How to Know When Love is True

Thomas Merton wrote, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another.”

How you interpret this quote, if you agree, will determine whether love brings you joy or misery.

Merton’s quote implies a major error. You can’t find meaning in life through loving another. If you did, then you’d depend on that person for your life’s meaning. But can’t life first be valuable and meaningful for yourself? Does the person you love add to that joy, or is he or she the only thing responsible for it?

If all you need is love, then once you find the person you love, you have peaked. It’s all over. But isn’t a spouse or lover someone who shares the joys of life with you, along with the unfortunate sorrows and disappointments? Aren’t you in love with each other, and spending time with each other, in pursuit of life itself? Doesn’t your meaning come from your productive work, your sense of purpose, raising your family, experiencing life fully, and all the other things that make life meaningful in the first place?

There’s one thing worse than not finding love. And that’s being stuck in a relationship with someone you don’t love, or no longer love. People in that spot will tell you it’s one of the loneliest places to be, far lonelier than not having your soulmate on Valentine’s Day, at least not this year.

For love to be true, it has to rest on the foundation of an already existing love of life and self. Only then can the person you love, who embodies all you hold dear, be someone you cherish and treat with respect as well as kindness.

The biggest problem people experience in their romantic relationships is the desire to change another — or, the other side of the same coin, the struggle of being loved by someone who wishes to change you.

People who seek to change their loved ones — whether their loved ones want to change, or not — are on a mission or purpose. The person they love is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That’s not how love should work. If you love someone, your feeling of love celebrates the fact of who they already are. If you can’t feel this way, you don’t really love them. They’re just a project, or a career goal, or a charitable cause. Those may be laudable things, but they’re not romantic love.

The purpose of love-as-changing-another is not to celebrate an already meaningful life, now made even more meaningful by the presence of someone lovable. The purpose is to create value in life by changing the person one supposedly loves. It’s dependence on this person changing in order to be happy.

True love is one of the most beautiful things there is. But it arises only when each partner honestly feels, “Wow. You are exactly as I want you. You’re the one for me.” It’s an intoxicating way to feel, and when years pile upon years it can become more intense, in a way. And when it’s mutual, you’re set to go, for years and maybe even for the rest of your lives. Many people have children. When the children grow older and each lover knows they’re still with the right person, they know they’ve found a beautiful thing.

The best lovers are those who love life first. They fall in love with people not to attain meaning, but to celebrate the meaning that’s already there.

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