It felt like everyone around me was getting into and out of relationships. There I was, trying to get my head around this concept of love, while others were constantly diving in head first. One relationship after another… Welcome to high school!
Whatever your experience looked like, high school was likely the time of your life that you were also surrounded by the newness of relationships. As a teenager, it’s the norm to follow the crowd. No one wants to be the odd one out, or the one left out of the loop. No one wants to be the person picked last to be on someone else’s team. Acceptance is so important to us, often without even realising.
It didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed to have a boyfriend too. Looking back, I knew hardly anything about love, other than that it was something that made others feel good. I wanted to feel good too. Whatever they had, I wanted to try it out for myself. But that meant finding someone suitable, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for that part!
Growing up in church, the idea of finding love and getting married one day was something that was idealised, but rarely spoken of in a real, experiential way. Including the parts that we’d rather not talk about, but need to be shared. We need this truth to nurture the kind of perspective that will help to inspire others that they are not alone, while also helping to ground the next generation.
This is exactly why marriage can be a shock to those who skip down the aisle, as their expectations don’t match up with reality. When conversations about love aren’t taking place in the home, when you grow up in a home where you don’t experience a loving relationship between your parents, when church doesn’t facilitate a safe space for vulnerable conversations - is it any wonder that we struggle? If we aren’t receiving an education from our core sources of influence, then our education will naturally come from other places that usually fuel our misconceptions about love.
Our friends, social media, films and the media in general, porn… all of these things feed into our idea of love, creating a picture that is very unique to us. This picture may not be a correct depiction, but it is a picture nonetheless, and our mind is set on finding something that matches that. This is why it is so difficult when we find such a picture that is clearly at the detriment of our own wellbeing, yet we still cling on because that is all we know about love.
Let me break down 5 key areas of misconception for you, and share what life has taught me so far about what love actually is:
1. Love is when you find the one
I used to believe in the idea of ‘the one’. This was comforting to me, especially in times when potential relationships didn’t seem to be working in my favour. The one for me was out there - I just hadn’t found him yet!
I did meet my husband, and we have been together for 8 years now (married for nearly 4 years), but I have come to learn that he isn’t the only one for me. Before you jump on me, let me explain. If there was just one person that God had in mind for me, then what happens if I meet someone else who I seem to have a better connection with, despite already being married? What if something was to sadly happen to my husband, but I then meet someone else later on in life who I seem to also be compatible with?
The idea of ‘the one’ can cause issues because we fall into thinking that God has limited us to one person, when in reality God has allowed us the ability to be compatible with more than just one person and to choose based on free will. A big disclaimer here - this doesn’t mean that we have a reason to act out every time we meet someone who isn’t our spouse! This does happen, because some people with the mentality of ‘the one’ can start to question if someone else is for them instead, especially if they are going through a difficult time in their own marriage and they seem to be getting on with someone else better.
Losing the idea of ‘the one’ means that we can have more appreciation for the way God has designed us. Just because we are compatible with someone, doesn’t mean we need to be involved with them romantically. That and the fact that you are more likely to be content without a relationship and take your time when considering a long-term relationship, rather than worrying that you might be missing out on ‘the one’.
2. Love is supposed to make you feel good
This should go without saying, right? Seeing other couples post on social media makes love look good. Romantic movies make me feel good. Getting a spontaneous message from that person I am interested in makes me feel good.
In reality, love is not supposed to make you feel anything. Love doesn’t come with any guarantees to fill any of your needs. Truthfully, love is what you make it. Think of your marriage as an empty box. If you are filling it with criticism, frustration and neglect, that is exactly what you will be taking back out of it every day.
Of course you will have good experiences, but life calls for you to be able to love each other through the challenges that will inevitably come your way. From sickness and sex-related issues to infertility and addiction, the list is long! When we base love on the moments that make us feel good, we will quickly get discouraged by what love looks like in its entirety.
The difference when love is involved though is that rather than the difficult times breaking you down, which may well feel like it is the case initially, a loving relationship should facilitate growth for you both as a result of such challenges.
3. Love is when you find someone else to complete you
“You complete me” is just one of many phrases that we see thrown around. We talk about two becoming one in marriage, and as much as this is true in principal of becoming one team with one direction for the marriage, including the oneness that sex allows, in reality you are still two individuals.
