In this article, I'll give an introduction on how the process of love looks like. I'll focus especially on the parts where two people come together and create dynamics that hurt one or both of them and how to resolve them.
What is love?
Love is the ability to give without expecting anything in return. The more you expect something in return, the more conditional the love becomes. So love is basically a spectrum between unconditional and conditional giving and receiving of any kind of resource (attention, intimacy, support, financial resources, opportunities). The opposite of love is fear, which makes the act of giving more conditional.
Giving fearfully is basically a transaction and uses a contract: "If you do X, I'll give you Y". What human beings seek in a romantic partnership is the balanced act of giving all.
The feeling of love is the accumulation of positive experiences and emotions connected to giving and receiving any kind of resources in a relationship - bad emotions that are still positive experiences are also part of this (like driving loved ones to the hospital at night). The thing that people call "real love" is the knowledge that I may give more than I could ever receive by this person - a good example for this might be to donate a kidney to a sibling. The sibling may not be able to ever repay this, but in this process of giving a big part of yourself, you deepen the relationship with the person you're giving your organs to and also with yourself, because the compassion and empathy you show for others gets reflected in your self-image. So loving others is simultaneously the act of self-love.
With this definition of love, it is easier to understand when we talk about true love and identify when love is based in fear and transactional logic.
Self-love, which is the ability to love applied to the self, is also important, because it draws the boundary between giving others too much and caring too little about oneself and giving oneself too much and caring too little about others. This balancing act is a very individual process and depends on the energy and resources you can responsibly and sustainably give and receive at any given time.
The process of love
- Loving unconditionally
When two people meet
The process of building love with another person (that isn't your own child or parent) starts with attraction. This applies to friendships and romantic partnerships:
First phase: Attraction.
In this phase, there is nothing unconditional about the relationship. This is purely a transaction and presentation of immaterial (confidence, emotions) and material (looks, wealth) values. In this phase, the hope of meeting ones' needs are motivating people to connect.
- Getting attracted: The person is showing something to us that we value. This can be the look in their eyes, their attractiveness in our given culture and our personal preference, the way they dress, their confidence, their words, their humour or any other reason. Usually, it's a combination of confidence, looks (face, body, posture) and perceived similarities (liking the same music, having similar interests). In short: They have something we want.
- Wanting attraction: Now you'll try to get attraction from them. That means that you try to show them something they might value. This can be the same factors like the things that attracted you to them. You may want to make them like you, make them laugh or chase you for your approval and validation. In short: You want to show that you have something they want.
If the attraction phase succeeds, both now have an understanding that they both can benefit from the relationship with each other. Usually, there's a perceived lack of something in you that leads to the motivation of connecting with others. For example one wants to be an actor and they meet someone who's an actor. This kind of relationship already has a kind of imbalance in it. We will focus on this later, because this is the source of conflict in many relationships that I talked about in the first paragraph.
(There are other relationships that aren't based on the feeling of lack, but in general there is some neediness involved for the initial attraction to somebody - if there isn't, you'll know it because in that state of mind you can connect with anybody in the world regardless of the value they might provide to you. But this kind of connection is not the topic here because a majority of friendships and romantic relationships don't start from this unconditional point of love because that is mostly limited to people living in a place of abundance which is rare to have if it's not actively cultivated.)
Many of the things that make someone attractive in our eyes are subconscious. If you e.g. feel attracted to people who treat you badly, it's usually a sign of not knowing your own value and overestimating the value of somebody else for you. Example: because they treat you badly and you perceive a lack of self-esteem, you'll try to win this person over and validate yourself using the validation of the other person. To a certain extent, this is healthy behaviour and beneficial for an individual to be grounded in reality (you use the perception of others to know if you're going in the right direction), on the other hand you're giving away a lot emotional control about yourself to someone who's interests are not aligned with yours (this person might manipulate you for their own desires).
What makes the attraction phase especially dangerous is the fact that people hide their true intentions because both want to present themselves in an appealing way. So they lie, they make themselves look better, they act as if they have moral values and integrity. You can safely assume that most people are not loyal and don't have integrity, because the cost of having integrity is usually higher than simply appearing to be loyal and having integrity (integrity meaning: having values they uphold in all circumstances). A big majority of people are motivated to act right because of fear (of damage to their self-image) and damage to their reputation. But if they don't act on their values when they are alone, they don't have them. And if they don't act on their values when it becomes difficult or tempting, they also don't have them. With this knowledge, you can safely assume that you cannot trust a majority of people. Trust must be earned from both sides by time and continued and balanced investment of resources. This is the only signal that you can trust.
