What is True Love? Why We Care for One Above the Other

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Spring 2024

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When I asked Google ‘what is true love?’, it helpfully supplied over 4.9 billion results.

Needless to say, I did not explore all of them for this article.

But that tidal wave of responses makes it clear that there is no definitive answer to that admittedly existential question. Then there are the libraries filled with self-help books, poems, and plays trying to answer it. Then there are all the films and songs that explore it, and the centuries of serious conversations and tear-filled arguments debating it. 

Understanding what ‘true love’ is may seem clear to us when we are watching The Princess Bride, or reading Shakespearean sonnets to our high school crush in a bid to make it real. But identifying it in our own lives can be much more difficult. But not impossible.

What Does Science Say?

Scientific approaches to the ‘true love’ question provide at least some clarity to this powerful but rather amorphous concept. Studies by American psychologist Dr. John Gottman, for instance, have shown that some of the strongest indicators of lasting, loving relationships are personality traits shared by couples, like kindness, humour, and emotional intelligence. His research indicates that the happiest, most satisfied partnerships generally exhibit this blend.

Then there is anthropologist Helen Fisher. The author of popular books like Anatomy of Love and Why We Love has explained in her research how sharing activities––like hiking, cooking, or listening to particular genres of music together––can release feel-good chemicals like dopamine in our brains. These chemical reactions strengthen long-term partner bonds, which is one practical (if not particularly romantic) way to define true love.

Characteristics of True Love

If it hasn’t become obvious yet, defining true love based on scientific criteria is perhaps less than helpful if we are unable to recognize it when we are experiencing it. Fortunately, there are certain key elements that are present in a loving relationship for which we can search. 

Trust: This is the bedrock of any relationship that hopes to endure, whether it is a romantic one, in your business, or within your community. This is because trust builds true connection and sets the stage for a thriving partnership. Popular researcher and educator, Brené Brown breaks trust down into several components. Among them are respect for boundaries, accountability when one of you makes a mistake, and acting with integrity.

Respect: Aretha Franklin had it right. Respect is about both partners valuing each other’s thoughts, feelings, and boundaries. It is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, and its loss can toll the death knell of an unhealthy one. Just think about how you felt about someone when you lost respect for them. Plus, it is a big turnoff.

Communication: When it comes to relationships, communication is not simply about talking. It involves both problem solving and intimacy. Good communication is characterized by actively listening to your partner, understanding what they are saying, and being able to validate their thoughts and feelings. For instance, by repeating to them what they have said. Signs of bad communication in your relationship include interruptions, threats, raised voices, and tip-toeing around each other.

Empathy: Personally, I have always found empathy difficult as I live on the autism spectrum. But empathy––defined generally as being able to understand what another person is thinking and feeling––is so important to a loving relationship lasting. Without it, you end up prioritizing your own happiness instead of giving equal weight to that of your partner. The easiest mistake an unempathetic person can make is assuming that their partner thinks the same way and feels the same things you do. But empathy is a skill that can be learned by really hearing what your partner says, remembering it, and using that information to shape your own words and actions towards kindness and compassion.

Commitment: This was the biggest deal in new relationships when I was younger––defining ‘what we are to each other.’ And while it can be useful to not define relationships early on and let them develop in an unstructured way (the term ‘situationship’ was invented for this purpose), at some point, the ‘C’ word will likely come up. A mutual commitment to shared goals, like children, a mortgage, or a pet, is a way to take a relationship ‘to the next level.’ It also brings some safety and security which, while not always permanent (hello, divorce), allows a couple to plan for their future with less fear and uncertainty.

Listen to Your Partner… and Your Heart

True love is a complex concept that resists dictionary definitions. But we feel it, and there are qualities to a relationship, like the ones outlined above, which, if present, make for a happier, more loving relationship. Listen to your heart, yes, but also listen to your partner. That’s about as true as love gets.

Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer

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