A healthy relationship includes two whole individuals. I didn’t fully grasp this until I went through counselling and began to unpack the parts of me that had long been neglected. Thanks to therapy, I was able to connect with myself in a way that changed my life, while also learning essential self-care tools along with a greater sense of security and confidence in who I am today. This has allowed me to step back and embrace my husband more as an individual in his own right.
If I’m not intentional about showing myself love and respect, then it’s not fair to expect him to fill that need for me. Especially because the moment he stops paying me attention for any reason, then my whole sense of stability can go into panic-mode. We both have our issues, and sometimes one of us will need to step up and offer more when the other is struggling for any reason.
It is crucial for us to be able to rely on ourselves in the same way that we rely on each other.
4. Love is a relationship free of infidelity
This is a tough one, and I appreciate that it can be triggering for those who are yet to deal with the trauma that comes up as a result of infidelity. It’s much easier to push through and pack the hurt away with no intention to ever address it, not realising how this will continue to break down the marriage as a result.
I have had conversations with friends where the conclusion is usually, “If he/she was ever to cheat on me, that would be it!” Personally? I don’t believe it’s as simple as that… Let me be clear, choosing to be unfaithful to your partner (because it is a choice) is never something that can be excused away, but it is far more complex a situation to find yourself in than one where you can just simply pull the plug.
When you have spent years if not decades building a life together, to have the attitude that your spouse stepping outside of your marriage is enough to justify throwing everything away is not an easy decision to make. At least it shouldn’t be, unless your marriage has been in a state of division and without help for long enough to lose the love that you both set out with.
True love includes forgiveness, but again I am doing my best to tread carefully while covering this, as there are so many situations where you can’t stay in a marriage at the expense of your mental and physical wellbeing as a result of infidelity.
What I will say, is that when the spouse who chose to be unfaithful is genuinely remorseful and wants to commit to the lengthy journey of rebuilding the trust that has been destroyed, there is still hope for your marriage. I heard a counsellor say that those couples who are able to overcome infidelity actually have stronger marriages for it. But again, willingness is key. If your spouse has no interest in changing their behaviour, then you will no doubt come to a place where you have to make a difficult decision.
I have just scratched the surface with this point, but I’ll wrap it up by saying that love includes heartbreak. Love includes a breach of trust. Love includes shame. Love includes all of these things, because true love shouldn’t end when these things come to light. If anything, these points of weakness should compel us to reach into that vulnerability and love each other harder. If your spouse can still love you as a result of your stuff, then that is the kind of love that can inspire real change in a person. It will never be easy, but with a willing heart the road is most definitely worth it.
5. Love is something you need to find
I want that kind of love one day… This thought may have crossed our minds, but if not then we’re more than likely to have heard it in the media. Love is often portrayed as the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as though your life will never be quite right until you find it for yourself.
I remember watching the Channel 4 series, Undateables, and it was interesting to hear their perceptions of love and how much they all longed to have love in their lives. From poetry to movies, each person had their fairytale in mind, and you would find yourself watching the dates that followed with an eagerness as to whether such love would actually come their way. Of course, when it seemed that the story had a happy ending, you would feel a sense of excitement for them too!
Let’s be real, we all love the idea of love and it makes us feel incredible. But love is more than just a feeling. In reality, love will challenge you to change in ways you didn’t even see coming. Love is a verb, meaning your actions define the outcome, rather than someone else giving you the answers that you had all along.
The most important lesson you can learn from this life, is that love begins with you. You don’t need to look much further than yourself, as we all have the capacity to love. We just need to learn how to do so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice who we are. A great place to start is by learning to love yourself well! I can honestly say that learning this lesson before marriage would have changed so much for me, but I’m thankful that my experience within my marriage has brought me to a place where I’ve still been able to learn this foundational lesson.
When you love you - truly, everything changes. The way you love your spouse will be more selfless, and the way you are able to love your child will offer them the kind of platform for growth that many of us missed out on.
Don’t get trapped by the idea of love. Strive to find your freedom in the reality of love.
About the Author
Juliette Sweeney is an author, wife and mum, who is soon to begin training as a counsellor.
Juliette runs the Really Married ministry, with the aim of removing the mask from marriage to reveal the real issues that we need to talk about. Read more at reallymarried.co.uk, and join @reallymarried on Instagram. Juliette’s debut book, ‘Failing in Love: How failed relationships can lead to love at its finest’ is available internationally on Amazon.