The Ways You Know It Isn’t Love

We’re so often bad at the signs

mural by Sarah McCloskey

Here are about a dozen ways to tell:

Valleys

Don’t talk to me about peaks. Don’t talk to anybody about peaks — not your partner, not your BFF, and especially not yourself.

Everyone experiences the elation of emotional peaks with their partners, and everybody wants to call these feelings “love,” especially early on. But these are fools gold, and even if you think “this one’s different, man,” I’ll tell you again: love is never in the upside.

It’s in the valleys. And that’s where you know for sure.

What’s your gut reaction when things go south? What’s your lizard brain say when shit hits the fan? I’m not saying that you should listen to it — lizard brains are notoriously stupid, and often need to be shushed and guided by more mature and developed thinking — but I am saying you should notice. Because love is neither fight nor flight; love doubles-down, joins forces, makes it work. If your reaction is to throw punches or throw in the towel, it’s not love.

Feelings

Look, just don’t talk about love in terms of feelings — and this definitely includes “infatuation” or “preoccupation” or “obsession” or “can’t live without” (see above.)

Talk about feelings all you want — they are incredibly wonderful parts of the human experience — and feel All Of The Feelings for your partner, because those are some of the juiciest. Just also understand that love is a choice, an active decision, and a series of investments and efforts and actions. The problem with defining love as “feelings” is twofold: 1.) it makes for immature relationships, and 2.) leaves us susceptible to one day “not feeling it” and folding.

Loneliness

Not just for a moment (because that happens to all of us) and also not as the result of depression (look into that to make sure), but rather a pervasive feeling of not actually connecting.

This is different than feelings “fading,” as mentioned above. You can still care deeply for someone but feel lonely every time you’re together. If you don’t actually connect, it will never be the making of a rich relationship.

I dated one dude for a while, when we were young and dumb and didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we thought this was well enough how love was supposed to look. But I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized we should break up. We were at the mall, killing time on another empty afternoon, not even walking around or actually shopping but just standing there, leaning on a railing and looking down at a lower level. And all of a sudden I was overcome with this immense loneliness —not in the moment, but rather the sudden and undeniable realization that I was always lonely with him. We were never truly together; never really seeing each other eye to eye; instead just rushing around to distract ourselves from it. And once we stopped and stared at nothing long enough for me to see it, I couldn’t go back to unseeing.

Chemistry

Honestly, I either have no idea what “chemistry” means or I just bundle it into other things (like “intellectual companions,” and “friendship,” and “conversation,” see below.)

But I guess it’s worth including because so many people do: if you continually come back to “the way your partner looks on paper” to defend the relationship to yourself, it’s probably going south.

Conversation

This, as I said, is probably just my “chemistry,” but either way it is, in my mind, a very important, stand-alone thing.

I dated a dude for five years who was plenty “smart” and successful in his own right, but he and I fundamentally operated in very different ways. I never felt as though I had an intellectual companion, and I spent years thinking, “well, it’s fine — we all make sacrifices in love. There is no perfect partner.”

But there’s a difference between rooting for different sports teams and being able to have the conversations you care most about. When I shared my most cherished thoughts or abstract questions — like “isn’t it interesting how people choose to build their lives?” — looking to volley answers or even (dream big!) build a full-blown discussion, he would absentmindedly quell it with, “that’s just the way things are — it doesn’t mean anything.” Full stop.

Celebration

When it comes to a “life partner,” make sure they’re actually there for the “life stuff.”

Like if you share big news with your partner (you got promoted, won a deal, quit that job you hated, whatever) they shouldn’t sound as though you just said you grabbed milk on the way home.

Death

Ditto for death.

They should hug you if you’re crying, offer to go to the services (and actually go, if you want them to and they can), and refrain from making jokes too soon or demanding brownie points if they order flowers. This is easy stuff, guys. Yet it’s amazing how many people eff this up.

After my brother died unexpectedly (and then a job offer fell through only after I’d quit my previous position), I came down with the worst cold (or flu) of my life — the kind where your nose simply won’t stop running and you can’t manage basic functions and you’re so physically fatigued you can’t even go to the grocery to get drugs for it. My boyfriend and I lived together at the time, but he was so oblivious that after a day and a half I dragged myself, zombie-like, to the drug store two blocks away and bought my own meds, and was so exhausted by the time I got back that I crashed on the couch for hours afterwards.

For anybody who’s sitting there thinking, “why didn’t you just ask him?” I seriously encourage you to reevaluate your standards of basic human decency and awareness. Normally “asking” is correct. But damn, son.

Apathy

With the biggest catalyst being “moving.”

When they move across the country (or the world) and you are in no way inclined to follow (except, perhaps, “for the adventure.”) Or, vice versa, when you feel compelled to move across the country but only half-care if they come.

Pleasure

If you think you love someone because they’re “beautiful” or “giving” or “make you feel good” or some other self-serving pleasure, then you should realize: that’s not real love.

That’s not to say you don’t (or can’t) really love them, but “the pleasure they give you” (or, in codependent cases, the pleasure you give them) can never be the foundation.

Attachment

Just go re-read the first section, honestly.

Mature love is based on healthy non-attachment

Claims

I don’t understand how anybody could ever think it’s “romantic” for someone to declare, “I’m going to marry you” or “I’m going to have kids with you” shortly after meeting them.

Gross. Get out of here with that grabby shit.

One dude I dated said “I’m gonna make you my wife” within a couple months of knowing me, and my knee jerk reaction was: “wow — does he not realize I have a say in this?”

The most interesting part was: I had come home from our first date feeling the same way. But the fact that he said it so matter of factly, without me ever verbally weighing in on the matter, turned me off so much it couldn’t be salvaged. It wasn’t cute and it wasn’t romantic — even though our feelings had once aligned, because I realized that that fact didn’t actually matter to him.

It was presumptuous and off-putting and poor form. If you find this romantic, you really need to check your idea of personal agency and emotional boundaries.

And that realization is, on the one hand, weird — because I make decisions like this all the time with my partners (love is, after all, choice and commitment) so I’m not sure where the line is in whether “deciding” is love or ownership. Maybe it has to do with actually knowing the other person (as discerned by them, not you.) Either way, all I know is that when it aligns in the right way, it feels really good. And when it doesn’t, and they claim more of you than you offered or chose, it’s heart-wrenching. And it’s only worse if you did choose or offer, only differently or less, because they don’t care and your left standing there with your heart in your hand.

Fear

Fear and love can’t coexist. If your primary anxiety around the idea of breaking up is “fear of being alone,” it isn’t love.

Then what IS love?

Embracing each other as individual human beings with individual human being lives, who just happen to get along enough to bump down the road alongside one another.

Then, mutual investment and support in each other’s growth, especially when things get rough or scary. But always complementary, never to complete one another. And always with care and compassion.

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