There are a few things people need to survive: air, water and food, somewhere safe and secure to live out of nature’s elements, and sleep. While these things are the bare minimum of what people need to survive, theorists have long studied other parts of human condition and identify that there are other things that people need to live a healthy and fulfilling life in addition to these critical items. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist and theorist who came up with his own Hierarchy of Needs that suggested that, once fundamental physical needs are met, they also need to feel personally fulfilled; to have a solid sense of self-worth; and need to feel love, belonging, and connection to others as well. Humans are a social species that thrive off of and require enriching social experiences to help them to feel loved in their world.
For some, however, determining whether or not someone truly loves them is difficult. This may be a result of not having enough self-worth or personal fulfillment to see how another person could want to love them. It could also be a result of learning the wrong things about love and being loved as a child and getting stuck in a cycle where they seek out and recreate situations where they continue to get the wrong messages about what love really means. All in all, Maslow’s theory suggests that love and being loved are concepts that require a person to have a good understanding of themselves and how they relate to others in the world. If they struggle with this, they may struggle in understanding the ways that others express and receive love.
So, what is love? The best way to explain what it is, is probably to first explain what it isn’t. Love is not something that can be forced, coerced, or commanded; real love cannot be given to someone because they ask for it or demand it. It is not something that is wavering; based on what someone says or does, love does not immediately get retracted each time there is a conflict or disagreement. Love cannot be predicted and can also not be prevented. It’s not effortless and does not come without growing pains and struggles. Real love isn’t easy! There are many parts of love that feel wonderful and easy, but those usually are signs of the infatuation period of love that is necessary to develop the connection to push through harder times. Love is a consistent and conscious state that requires dedication and nurturing to ensure its longevity.
What does all of that mean, and how do you know when someone really, truly loves you? While it is hard to have a full and comprehensive checklist of what love is or isn’t, here are some things that are definitions of healthy love in the making:
- Self-assurance. People always say you cannot love someone else until you truly love yourself. While that is obviously not completely true, the inherent message is that until you are able to accept and appreciate yourself for your strengths and your flaws, any love you come across for others may be impacted by insecurity that you can project onto your relationship. This can cause you to become jealous, nervous, self-deprecating, selfish, and clingy, thus stifling an otherwise loving and wonderful relationship. It’s also possible that a decrease of self-worth or self-love can cause you to sabotage relationships, doing things that decrease a partner’s emotional or physical security, ultimately ending a relationship as well. Either way, having an understanding of yourself and being able to communicate your insecurities and struggles well with your partner is a sign of a healthy “emotional IQ” and can help you to work through struggles that come with connecting to another person.
- Boundaries. Movies and television since the beginning of time have shown us dramatized versions of love that involve eyes meeting, hearts filling with immediate devotion, and two people becoming each other’s whole world. This gives the message that it cannot be true love unless you give your entire self to another person and have no separation of life outside your partnership. The problem with this is that this directly contradicts number one, mentioned above; this idea defeats your ability to have a healthy sense of self as a single person! All relationships need consistent and predictable boundaries because it helps the other person know what is expected in the relationship. Boundaries help others understand what a person needs and wants in a happy relationship and helps them to determine if they can provide what their partner needs and if it fits with their own schema or idea of what a relationship is.
- Attachment. While being separate people and having boundaries is important, obviously attraction, deep connection, and warmth and affection are a large part of love, and what keeps it going throughout time. Attraction and attachment are some of the early markers of falling in love and are a required part of being able to sustain the conflicts that come from trying to align two separate individuals in life together. Having common interests, being able to laugh and enjoy each other’s company, and having physical and sexual chemistry are integral parts of love. This part of a romantic relationship helps a person become emotionally connected so that their brains begin to justify adapting to allow someone to fit in their world. This connection is what Maslow suggested is key to survival as well; if we feel out of place and without strong connections to others, we are bound to feel less fulfilled and physical and mental health can suffer as a result.
- Acceptance. Living with other people who have different minds and ideas can be hard when they conflict. Every relationship involves disagreeing and struggling to find common ground because everyone is different and has different needs at different times! It’s important to understand that conflicts and disagreements are a natural part of a relationship; they help people become better communicators and to come up with a solution that prioritizes their relationship’s growth. Sometimes, in healthy conflictual situations when a complete agreement or compromise is not possible, partners need to be able to accept their differences in their partner and find a way to move on and continue to love and appreciate them for who they are. If they can’t, this may mean the end of a relationship that was not the right fit.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events