"True love" — could it be true?

Dear Alice,

Is there such a thing as "true love?" The reason I ask is that my observations of the world today indicate that there are more people getting divorced, getting cheated on, and breaking up than there are happy couples that are in love and stay in love. I mean, are humans mentally and physically capable of staying in love with someone and being faithful to each other?

Dear Reader,

When one of the most popular standards for true love is based on fairy tales, it can be easy to feel that finding prince charming or an enchanting princess and living happily ever after is the only way to find it. But for most mortals, striving for such ideals is unrealistic and may even lead to feeling unfulfilled or disappointed. The reality is that, though it may not seem so romantic in a storybook sense, both finding and staying in love takes consistent work and patience. Couples in healthy relationships find ways of working together, and this in and of itself could be considered a sign of true love. When it comes to fidelity, for many, staying in love and being faithful is a challenge, while for others it's as natural as breathing.

It's true that in many cultures, people who are "in love" create long-term partnerships, which for some may mean getting married. Though there may high divorce rates, lots of married couples do actually stay together. There are couples that have been married for 60 years and still feel passionately in love, and there are others who care deeply for one another even though the lust is gone (or maybe never existed!). Keep in mind that the reasons why some relationships don't last are as varied as there are different kinds of people; in many cases, the partners simply grow apart because they've grown and changed as individuals and seek different, more fulfilling opportunities for love. If a particular couple "falls out of love," yet each partner goes on to seek a more satisfying love with another person, could this be an example of "true love" in action?

Another reason that couples often split up is, as you mentioned, due to infidelity. In most relationships, there is an expectation that your partner will be faithful to you and not become involved — romantically or sexually — with another person. If one partner cheats on the other, a sense of trust has been broken, and the cheated-on partner might decide to end the relationship. But this is not always the case in all relationships. In some cases, what is considered “fidelity” — i.e., remaining “faithful” to your partner by not cheating on them — has a looser definition or is a non-issue altogether. While monogamous relationships consisting of just two people are more common, non-monogamous relationships — in which it's understood that one or both partners are at liberty to be romantically or sexually involved with other people — are becoming more popular. In these types of relationships, fidelity is valued differently than in monogamous relationships. It varies from couple to couple, but many non-monogamous couples don’t consider sexual or romantic involvement with others as “cheating.” What one person considers infidelity may not be the same for another. This is why it’s beneficial to communicate your needs and expectations and establish a clear understanding of personal boundaries in the relationship with potential partners. Non-monogamy isn’t for everyone, but as long as both partners are on the same page, then it’s possible to keep the love alive without the risk of infidelity.

Love can also vary by degrees: some couples feel deeply intense and passionate, while others appreciate one another for intellectual reasons or admire one another's ambition, dedication, or creativity. While it's not an easily definable concept, it might help to approach the idea of love with a few different perspectives. You could think about it as a biological phenomenon, in which hormones are controlling this sensation; a psychological phenomenon, in which the brain determines the experience of love and where we look for it; a philosophical phenomenon, in which you're destined to find your soulmate; or as a combination of all these perspectives. Neither one is more correct than the others. Psychologist Richard Sternberg proposed that love is the result of three components — intimacy, passion, and commitment. Love is strongest when all three of these components are strong. John Lee proposed an alternate theory by identifying six styles (or colors) of love. Ultimately, the definition of love is entirely up to the individual. It may be helpful to reflect on the question: How do you define love?

Perhaps it might help to look at this elusive "true love" in another light. Look around you and see all of the expressions of love in our world: people devoting huge chunks of their lives for the human rights of others, people setting aside time to volunteer in their community, parents and caregivers protecting and nurturing their children and families, young people learning from and sharing things with their grandparents. Or how about giving and receiving unconditional love to and from pets?

So, are humans capable of staying in love? Sure they are, as there are lots of models around us of people who love and care deeply about one another. Some people follow the philosophy of "better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." It can be hard not to notice all the heartache in the world, but instead, try to focus on all of the examples of the different types of love in the world, and in your own life. Perhaps if thinking of love as a broadly defined term, it's possible to see "true love" all around.

Love always,

Last updated Feb 25, 2022
Originally published Jun 02, 2000

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