"Sometimes we stay in relationships that are unhealthy for us because of love, so we tell ourselves, yet when we really look at why we stay, we stay for other reasons. Security. Fear of the unknown. Fear of not being able to go it alone. Maybe I’ll never find someone else. We get other social currency out of being in the relationship. And so on. It’s not actually love if love is an action and you’ve ceased to perform it. If love were a feeling it would be a good start, but it’s not enough to build a healthy relationship. Love requires so much more of us."~Amy Jo Goddard, from her blog post "Love Is An Action"
Many years ago, before I met Mr. Elle, I was in what can only generously be described as a dysfunctional relationship. It went on for seven years. Most of those years were miserable. Why did I stay? Because I "loved" him.
I loved him desperately. I couldn't imagine life without him. He was my sun, my moon. He was...Well, from a distance, I can now see that he was emotionally incapable of meeting my needs. He was self-absorbed. He was uninterested in my dreams. He had...issues.
But I loved him.
Love, the stories and songs tell us, changes everything. It colors our black-and-white world. It gives meaning to our lives. It makes the world go round. Love is incredibly hard to describe without relying on clichés. Let's simply say that love feeds our souls.
But what about when "love" is starving our souls. What about when "love" is giving someone permission to treat us badly. To lie to us. To toy with us. Love is something we feel, sure. But love, in a healthy relationship, is mostly something we show.
We show it by listening to our spouse complain about his boss even when we've heard it before. We show it by being on time to meet him at the airport. We show it by not eating the last cookie.
We show it by helping. By being true to our word. By ensuring that our needs don't always trump our partners. By listening. By holding. By being there, day in and day out.
"But I love him." We don't show someone we love them by overlooking their lies. We don't show someone we love them by not calling them out when they're behaving badly. We don't show someone we love them by letting them be their worse selves. That's not only how we don't show love to someone else; that's how we don't show love to ourselves.
And when we don't love ourselves, it's impossible to truly love someone else.
So...what does that mean when we find ourselves married to someone who's lied to us, who might be continuing to lie to us, who gives us the "I love you but I'm not in love with you" (a phrase, incidentally, that is unadulterated bullshit), who says he loves us but refuses to give up contact with the OW, or says he loves us but just needs to "be sure" about staying in the marriage, or says he loves us but needs "time"?
We show him what love is...by loving ourselves. We model loving behaviour by showing up for ourselves. We nurture ourselves. We respect ourselves. We take care of ourselves by refusing to let him set the rules for the marriage. We firmly make it clear that, if we choose to give him the opportunity, he can show us he loves us with his actions. By showing up in the marriage with his full heart. By accepting that his betrayal of our trust means new rules, and those will be set by us, the wounded party (my heartbreak, my rules, as Steam put it!) By holding us when we need holding and giving us space when we need space. And by helping us learn to love ourselves enough to make these boundaries clear and to make them solid. By respecting them. And us.
Next time you find yourself citing "but I love him" as the reason you're allowing yourself to be treated in a way that you would never treat a friend, ask yourself just what's so lovable about him. Ask yourself if he is worthy of your love. Ask yourself if you would have ever set him up with your sister, or friend. If the answer is no, then ask yourself why you're settling for someone unworthy of you. "We accept the love we think we deserve," is my daughter's favorite line from Perks of Being a Wallflower. She shrugs when she observes some of her friends in relationships that are fraught with drama and cruelty and deception. "They don't believe the deserve better, I guess," she says with uncanny 16-year-old wisdom.
None of us can un-do our partner's betrayal of us. That bell, as the saying goes, cannot be unrung.
But we can use this period of horrible shake-up as a chance to recalibrate our relationship not only with our spouse but with ourselves. We can take stock of how love has been expressed in our marriage. How "active" has it been.
And then we can begin by actively loving ourselves, our flawed, trusting, loveable selves. The other adults in our lives? They can start by earning it.