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What is love?

I once told a therapist that I considered most relationships addictive.

She looked appalled. “Do you really believe that?”

I was appalled that she was appalled. Wasn’t it self-evident?

In my life, it seemed that most people had relentlessly demanded things of me. My mother demanded that I be less independent. My classmates demanded that I share my smarts by helping them cheat on exams. My friends demanded that I be there for them, even though they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—be there for me. Men demanded that I have sex with them, whether I wanted to or not.

As a child, I took refuge in being alone. I suppose I knew even then that human beings are voracious creatures. I was perfectly happy retreating to my interior reflections and dreams, but others insisted I come out from hiding. When I did, I met a world hungry for things in me I was too young to understand. I attracted a baffling flow of unwanted attention -- me, a shy, bewildered girl who inspired hate and lust, fascination and envy. I felt besieged by desire and resentment.

How does a woman manage all that? How does she find love in a world where greed, exploitation, misogyny, one-stop-sex, emotional immaturity, and untreated mental illness are the norm?

Last year, I ran into a fellow from my distant professional past. He was the kind of person I had forgotten I'd known. I couldn’t remember where we had met or in what capacity we had worked together, much less his name. So I returned his enthusiastic greeting with a dodgy but factually accurate: “Wow, it’s been years since we’ve seen one another!”

His smile twisted into a scowl. “It hasn’t been that long,” he snarled. His affront was palpable. It repelled me. I started pulling away, but he continued to try to engage me, the offense he had taken a moment ago apparently long gone. We struck up a friendly-enough conversation. He pulled out his business card. “We should go to lunch sometime. Call me.” In the middle of me saying goodbye, he turned his back on me -- while I was still talking to him.

Our interaction is a metaphor for many human relationships. People say they want love, but many of us don’t know how to love. Instead, “love” is a one-sided arrangement, where one person vies to get his (or her) needs met at the expense or neglect of another. The love interest is not only seen as the person who will make us happy, but also the one who is supposed to make us happy; who is, by virtue of us having chosen them, obligated to make us happy.

So if I’m not happy, guess whose fault it is?

How do we love, truly love, one another? How do we grow our capacity for love without confusing primitive impulses (lust) with genuine connection? Or avoid ruining a good beginning by rushing the outcome?

With plain, hard work.

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