“You must love in such a way that the other person feels free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Conventional notions of what it means to love are populated with expectations for reciprocity, which often gets us into trouble. I know this personally, because whenever I have “freely” given my love and it has not been rewarded with reciprocity, I have often come face to face with my resentment.
This has been especially true of my intimate relationships. I want the people who fall into this category, in particular, to reciprocate my love. I expect them to. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, love is expansive, not constrictive.
I had a boyfriend once, for example, who seemed to genuinely like spending time with me, but didn’t make our relationship a priority. This was a guy who was pretty laid back in general, and so I discounted his reserve and tried to be patient, thinking we’d eventually turn a corner.
What became clear, over the course of four years, is that my patience was thinly veiling a whole host of disappointed expectations for reciprocity. And in the end I felt angry and betrayed.
The question is: by whom really?
When some time had passed and I was able to look back on the situation with a little more objectivity, it became clear that I’d entered into the relationship with typical expectations for attention, time, comfort, and affection—in other words, an agenda.
I don’t mean to say there is anything wrong with wanting to be loved. There isn’t. It is a good and natural impulse.
We all deserve the love of our intimate others and should be careful to choose partners whose love for us is a natural, abundant outpouring of their feelings, and investment in us and our wellbeing.
The desire to be loved—to the extent that it is fueled by any underlying agendas or feelings of isolation and loneliness—can be very problematic. It often turns a relationship into some version of, “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” And love isn’t contractual.
However, bargaining is, and this, unfortunately, was the weak foundation on which my own compromised relationship stood and faltered. He failed to invest in the relationship while taking advantage of all the intimate benefits, and I failed to draw good boundaries; I settled for being used, rather than being loved.
Revealed in all this was the fact that I hadn’t exactly been looking after my own needs very well. I’d neglected and betrayed myself, in some sense, and needed to assume greater responsibility for my own personal happiness.
To that end I began a quest to locate the sense of inner contentment and satisfaction I so craved, but was not in possession of. I read books, magazines, watched films, and made note of what resonated with me and what did not—what stirred my enthusiasm, what made sense.
I became more curious about my inner life. An act of love in itself.
Later, I began a regular practice of journal writing and meditation. I’m a big believer in the contemplative arts, which, for me, can include things like painting, running, swimming, knitting—almost anything that helps you reach a more contemplative state of mind. For me this was huge.
What I have learned the hard way is that a robust love stands the best chance of materializing between people who have ripened sufficiently as individuals. And it is always a work in progress.
Love is never complete. Just as life is always moving and re-shaping itself, this is true with love.
Thus, loving in such a way that the person we love feels free is as simple and straightforward as it is complex and discursive.
Essentially, we need to practice being the love we wish to see in the world, and that requires a deeply rooted sense of reverence and respect for ourselves, our intimate others, and the wonderfully complex, exquisitely vulnerable, flawed humanity we share.
It requires making mistakes, making amends, and trying to manage matters with an increasing degree of skill and intelligence, not to mention forgiveness.
Here is a lovely quote by Rumi that really gets to the heart of the matter.
And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.
Which is to say, we need to be love. That is all there really is to it in the end—simple, but not easy, as with most things worth striving for in life. Then the love returned by others can be received as the gift that it is.
Ultimately, love is its own reward. Generous. Expansive. Inclusive. Receptive. Liberating.
Love well, live well!
Photo by mrhayata