This may sound paranoid, but you'll find that most cases of disappointing relationships are connected with a lack in the process of earning trust.
What do you seek?
So you might got attracted to somebody. What is it that you really want from this person?
- Feeling good about yourself
- Spending time with people who care about you
- Having someone to lean on in times of crisis and stress
- Having dependable people to share your struggles and wins
- Giving to someone who can appreciate the gifts and efforts
- Growing to become emotionally stable
All of it comes down to the desire to feel good about oneself.
In a healthy relationship, you have two people desiring to feel good about themselves who give to their partners to make them feel good about themselves, too. And simultaneously help oneself and the other grow in the relationship to break traumatic patterns of previous relationships and parenting styles and to enable the other to reach a higher level of life satisfaction by being a) more competent, b) having more autonomy and c) feeling connected to others and oneself (these needs are based on SDT theory). So needs can also mean the need for autonomy or space, not only needs like physical intimacy.
To depend on someone to fulfill this need consistently, you'll need to trust them.
Why is trust so important?
Second phase: Trust.
In this phase, the conditional aspects of the relationship slowly over time get transformed to unconditional love. By showing the partner the willingness to trust them first and to support them even if the initial attraction wears off and unattractive traits show up, it shows a continued commitment that is based on a subconscious and conscious decision that the relationship has value.
- Trust them: By giving trust before knowing if the trust is warranted, this process of building unconditional love starts. If no partner starts to give more than they get, the relationship will not deepen and reach unconditionality. This is a leap of faith that can be informed by watching the partner and their qualities and values (if they show signs of untrustworthiness covered in the next section, you might not want to trust them first). By communicating your needs and watching if they don't take advantage of your trust and meeting your needs, they gain your trust over time.
- Gaining trust: By living your life and showing that you don't take advantage of their trust, you gain their trust over time.
If you gain trust faster than the other person by being charismatic or very attractive for the other person, they might have more trust in you than them or vice versa if you trust them more. If this continues to be the case and one is always more trusting than the other, the process should be slowed down to make the trust equal because this dynamic leads to a power dynamic (one trusts the other way more than the other way around) that might lead to exploitation.
The act of loving is the act of giving. As someone seeking a healthy relationship, you're interested in giving all you can responsibly give to another person. What this also means is you open yourself up to possible exploitation. If you're giving all, but the other person is just acting like they give similar amounts of affection and emotional resources, they get a better deal. And the more time and emotions you invest in the relationship, the more vulnerable you become to getting exploited because you will try to defend your investment of love and affection and vulnerability.
The process of trusting someone is potentially hurtful because you risk that your model of reality is not correct. That means that the insight into human nature that you think you have may not be correct and this scares people because if their model of reality is false, they can't see clearly and they can't trust their understanding of the world. Many people who've experienced trauma in the past are afraid of trusting their perception of reality because they have experienced that it can be distorted by feelings of infatuation, attraction and a perceived lack of any kind.
Neediness, so the need that comes from a perceived lack in your emotional needs, makes you more vulnerable to exploitation. If you need affection because you don't get a lot of affection in your life, you can become the target of people who see that you lack this and give you the illusion that they are capable of meeting your need while simply extracting affection and attention from you.
This is the reason why self-care and self-love is important to practice: When you meet your most critical emotional needs on your own, you become more independent and therefore less suspectible to this kind of affection attack. Your need for friendships and romantic relationships may also decrease when you start meeting your own needs, but this is not a bad thing: it gives you more options and you can apply more filters and criteria in choosing friends and partners. Most people don't want to do the costly work of doing the inner work, because it's easier to simply use somebody else to meet their own emotional needs instead of cultivating habits that enable you to be independent from others for feelings of affection, respect, validation and intimacy.
Like many other things in life, we strive to find the easiest way to be fulfilled, so it makes sense that most people don't put in the inner work required to become more independent of external validation and securing themselves from emotional betrayal. If you can handle the pain of breakups easily because of an emotionally stable upbringing, you may have the resources to withstand the emotional trauma caused by cheating partners and betrayals of friends. It still is one of the hardest things to experience because the core belief of how reality and relationships work is under attack when a betrayal happens. This can lead to trust issues in the future which is why this should be done responsibly even with limited relationship experience.
