I was so sure of my man in that moment years ago, so in love and happy that I didn’t notice whether or not my mother shared my confidence. Like a smug Dalai Lama speaking to the uninitiated, I looked over the beach to a fierce and crashing ocean and smiled, cocky and carefree. I was floating above the earth... at one with the elements... blind and deaf to any possibility of disappointment.
That’s how it is with love.
When you’re in love everything around you is rose-coloured. You walk with a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eye. You feel loved, you feel alive, special and appreciated. And it is utterly intoxicating and absorbing.
As he sees your beauty, so you see his. As he values you, so you value yourself, and value him; your mutual stock rising with each endearment and promise of a happy future. You may think he’s perfect, or you may know he’s not, but you feel everything about him is wonderful anyway – everything is right for you. And not for a minute do you question: how could you when it feels so damn good. You relish and treasure every element of being together, of being close, of sharing the world which is now more beautiful and irresistible than ever. And that’s how it should be; how the elixir of love is designed.
Even allowing for the infamous potion or magic spell element of romantic love, I have always thought ‘falling in love’ was the wrong expression. It seems to me more like ‘floating in love’ or ‘wrapped in love’. Yet I suppose whoever invented the phrase meant ‘falling out of your senses’... or ‘falling into each other’. For certainly the experience of falling in love is a process in which you lose yourself... where, for a while, you aren’t sure where you end and he begins. You become fused emotionally, mentally and physically.
I suppose this fusion is not unlike the closeness between a child and parent. I remember from undergrad studies there is a stage in Development Psychology when a child actually needs to learn that they are their own being, separate from the people around them who respond to their every need. It’s the stage when a young child will throw a toy or food repeatedly, watching to see if you are going to return it to them. They are exploring that sense of connectedness and separateness for the first time, and trying to work out the difference. And, though necessary, the journey to shape one’s ego can be frightening. By returning the ball (et al) you are showing a child they are safe and cared for... while still allowing them to experiment with their own will and independent sense of self.
The same transition seems to take place for couples, after an initial period of ‘falling in love’ in which you can’t bear to be apart and hunger for one-another no differently than a toddler longs to be nurtured. It’s a basic and ancient urge, a prime-evil response to sexual-romantic stimulus. It is disarming and hypnotic. And ultimately, the experience of overwhelming romantic love is a splendid and explosive mix of satisfaction and delight... but it’s not without its risks.
So what happens after this immersive period of mutual obsession? It can’t all be a bed of roses or there wouldn’t be so many sad love songs documenting pain and disappointment.
How does one navigate the divide from total in-love fusion to acceptable separateness? This, counsellors will tell you, is the tricky time. How do consenting adult couples bring that love, and the best of its intensity, into a relationship which is more balanced, which allows independence and togetherness, without losing the closeness or security we all want? How do we move from ‘the illusion of love’ to ‘the real thing’? And how do we know when we’ve done it?
I guess we know because we have stayed together. If the reasons for your instinctive, in-love, trust proves in practise to be well founded, you will feel affirmed and confident. If the character features you think you love about one-another turn out to be realistic (more or less) and (just as important ) satisfying and comfortable over a longer period, then you’ll be moving across good terrain. If you learn to let go a little only to gain more when you are reunited because you have more from the world to share, to feed you, then you’ll be embarking on something healthy and sustainable. If you can say “I love you” without needing each other every minute of the day, but are also ready to ‘step up’ and support and forgive each other when talk of love needs to be replaced by generous deed and action, then your “I love you-s” will ring true and you will know you are building on good foundation.
Of course none of those transitions happen overnight. The exhilarating phase of rose-coloured glasses, where love is filled with stolen moments and an unending lust for intimacy, may go on for an extended period. It’s gorgeous when it does. Or it may be quite brief. The tide of life may be so gentle for months that you aren’t actually challenged to ‘test’ or ‘review’ your wonderfully smug feelings of love and sensuality. Or tough things may come at you quickly and you’ll learn a lot from how you each mount those hurdles, singly and collectively. And it’s the context in which you find yourselves that ultimately shapes the speed and timing of this transition. But nothing is surer than that a transition will come.
In the best case, ‘the illusion of love’ becomes something even more special – because it can be treasured with a more objective and conscious realisation that what you share is precious and worth protecting. This love is more mature - the type of love you can build a partnership on, maybe a life. If you dare to be passionate and spontaneous it may also be intense and thrilling. In fact if the timing for each of you is good, your personal readiness strong, you may make the transition with great harmony and little consciousness of the shift. That’s how we’d all like it to be.
However if you get stuck in the first flush of love and do not move forward... if you find yourself floundering like a beached whale with ‘the illusion of love’ the only thing keeping the wheels turning... you may well get ship-wrecked... one or the other of you abandoning ship for a safer harbour or perhaps escape for escape sake. And then you have to ask yourself: Did I really know him? Did he really know me? Did we value what was really important or were we kidding ourselves? There’s nothing wrong, per say, in those truths, however disappointing the answers may be; providing you weren’t dishonest with each other.
But there’s the other thing: people have different capacities for honesty, just as they have different capacities for love. So a love match, a successful match, is ultimately not only about feeling or attachment... it’s about a balance between two people’s ability to be honest with themselves, as well as their partner, and the capacity they have for active, generous and unselfish love. Not unselfish all day every day, of course, but still necessary for successful coupling is courage and a preparedness to give for the other person’s benefit even if it isn’t particularly convenient. For a big difference between ‘real love’ and ‘the illusion of love’ is that it isn’t just about you.
And until you hit the rocks and hurdles of life, or overcome them to sail off into the sunset (as it were)... it will be well-nigh impossible to tell the difference between one type of love and the other.
That is the risk of love. And, when you’re lucky, the reward.