ALW’s Five Guys Q. 7: What is Love?

ALW’s Five Guys answer readers’ questions about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. Your questions will be kept anonymous, unless you wish them not to be. Ask your question here!

This weekend, after 18 months together, my boyfriend told me that he cared very deeply for me and that we had the best partnership he’d ever experienced, but he did not love me because there was a spark missing. So he ended things in a kind and mature way. We’re both in our late 20s and the entire thing has been kind and mature and caring (and sexy and vulnerable and honest) from the beginning. I’ve dated my share of guys who were bad partners, and this guy was a good one.

And although I am hurt, I get it. I also know that he was always a little bit on the fence about letting me fully into his life. (Literally and metaphorically: Whenever I would go to his apartment there would never be a place for me to sit. He would have clothes and books and projects piled on every single one of his chairs and his sofa.)

So I kept waiting for him to start taking the actions that would let me in, and he kept waiting for the spark that would make him want to move forward. And in the meanwhile we made a fun little team.

In the end, although I am sad that he and I aren’t going to continue our team, I respect him and I get it. And, to be honest, at my core I’m feeling a bit of relief. I want someone who wants to let me in fully.

What is flooring me is the piece about how he didn’t love me. None of the guys I’ve dated long-term have ever loved me. They’ve liked me a gosh-darn awful lot, but boy-oh-boy do they not want to pull out those three little words. I know I am not owed love. I also wonder sometimes if I don’t know what love actually feels like, since so many grown men have told me it’s been missing from our relationships. (One came back a year later and said, “Oh wow, I did not realize that I loved you when we dated, I am so sorry.”)

So what is love? And why it is missing from all the relationships I’ve been in?

Dear Anon, I have two things to tell you. First, this guy was going to dump you no matter what. He says he never had enough of a spark for you. Sometimes men imagine that they’re going to be blown away by someone, literally knocked off their feet by a babe straight out of a Doritos commercial. But other times, men just don’t find your personality intriguing enough. They might like YOU — being around you, going out to dinner with you, sleeping with you, having brunch with you the next day. But they don’t necessarily find themselves fully engaged and interested in who you really are. They don’t want to sit and talk unless there are a few cold beers and some snacks nearby. They don’t want to walk and talk unless the two of you are on the way to a movie.

I was always paranoid about this when I was younger, because there was always so much evidence that the guy du jour liked being part of a “fun little team” and getting laid regularly and spending time with a talkative, funny woman, but HE DIDN’T NECESSARILY LOVE ME. Even though it made me feel paranoid, I found evidence of this in little things: He wanted to catch a movie instead of having dinner together. He wanted to meet up with his friends after one drink at a bar together. He wanted to listen to the radio in the car instead of talking.

But actually, it’s a little rare, to find someone who loves you so much that he just loves to talk, talk, talk with you for hours. Plenty of dudes will want to form a “fun little team” with you, particularly if you’re smart and highly evolved and you have your shit together. Your stock will always be high. There will always be lots of dudes with projects strewn all over their apartments who will take in your easygoing nature and your 18-month-long ability to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow indefinitely.

There’s nothing wrong with you, in other words. You’re probably attracting a wider swath of men than is good for you. They aren’t self-selecting themselves out of contention, because you seem perfectly healthy and reasonable. If you seemed impatient or intolerant, you might slough off some of the wishy-washy slackers in the mix. If you were a little temperamental, you might lose all but the most fervent admirers. Instead, you are healthy and sane and no one will object to being a team, and when you hit month 18 you’ll (very wisely) assess the situation: “Welp, he’s either going to pop the question or hit the road, and I need to be fully emotionally prepared for either eventuality.”

Okay, this is where the record screeches to a stop. You seriously didn’t know if he was going to say “Let’s be together forever!” or “I like you bunches, but I never want to see you again!”?

I don’t get that. It makes me wonder if you’re really showing up or not. It makes me wonder if you don’t want, so badly, to be someone’s dream girl, that you’ve got your hands on all of the sliders and the knobs (sorry!) at all times, controlling all the levels to achieve the perfect mix. Does he look impatient? Turn up the tempo. Does he seem bored? Pump up the bass. Does he seem on edge? Turn down the treble. Play up the mid-range.

Your letter is all about you. You’re really asking if you’re capable of being passionately loved or not. But you haven’t told me anything about you. You haven’t mentioned any details or any troubles in your past relationships or any overarching flaws you might have or repeating mistakes you might have made. Either way, you are a government certified, grade-A, consumer-friendly woman, approved for multiple uses, from forming a fun little team to kind, healthy, mature fence-sitting!

But you DO need to be SOMETHING. Are you afraid of being something?

Because let me tell you the god’s honest truth: A lot of women out there are afraid of being something. The template for us is pretty clear: We are meant to have clean skin, a pleasant demeanor, and a nice rack. I’m not speaking up against nice racks, Lord knows. But there are lots of ladies around me, everywhere I go, who hesitate to say what they’re thinking and feeling. They go with the flow, they never make waves. And eventually, they don’t even seem to know what makes them who they are. They live to serve. They read the books that other people are reading. They say the pleasant things that other people are saying. They never put their needs first, unless it indirectly serves someone else — a manicure, some highlights. They make sure everyone around them is 100 percent satisfied. Like grocery-store managers. Like customer service reps. Like masseuses who also give free happy endings.

I think you want an artist boyfriend because YOU want to be an artist. You aren’t writing so that someone will tell you that some man will love you someday. You aren’t writing to prove that you’re healthy enough and now you’re ready to be cherished. You’re writing because you’re ready to cherish yourself.

I don’t know what, specifically, you want. Maybe you want the freedom to say exactly what you mean, instead of saying the “right” thing. Maybe you want to be assertive and bossy but you don’t like women who do that, so you’re afraid. Maybe you want to be the one with the projects strewn all over the place.

I used to date men who were obsessed with their creative projects. After a while, I realized that I didn’t want THEM. I wanted to BE them. I thought being close to that energy might be enough. I thought that being loved by someone who was willing to give himself completely to the creative process was enough. I met a musician once who was consumed by his creations. I put him on a pedestal. I had so much crazy lust for him, it was almost stupid. But it wasn’t him — I hardly knew him — it was his focus, his total involvement and belief in what he did, that made me crazy. I wanted to have that kind of passion for myself. I SHOULD’VE BEEN CHERISHED. I refused to cherish myself. It was easier to pretend that all of that magic and passion belonged to someone else, and that I had to ask permission to get a little taste of it.

You should be cherished, too. Cherish yourself. What kind of work are you doing in therapy? Is it time to stop being so good and start discovering what’s going to transform your life into something big and vibrant and shocking? Do you want to get little pats on the head and control your expectations and quietly hope for more? Or do you want to say, for once and for all, NO MORE KIND, MATURE SLEEPWALKING. NO MORE WISHY-WASHY DUDES WHO LOVE THEMSELVES BUT FIND ME WANTING.

It’s time to forget about being lovable. And in fact, it’s time to forsake someone else’s idea of what gives you a spark or no spark. Block the “other” from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher. You are the eminently lovable and the lover. You are a million brilliant sparks, flashing against a midnight sky. Stop making room for someone else to sit down. Fuck “good” partners. Fuck waiting to be let in. You are already in. You are in. Cherish yourself.

You are here. Sit down. Feel your potential in this moment. You have accepted too little for too long. That is changing today. Breathe in. Draw a picture of yourself. Tape it to the wall, with the words: YOU ARE HERE. You are here. Cherish yourself. – B

B is a 24 year-old International Law student from London. She loves Vogue, minimalist apps and espresso.