Managing relationships in a responsible way for ones' own emotional needs is important to prevent injuries from happening - it may seem unromantic, but the usual approach of simply falling in love is a dangerous way to approach life. Most people would not dare to play doctor and doing surgery without proper training, but with love we simply let people run around without any kind of education and let them run into people who hurt and manipulate them without any warning and let them waste years of their life in unhappy and abusive relationships. It's better to learn these dynamics before.
Deeper trust, deeper love
Trust is the ability to believe that someone/oneself will do or feel something in an understandable and predictable way. Someone is trustworthy when they are able to live based on the rules they gave themselves or that they communicated honestly with their partners.
With the goal of building love: How can trust be deepened to an extent that makes unconditional love possible?
Requirements for trust:
- A person does what they say
- A person is able to uphold habits and behaviours
- A person can consistently apply rules to their life without anyone controlling them
- A person is emotionally stable enough that they can uphold their values in over 95% of situations and only lose their values in extreme circumstances (like a dangerous / non-daily activity)
When a person is able to do that, we can build trust over time that enables us to even excuse transgressions e.g. a cheating partner and rebuild broken trust.
Good signs for trust:
- A person treats people who have no control over them kind even when nobody is watching (e.g. waitresses)
- A person treats children and animals kindly
- A person shows real signs of distress when they see bad things happening to others
- A person shows a lack of need for status and status symbols
- A person treats authorities with the same respect as anybody else
- A person behaves in a responsible way even if they feel they aren't watched by anyone
Trust requires both partners to have emotional empathy i.e. they can feel what the other is feeling and it affects them. Otherwise a person may show signs of trustworthiness, but because they have no emotional investment in any situation because they don't feel what the other person is feeling, they don't pay any price for their signs of trust.
This doesn't mean that emotional empathy is enough to trust someone because someone might be too emotionally unstable to trust them. But if somebody is not feeling empathy for others and simply doing it using logic and compassionate empathy or cognitive empathy, this person may have a personality disorder or subclinical tendencies that make deep trust difficult or impossible to build because they don't pay the emotional price of relationships and can be manipulative without having any shame or feelings of guilt which would limit them to do that. A higher percentage of CEOs, management types and business people are in this category. If you see someone acting recklessly and risking the lives and the health of others or not seeming to care about the feelings of others, be very cautious, even if they seem very attractive.
Emotional empathy is required, but not necessarily enough. If someone gets overwhelmed in most situations and can't uphold their values in 95% of all situations and instead are only able to uphold their values 60% of the time, this can lead to a relationship with a lot of pain. This may be enough for some people who are willing to trust someone who can't control themselves, but usually it's a very painful process that needs a lot of trust that has already been built to allow for this kind of continued pain. If both partners are similar in their integrity (= ability to uphold self-imposed rules), this can still work, but that also means both people will probably not reach the deeper levels of trust that are required for the deeper levels of love.
(This is essentially linked to the big five personality traits: lower neuroticism and a high level of conscientiousness in your partner is linked to higher life satisfaction. This makes sense because trust depends on the ability to comply with rules made by yourself or decided upon in the relationship.)
It is possible to love others unconditionally without having any trust in them. But most often, these kind of relationships are based on a learned behaviour / trauma pattern that gets repeated by the loving partner and are linked to self-worth issues that make it seem for the loving partner that they deserve a partner that hurts them on a regular basis and ignores their needs. It can often be a sign of wanting to take responsibility to feel like a good person and getting validation from sacrificing oneself.
Building unconditional love
Third phase: Loving unconditionally.
Both partners have met their respective needs for a long period of time and through emotional hardships and major life events. They both trust each other that each of them is having the best interest for their partner in their decision making as a central priority.
- Give unconditionally: You don't need or expect anything in return for your efforts.
- Receive unconditionally: You don't feel the need to give back anything for their efforts and you feel safe to receive from them. You regularly feel gratitude that they are part of your life.
Both partners are now at a stage where they don't count who is doing what. Both partners give without any obligation or pressure by their partner. They still monitor their own emotions and emotional needs to make sure that no abuse happens.
