to love the man that I do, and I know that he chose to love me. And the only thing I need to trust in is that he will continue to make the same choice throughout the years, for that is the real commitment that we have made to one another. Luck’s got nothing to do with it.
And of course, I know that there are other factors, both internal and external, that may change how we feel about our relationship to one other. And we may not spend the rest of our lives together; few people do. But the thing that I do know, for sure, is that if we choose to part ways, it won’t be because the magical, uncontrollable spirit of love abandons us. It will be because our relationship no longer represents the practical, mutually beneficial arrangement for us that it currently does. It will have run its course, and I suspect that I will judge it to have been successful, no matter when it ends, for having improved both of our lives for its duration.
And honestly, I really hope we’re smart enough to end it if that ever ceases to be the case. I think that’s part of what real love and actually caring about each other is about.
And as of this writing, I totally intend to keep on loving this man with all my heart for decades to come.
UPDATE: there was a bunch of stuff I couldn’t fit into this post, so there’s a part 2 here