Love – it’s perhaps the most common subject of reflection in the history of the world. We seemingly understand what it means to be in love, and we find it easy to compare our current feelings with past experiences or the experiences of others. But can emotions, which by their nature are inherently fluid, changing, and elusive to logical order, actually form the basis of a definition? Are we capable of objectively defining love? Is it more of a neurological phenomenon, a romantic ideal, or simply a universal commonplace? How do culture and upbringing influence it? Why do some couples remain in the same relationship for their entire lives? Is it magic, addiction akin to drugs, or perhaps pure biology? And above all: does love truly occupy the most important place in life? Can it conquer all? These are questions to which there probably are no simple answers. However, we will attempt to explore them alongside couples therapist and sexologist Ela Trandziuk.
Małgosia Kwiatkowska: Ela, can you define love? What does it mean to say “true love”?
Ela Trandziuk: Since every couple is unique, love takes on different forms. Each person has their definition of love, and what we consider love today may have had a completely different meaning for our grandparents or great-grandparents. Our ancestors seldom pondered the nature of love because their approach to life was entirely different. You’re asking when love becomes true. Can we consider love true if it lasts? I believe that if love exists, it is already true, and its absence is also a truth. It’s hard for me to imagine something like untrue love. Its ending often doesn’t mean it never existed. Often, things just change, goals are modified, and the values held by partners begin to significantly differ.
MK: And how would you formulate a definition of love?
ET: For me, love is primarily a verb. I don’t mean just the feeling itself, but concrete actions. Although it may sound unromantic, it’s not always about an exquisite dinner for two under the Eiffel Tower, although such an occasion would certainly be a unique experience. I’m also less concerned with coming up with expensive gifts, even if they are personalized and perfectly match needs, tastes, or preferences. I see the most important aspects of love in everyday actions, especially when they are most needed – in difficult moments of crisis or illness. But also, in simple, unromantic duties, such as taking out the trash, cleaning, shopping, or cooking. It is in these ordinary activities that we seek a path to each other, trying to understand the other person.
MK: Declarations of love are nice to hear, but actions must follow them, right?
ET: Actually, a declaration without actions becomes empty words. It looks nice on the surface, but there’s not much substance inside.
MK: On the other hand, it’s good to hear the words “I love you.”
ET: Simple words are important too: “I like you,” “I enjoy the soup you made,” “You’re sweet for picking up my shoes from the cobbler,” “Thank you for remembering my favourite croissants and coffee on a Saturday morning.” “I love you” by itself is important, but sometimes it can be hidden in other words: “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” Let’s not be afraid to gift each other with these words. Not just on special occasions, but every day.
MK: So, if I understand correctly, you see less magic, romance, and excitement in love, and more of everyday life, building normalcy together, but also developing communication based on mutual respect and openness to the other person, as well as cooperation?
ET: Of course, in the definition of love, there is certainly an emotional aspect. I believe that it’s not without reason that when two people meet, there is a certain stirring in their bodies. Research indicates that chemicals in our brains stimulated by another person can create a habituation to them, leading to a kind of addiction. However, other studies suggest that this mechanism weakens over time. For me, a faster-beating heart and butterflies in the stomach are more associated with infatuation. Undoubtedly, we dream about it because it somehow uplifts us and makes the beautiful qualities of the world, a person, and ourselves more vivid. Infatuation can also serve as motivation to seek a truly close connection with another person.
MK: On the other hand, the desire for contact and the need for relationships are encoded in our DNA, constituting an inherent element of the evolutionary nature of humans, who, by their biology, strive for the continuation of the species and procreation. However, I wonder if that’s the only purpose underlying long-term relationships. Sometimes love arises from pragmatism, and the choice of a partner is made for a very specific reason. Cultures with a more traditional character may impose strictly defined gender roles, while in liberal societies, there is greater tolerance for diversity in relationships. Dating habits, as well as the stages and forms of expressing love, can also vary significantly. What Poles perceive as love means something entirely different for residents of China, the United States, or New Zealand. And the question arises: what constitutes the main foundation of love? Perhaps it is a mixture of everything – evolution, biology, and culture?
ET: To some extent, yes. Love shapes itself through our experiences, feelings, chemical reactions in the brain, and innate needs, as well as cultural expectations. It can be looked at from various perspectives: scientific, emotional, historical, spiritual, legal, or simply individual. For me, it is most associated with a deep attachment to the other person and acceptance of oneself. An element that seems to sustain a relationship over the long term is commitment. Of course, as you emphasized, it’s worth remembering that for the residents of China, the concept of love may mean something entirely different than for Europeans. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be about cultural, mental, or contextual differences. If two people call what exists between them love, and both function in it with satisfaction, without a constant sense of suffering, I consider it love. I wouldn’t dare to question that. However, in the case where a certain dysfunction appears in love, it’s worth considering what truly defines it and whether we are not confusing it with something else.