For a healthy relationship that approaches unconditional love every day, it is important to have
- mutual respect: I respect your needs and you respect my needs
- trust: that you don't exploit my trust and I don't exploit yours and
- honest communication: a) that we know each others needs and that b) both partners are in contact with their subconscious needs and are able to be honest about them to themselves and to their partner
What often gets forgotten in articles about love is the problem-solving ability and creativity to solve problems. Many relationships suffer from bad compromises where both people don't get their needs met which leads to long-term dissatisfaction and loss of mutual respect. Finding creative ways to deal with smaller relationship issues builds the trust to handle bigger relational problems.
Example: Partner A wants to sleep cold, Partner B wants to sleep warm.
- Simple solution - a bad compromise: Both partners get their own beds. But they may lose a lot of intimacy and now have a new problem (lack of intimacy).
- One-sided solution: Partner A wins the argument and now they both sleep with the window open and Partner B is freezing, Partner B gets dissatisfied and learns that his/her needs are not as important as Partner A's.
- Better solution - a good compromise: Both partners get the blankets they need, Partner A gets a thin one and Partner B a thick one and Partner A sleeps on the side where the window is and Partner B sleeps on the side where the heating is
Many people lack the problem-solving abilities to solve small relationship issues using effective methods that include both partners' needs. Instead, one partner loses an argument or subordinates to the needs of their partner. This ability can be trained by solving small problems in the daily life.
Mutual respect, the basis for a healthy relationship, gets compromised every time a partner feels an unmet need. Only if both partners a) learn what they need, b) communicate their needs and c) are both interested in finding a compromise that makes them both feel satisfied with the solution are they gonna trust the relationship to meet their needs and allow deeper stages of trust.
If one partner is always putting their needs down to meet the needs of their partner, they are in a one-sided relationship that will lead to a lack of mutual respect over time. If the needs in one area can be compensated by meeting other important needs in other areas of life, this might still work, but this kind of logic leads to transactional thinking again ("I don't get X, but I get Y, therefore I can compromise on Z") which may lead away from unconditional love, because both partners may start to count the different needs to "buy" themselves other compromises in other areas of their relationship. It is better to keep each area of life (sleep, eating habits, quality time) separately and focus on meeting the needs of both in each area instead of mixing them ("I don't get to sleep that well, but he does the cooking" leads away from unconditional love).
The less conditions that are placed on each emotional or physical need, the better for an unconditional love. When both live the rule "I am happy when you are happy" and both partners can trust the other that they won't abuse that rule for personal gain, then the relationship gets into an unconditional state. This still needs to be monitored by each partner for suppressed negative emotions and unconscious needs that aren't met in the relationship to prevent abuse, but when both learn to trust their partner by choosing them for the right reasons (emotional empathy and shared values and the ability to uphold them) and by getting their needs met consistently for a long period of time, this leads to something that approaches unconditional love.
But patience is needed. If someone wants to feel unconditional love in the first two years of a relationship (which is too soon because the biochemical reaction of infatuation is distorting the perception) without having seen how their partner handles major life events or if they betray their values, it is too soon to feel unconditional love. Managing the expectation that real love takes years to unfold (for friendships and romantic love) even if someone wants to feel it right now is something that reduces a lot of pain - misinterpreting infatuation and strong feelings with unconditional love is a common problem that leads to pain in many lives. Getting the hope of unconditional love disappointed by the reality of the relationship is better than having a wrong sense of security because you lie to yourself to make it seem like you are in the relationship you wish to be. Seeing the relationship for what it is and accepting (or rejecting) it is real love, otherwise it's simply a projection of unmet needs.
Finding someone a) who is attractive to you, b) who is attracted to you and c) who is trustworthy and empathetic and focused on meeting the needs of both partners is not easy. And I think it's wrong that this is not taught in school because navigating these relationship dynamics is very complex and one of the most crucial aspects of life, love and career.
Most of the pain most commonly experienced is related to love, trust and abuse of trust and exploitation of love. Teaching people how to a) satisfy their emotional needs on their own (self-care and self-love habits) so that they are less dependent which makes them more difficult to abuse, b) identify people who are trustworthy with strong signals instead of the usual rules of thumb people normally use (superficial charm, mistaking attractivity for good character) and c) breaking relational patterns previously built by trauma and parenting styles that keeps attraction focused on abusive partners is crucial for this.
Here is a good overview of emotional needs.
For people who see partnerships as having more than two people and see a problem with my focus on two partners: attraction and trust is always build one-to-one, person to person. Even in polygamous relationships, every relationship is essentially a group of 1:1 relationships.