I’ve always been intrigued by the notion and experience of love. I grew up witnessing so many things around me that always made me wonder: “how can THIS be love?” And I’m not just talking about romantic love, but also friendships, mentorships, and family relationships. In addition to this, I also grew up in Portugal, where poets, writers, artists, singers, and performers tend to describe love as this all-consuming experience, where you lose yourself, suffer and despair, experience heightened passion and lust, and then live somewhat happily ever after with a sense of longing for something lost or unreachable. Always a yearning for some happy ending in the future.
Add some melodramatic telenovelas to the mix and there is a very intense, dynamic, drama-filled notion of love which permeates much of the psyche of people in my culture. I suspect this is similar with most cultures which experience the world through the prism of a romance language. Everything is heated and passionate and intense and consuming and always just out of grasp. This may come with a sense of possessiveness and entitlement over someone, which frankly always scared me. Whenever one of my girl friends would date someone who controlled their calls or messages, or told them who to be friends with, I always had a sense that this kind of thing couldn’t possibly be love. This also happens in reverse, by the way and I’ve witnessed many a woman being crazily possessive over their partners.
I always felt that love did need some kind of spark or instant connection and jitters, but that this also applied to everyone around us. I mean, think of your friends. Were they people you didn’t relate to much at all, or didn’t connect with? My friendships certainly didn’t happen this way. There was always a spark, an easiness, a flow. There was always a lack of pretension or hidden agenda. I always knew, and this is still the case, that I truly connected with someone if I was able to be myself without having to think about it. I mean, if we can’t be authentic with someone, why are we even spending time with them? I always wondered about this. I would see my friends playing all these games with their partners and other friends in our circle, and I would think that, surely, all this pretence wouldn’t and couldn’t lead to anything real? How could it? If we’re pretending to be someone else, how can the other person see us, feel us, share with us, and love us?
I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I certainly believe in soul sparks at first sight. How amazing, lovely, and even miraculous, does it feel when you meet someone new and everything just flows? The conversation, the thoughts, and the feelings seem to sync up, and you feel this rush of excitement, hope, joy, radiance, and this sense of effortlessness? I believe love feels easy and simple, but the maintenance of relationships is what may feel hard and complex. I also believe love is a verb, not a noun, and so it is something active, dynamic, something that moves. Something that moves you. Literally and figuratively. If there is no movement, there is no room for love to grow. In romantic relationships, partnerships, friendships, and family dynamics.
Toni Morrison used to say about parenting and children that a great test in that relationship dynamic related to how a parent looked at a child when they walked in the room: did their eyes light up? Did they feel a sense of joy and radiance? With parenting, this is what a child pays attention to. Not the words or material things, but the look in their parents’ eyes, their body language, their tone of voice, their literal movements. I very much feel that this applies to every type of relationship. Love is perceived and felt in action. And because I’m Portuguese and our sense of personal space is different, love is also perceived and felt in touch. I don’t care much for loving words, but I do care for loving physical touch and proximity.
I often joke that I never felt like a “good” Portuguese person, because I always remember looking at the world around me as if I wasn’t part of it, as if I didn’t understand the culture I’d been born into and was a part of, because when it came to relationships, I always had a strong sense of what felt like love and what didn’t. But we’re nothing but the products of the cultures we are born into, and so I kept this very confusing relationship with love. I’ve always been very good with friendships, managing to always have deeply profound, joyful, and passionate relationships with friends; as well as work and professional relationships, rarely having conflicts at work or education. For me, the challenges were always within family, and in romantic relationships. The former, because I always felt like an outsider looking in, which relates to the wider cultural detachment, and the latter because I always felt confused by it.
This confusion stemmed from my very clear and instinctive sense of what things ought to feel like versus what everyone told me things should feel like. Part of me felt that it didn’t need to be dramatic at all and another part of me felt that it should be dramatic. And so, informed by first relational attachments, and confused by the different cultural messages around me, I carried this sense of need, anxiety, and fear about romantic relationships. I always knew things wouldn’t work out if I felt any of those things. Whenever I felt I was putting on a show, I knew that it wouldn’t go anywhere, because I was pretending. And if someone liked me, and I didn’t feel the same, I always felt obliged to acquiesce to that love. And every now and then, the feelings would be mutual, but my inner demons would promptly sabotage everything.
Over the years, I’ve realised that the foundation blocks of any relationship, at least for me, are: authenticity, integrity, effortlessness, joy, and acceptance. I am very sensitive to all of these aspects, both individually and in relationship to others, and at the slightest sign of violation of any of these principles, I’ve become more and more able to reinstate boundaries before those violations escalate. This goes for everyone. I often say that since I learned to compartmentalise my life as a young queer child, I might as well use the same skill for good. What do I mean by all these principles, you might be asking? Well:
Authenticity: are you able to be yourself with other people, for most of the time you spend with them? Without pretence or subterfuge? Can you be vulnerable with them?
Integrity: are your personal values encouraged and strengthened in this relationship, or are they being compromised?
Effortlessness: is there a flow in the relationship, or does it constantly feel like hard work? The key word here, for me, is flow. Does it exist or not?
Joy: well, this one is fairly straightforward. Do you enjoy being in the presence of this person? Is it fun? Is there laughter? Do you look forward to the time you spend with them? Do your eyes light up when you see them?
Acceptance: very important, this one. Do you accept them as they are now, or are you focusing on their potential? Because if you are focusing on their potential, that means that you don’t really accept them as they are now. People change when they want to, not when they’re forced to. When people are forced to change anything about themselves, there will always be resentment, which will eventually corrupt everything.
I know I wrote all the points above from your/mine perspective, but it is imperative to remember that relationships of any kind, are two-way streets. In my relationships, people also have to be able to be themselves with me; they have to feel that our relationship aligns with their values; they also have to feel a flow; they have to feel joy; and they have to accept me as I am now. Love is both a product of all these principles working together, and an intrinsic part of each of them. If one of them is violated in some way, and nothing gets done about it, the others will soon follow. And this is what I always mean by applying boundaries. These are my personal principles of love and relationships. Whenever someone trespasses or doesn’t validate one of them, I am very quick to say “No”. Kind of like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: “You shall not pass!”. This is why self-awareness is extremely important. The more you know yourself, the more you know your values, and the more you know when those values are being disrespected and invalidated. And the more you know this, the better you get at not only expressing your boundaries to others, but to reinforcing them whenever needed.
What are your love principles?