MK: You touched on an important matter. So, what about when a sense of belonging is accompanied by pain? Why would someone tolerate violence and say, “I can’t leave him/her because I love him/her”?
ET: When I hear patients say the words “I can’t” during my work, I interpret them as “I don’t want to.” I see it as the existence of some reason for making a conscious decision not to make changes. It’s important to emphasize that this is in no way about blaming anyone. On the contrary, such a situation evokes understanding in me. I have contact with individuals who are victims of violence, and I realize that disrupting the domestic balance based on abuse or harassment often exceeds someone’s capabilities. This may be related to a tremendous fear of the consequences of changing the current situation. I believe that individuals experiencing physical or psychological suffering, sooner or later, attempt to seek help. Then, they face a difficult choice – the decision to leave, end the relationship, or even escape. It’s a huge challenge associated with the necessity of rebuilding life anew.
MK: But should we call such a relationship love? Can the victim still love their abuser?
ET: There is a high probability that this is the only definition of love they know. Unfortunately, violence more often affects women. Their worldview may have been shaped by experiences at home where violence occurred. Perhaps the father abused the mother, and the next day, the parents, embracing each other, professed their love. In such situations, a belief may form that love is associated with suffering. As we already mentioned, there is no one universal definition of love. And I wouldn’t be able to categorically deny anyone, even a person scorned or exploited, the right to feel it. Of course, I can examine this feeling, discuss it, understand what lies behind it, and ensure that it is not confused with something else. That’s where it ends.
MK: Probably similarly with the answer to the question of whether love can forgive everything.
ET: It can if it wants to. But it doesn’t have to. Your question raises further questions: what is “everything,” and what does it mean to “forgive”? Definitions can vary again. And I’m sure both of us can point to stories where it was worth forgiving, but also ones where it wasn’t. There are scenarios where someone is unable to do it and never will be.
MK: Especially in a situation where one trusts, engages in a relationship, and the other person hurts them. And when lies or betrayal occur, does it mean that there was a lack of love?
ET: This could be the result of many very individual factors, but we can’t assume in advance that there was a lack of love. Remember that love can evolve and change over time, and its absence may not always be the sole reason for problems. It’s worth considering whether the story is not a consequence of other difficulties. A conversation about needs and expectations can help understand what led to the breach of trust. Sometimes a decision needs to be made about whether the relationship has a chance for repair and whether both parties are willing to engage in this challenging, patience-requiring, and effort-demanding process. Understanding boundaries and consequences is also important. Sometimes ending the relationship may be the only way out.
MK: I have the impression that once again, the incredibly important aspects are: the connection with oneself and the connection with another human being. Different people understand love in their way, depending on their personal histories, values, and life experiences. This is how they build their understanding of the world. And it’s impossible to measure who is more right in this and who is mistaken.
ET: I don’t feel the need for someone to establish a definition of love that would be close to both mine and yours. After all, at different stages of life, we assign different meanings to love for ourselves. Currently, we observe a significant increase in the number of divorces, and fewer people are choosing to enter into a marital relationship. Sometimes separations occur without formal legal procedures, when we grab our suitcases, close the door, and start anew. However, I don’t have the conviction that a relationship that lasted for several years couldn’t be called love for some reason. Let’s not take away the authenticity of what happened, even if it encountered obstacles and was interrupted.
MK: Because we are constantly changing. We built a life together and agreed on the most important issues. Still, we started seeing the world so differently that instead of building something, we began to act destructively towards each other. However, it is crucial to show the truth about ourselves, not the best version of ourselves. Otherwise, the chances of a solid foundation are slim.
ET: Truth is essential. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where I introduce any illusions about myself into a relationship that matters to me. Expressing our true nature doesn’t always come easy, but it’s equally important to face the partner’s nature. This can lead to difficulties, so-called rough edges. However, in my opinion, it’s not about the relationship being completely free of such challenges. That’s why when I hear during a conversation in the office about understanding each other without words, a red light goes off for me. The absence of arguments signals to me that at least one person in that relationship carries fear – perhaps fearing losing the relationship or being noticed in a way they don’t want to be seen. Accepting the truth about oneself and someone else is truly hard work, just like in life – growth comes at a cost, and change is a choice between one difficulty and another. It all depends on which challenge we choose.
MK: You mentioned frequent divorces and the lack of willingness to get married. Where do you see the reasons for this? Are we not getting it right? Are we not able to make sacrifices today? Do we seek pleasure instead of effort?
