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What’s Love (and Empathy) Got to Do with Relationships? A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

happy-together-300x203We call it “falling in love” but what is it we’ve really fallen into? Whatever it is, Valentine’s Day is our perfect day for it.

So many flowers, so many chocolates, so many cards. Lots of momentary happiness, and then . . . suddenly resentment strikes again! If your experience of falling in love has ever taken a nosedive like this, you know what I’m talking about. You wake up a few days or weeks after meeting your soul mate and think, “What did I ever see in her/him?”

If after the relationship becomes sexual you suddenly feel cool and indifferent toward your partner, you may be running a Don Juan-like mental program (women can run this program, too). In this scenario you project your “urge to merge” onto your romantic partner. Instead of relating to that person as they are, you relate to them in a dreamlike trance, in which your partner represents the glowing promise of losing yourself in bliss.

You make contact. It’s so intoxicating! But once the passion has cooled, you see your partner in their ordinariness as a human being. You’re discouraged to see that they’ve lost their mojo.

At this point, the game changes. Staying involved now requires that you relate in ordinary ways with an ordinary person who seems diabolically gifted at exposing your own ordinariness.

Distracted couple in cafeWhere did all the magic go, the surge of sensual wonder, the adoration you felt just yesterday, between the sheets?

What happens then? You project all of your I’m-not-good-enough judgments onto your romantic partner. And voila! Suddenly they’re the one who’s not good enough! So naturally, we must move on in search of the ideal lover – the personification of your passionate hallucination.

And so the cycle begins again.

My teacher Chögyam Trungpa described this dynamic simply and clearly:

“It is very difficult to learn to love. If an object of fascination or some kind of dream or promise is presented to you, you might fall in love. But it is very hard to love if it means purely giving love without expecting anything in return. We can only fall in love if we think our expectations will be fulfilled. In most of our love affairs, our love is conditional. It is more of a business deal than actual love.” *

Many relationships survive the Don Juan stage, but if the romantic “business deal” remains in place, there is constant struggle. Each partner expects “payment” for every kindness or good feeling they bestow on the other.

sandheartBut what would it look like to give love without expecting anything in return? Isn’t that only for saints, or monks . . . or worse, won’t it mean submitting and becoming a doormat? Not at all. Giving unconditional love arises from a sense of your own unconditional OK-ness. It may be necessary to do some work to reacquaint yourself with your basic goodness, of course. But once you have reconnected with your self-worth, you’re able to be generous with your partner and with yourself. You don’t need a good business deal to keep you happy.

There may not be any such thing as “true love,” but what about “truly loving?” What does that look like? In a word: Empathy. You’re practicing empathy when you don’t try to defend your goodness because you know it doesn’t need defending. You’re able to listen to your partner’s needs and desires without perceiving a threat.

Practicing empathy means paying attention to another’s experience without judgment, without clinging to the hope of a payoff, and without fearing that you won’t get what you need. No more business deal. You’re listening to your friend and watching them closely because you want to connect in a shared space where you both feel seen and valued just as you are. This is truly loving. This is unconditional love.

Don’t worry if you’re not an unconditionally loving and empathethic lover . . .  yet. Empathy takes time and practice. Happily, the recent research on cognitive aging indicates that the longer you practice empathy, the easier it gets, and the more creatively you’ll be likely to express unconditional love.

Enjoy Valentine’s Day! Give and receive cards and flowers and chocolates. Go out to dinner. In the midst of these celebrations, may you be inspired to give the true love gift of empathy.

To support your exploration of truly loving, you may want to check out my Survival Kits for Dating, Sexual Intimacy, and Relationships.

* Chögyam Trungpa, from “Planting the Moon of Bodhi in Your Heart,” The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume Two, pp. 97–98.


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