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What is love?

I had this discussion over dinner with a friend, Ashley, a few weeks ago. She is going through a divorce that was initiated by her husband, Sam, who I also know. Sam wasn't leaving to be with another woman. Or man. They had simply grown apart and Sam had initiated what Ashley could not. Ashley is heartbroken. Also furious. There are a lot of emotions. And at one point during dinner she paused, laid her fork to rest on the side of her plate, looked down at the semi-eaten pan-seared sea scallops sitting there sort of deflated by now—she had mostly been jabbing at them and pushing them around the plate, not really eating them—and then looked up at me. The semi-pathetic pleading look in her dark brown eyes tipped me off. What she was about to say would not be anything I am remotely equipped to discuss. 

“How are you supposed know what love is?”

I stared back for, like, 15 seconds silently. Because, no, I’m not equipped to answer that. And I think she got it because then she brushed a loose piece of her long, black hair from her cheek, giggled just a tiny, tiny giggle and rephrased the question into one that would start a long, superb discussion lasting well into the night:

“If he wasn’t the one. And I know he isn’t. And I have to let him go. But I’m having a hard time doing that… Then how do I know what I really felt for him was love? If I loved him wouldn’t it be easier to move on? If I loved him wouldn’t I be less angry? Wouldn’t I want him to find happiness even if it’s not with me?”

Again. Not equipped to answer that. But it started one of the best, most deeply philosophical conversations Ashley and I have ever shared. I thought on her question for a few minutes and asked if I could eat one of her deflated scallops while I was thinking. She said yes. So I sat there on one side of a patio bistro table in the garden of this cute little spot in the West Village eating a really delicious scallop that definitely shouldn’t have gone to waste, thinking about what the fuck love really is.

My first inclination after thinking was to ask a question. “When you married Sam, how did you know you loved him?”

“I don’t know. The kid in him and the kid in me matched, I guess.”

I thought about Ashley’s answer. And it made a lot of sense. But I don’t know if that’s what love really and truly in all it’s overwhelming, infuriating and wonderful glory is. Or is it?

We ordered more wine—already there were two empty bottles, this was our third—and continued discussing.

“Well,” I said. “Kids have fun. They get dirty and play together. And that’s all built around the concept of fun. Sometimes they fight and do silly things like bite each other and then they make up, but always the whole thing with kids is they don’t really live for much else besides fun and play.”

Ashley hadn’t thought of it that way. “So then maybe our entire relationship was just built on having fun together? Ok, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

I never said it was. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how not fun life can be sometimes. And how ill-equipped two kids would be at navigating it together. What about the adult Ashley and the adult Sam? Did they match as well as their kid versions?

When she thought about that, Ashley’s answer was a resounding “No.”

So we decided the two of them hardly had anything in common but fun and a few matching viewpoints, like politically speaking and that sort of thing.

The thing is, I’ve fallen into the same trap before. How many other people do, too? And then for all of us who find it to be a trap, how many other people have nothing in common but fun and somehow manage to grow old together having fun? Because I think there are plenty who do.

And what about all that advice about how if you love someone you’ll let them go and all of that? Like it will be entirely easy to wish them a lifetime of fun completely apart from you. Like any person finding it hard to feel it easy to let go after their spouse initiated a divorce would be an enormous selfish monster.

I sometimes read these little bits about what love is from literary masters and that sort of person on Maria Popova’s blog all the time. “Love is the realization that someone other than yourself is real,” and all of that. And whenever I read those bits I think to myself, Yes, yes. Oh, so that’s what love is. Really it just means we find it when we stop being selfish.

“But isn’t not wanting someone to leave you selfish? Is it OK to feel a little selfish then and still have loved a person?” Ashley asked.

Totally? Maybe? It depends? The real answer is, I don’t know. We didn’t know. I don’t think anybody really knows. We downed that third bottle of wine and decided that sometimes life just happens, and there is no real reason or instruction for it. That reading bits about what love is can never really tell anyone exactly what love is. It’s personal. It’s subjective. Sometimes it’s cruel and dirty and ugly as well as beautiful and wonderful. Sometimes we dislike people we love and wouldn’t ever leave them. Sometimes deep down we love people deeply but never tell them and push them away on purpose. Other times we love people and leave them or they leave us, and that doesn’t mean both parties didn’t love one another, even if one isn’t ready to let the other go yet. 

And sometimes after a long philosophical discussion, the only thing to do is move to the best dive bar you can find, invite some more friends, and play Skee Ball. This is exactly what we did.

So after hours of talking about what love is and three bottles of expensive wine, the verdict (or maybe, the letdown):

It’s complicated.

Alyssa YeagerComment