ET: Firstly, it seems to me that currently, we feel a very strong desire for lasting and uninterrupted happiness. We have little tolerance for suffering, feelings of helplessness, lack of meaning, or failures. Social media undeniably play a significant role in this process. Additionally, the whole world is open to us. When the desire to meet someone new arises in us, we only need to check if we can afford the journey and find a free slot in the calendar. Unfortunately, the more options we have, the harder it is for us to make an actual choice. There is a deceptive sense that if we don’t like something about one person, we’ll meet someone else in a moment who will better meet our expectations. Secondly, we increasingly reflect on the role we want to play in life, asking ourselves whether we want to start a family or have children.
MK: On the other hand, I wonder if engaging in deep self-reflection causes us to focus more on what we desire rather than on the needs of the other person. It’s difficult for us to find compromises, meet halfway, and collaboratively build happiness, which ultimately means giving up on love.
ET: Absolutely. We are dealing with a spreading, not very healthy culture of ego, focused on ourselves and our own needs at the expense of others. The desire to find the perfect partner is natural. However, I fear that we may search for them endlessly because no one will be able to satisfy our hunger and our demands.
MK: This culture has made us revolve more around “I” than around “we.” And I guess we agree that “we” is very much needed for love.
ET: I often emphasize this fact in my conversations with my patients during couples therapy or individual work. Of course, I don’t want to diminish the value of the “I” – “I” relationship. However, in my opinion, the “I” – “we” relationship is equally important. Currently, we have significant difficulties in maintaining or even building relationships, leading to frustration, suffering, and loneliness. Predictions suggest that by 2050, about one-third of society may experience this sense. Basic needs for closeness, belonging, and community, essential for each of us, are not being satisfied.
MK: I am even more convinced that it’s worth facing difficulties and fighting for love.
ET: Without losing faith that we have a chance to create something together. I believe that an inspiring thought is the conscious and active decision-making by two people. Some couples want to develop this skill. Sometimes they come for consultations to discuss shared issues with an emotionally uninvolved specialist, to subject them to mutual reflection, and to improve mutual communication. I am impressed by how some can complement their partner, remember the qualities they like in each other, share friendship, and simply see each other. I see a lot of self-awareness here, through which a new truth and hope for the relationship can emerge. Of course, we are not always ready to reveal not necessarily the brightest sides of ourselves. In today’s times, we feel global exhaustion caused by various factors: lack of sunlight, insufficient rest, overwhelming work, as well as health or family issues.
MK: It’s simply not easy to find time for such an additional effort. Moreover, working on a relationship requires not only commitment but also a certain kind of courage. I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but in my opinion, it’s worth remembering that love always carries risks – we may experience pain, our plans may not work out, and reality may surprise us. Nevertheless, for the idea of love itself, it’s worth taking this risk and trying.
ET: Certainly yes! After all, no one in the world will offer us a winning lottery ticket. Establishing a relationship always requires taking some risk. However, one aspect of this risk intrigues me. We often fear whether our partner will be patient enough to choose us every day. Meanwhile, we cannot guarantee this to anyone. Because we don’t know the future, we don’t know what we will desire in five years. Being together always involves a certain degree of uncertainty on both sides.
MK: And I wouldn’t see anything wrong in this uncertainty. Perhaps it’s good that we don’t know the ending of our story – whether it’s joyful or sad. For me, a certain dose of mystery is an integral part of the definition of love.
ET: Definitely. Couples who would receive a clear answer in advance that their paths might diverge in difficult circumstances might be discouraged right from the start. On the other hand, certainty about the relationship lasting a lifetime seems a bit monotonous. The lack of the need for effort and endeavour eliminates any motivation for action.
MK: In conclusion, let’s work on love and not be afraid to love. We don’t promise that it will always pay off, but without taking the risk, we won’t know what fruit our contribution to the relationship will bear.
ET: Especially since it’s hard to function without love. Not by chance, many people in the world, regardless of age, seek it and crave it. It shows how much we desire to love and be loved. We need each other. I have a sense that we are called to love. It is our life mission.
MK: A beautiful conclusion to our reflections – we are called to love. Regardless of what it means to us. Whether it’s a more challenging experience, a pleasant uplift, a rational choice, or a temporary or permanent dependence on another person. Perhaps sometimes it’s worth leaving love unspoken, forgetting about the rules, and immersing ourselves in it. Its tides and ebbs remain resistant to scientific measurements or behavioral analyses. Maybe we should just leave this mystery undiscovered. Perhaps it’s a good sign if we can’t fully rationalize love, describe it in a few words, or encapsulate it in a single definition. It means that we still love. Each in our own way. Thank you, Ela, for the conversation.
ET: Thank you too. And I wish everyone the love they need.