According to Billboard magazine, the greatest love song of all time is the Diana Ross and Lionel Richie duet “Endless Love,” in which she sings, “You’re every breath that I take/You’re every step that I make.”
Spotify reports the most popular wedding song is John Legend’s “All of Me,” in which he proclaims, “Give your all to me/I’ll give my all to you.”
And just last week, Time Out named the Beach Boys’ seminal “God Only Knows” as its favorite love song, with Carl Wilson crooning that if his lover should ever leave him, “then what good would living do me?”
As beautiful and moving as they are, these songs and countless others like them point to a serious cultural problem—and the reason many of us are disappointed, even shattered by love: We have unrealistic expectations of what it is to love and be loved.
As any good therapist will tell you, these aren’t lyrics about healthy love. They’re about dysfunctional and codependent relationships.
I know this because, after some two decades of relationships that began with passion but soon ended with grief, I dedicated five years to discovering the truth about love—how to find it and how to keep it. The journey transformed me from arguably the most infamous bachelor in the world (as the author of the pick-up bible The Game) to the most committed married man and father I can be (and the author of a relationship bible The Truth).
So with Valentines Day upon us, it’s time to take a look at how, as a culture, we mistake unhealthy obsession for romantic love. When we make another human being as essential to our survival as air, that isn’t actually love. It’s addiction. Literally.
These lyrics so many of us know by heart could easily be mistaken for the diagnostic symptoms described by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. These include tendencies to “confuse love with neediness,” “feel empty and incomplete when…alone,” and “assign magical qualities to others.”
In order to have love in our lives, and to have powerful, fulfilling, connected relationships, we must recognize that there is a difference between childish love and adult love. Childish love is dependent. An infant cannot survive without a parent or caregiver.
Adult love, on the other hand, is inter-dependent. It’s when two people who can take care of themselves on their own create a third entity—a relationship—which they cherish and nurture together.
Think about the famous Jerry Maguire line “you complete me.” It may sound romantic, but one must be complete on one’s own before attempting to have a successful relationship.
When Julia Roberts proposes to Dermot Mulroney in My Best Friend’s Wedding by telling him, “Let me make you happy,” most people sigh, “true love.” But the truth is we can’t control someone else’s emotions. It’s not our job to make our partners feel anything. We are each responsible for our own happiness.
Pick any movie or song where someone says they can’t live without another person. And recognize that this is a pathology. It’s a fear of abandonment that has nothing to do with the other person, but a deep childhood wound created by a neglectful or absent parent.
Love is great. It is powerful. It is an emotional home worth living in for as much of our lives as possible. But only when it comes from the whole person, not the hole in a person.
So if we want to be not crazy in love, but truly in love, and we want to create great models of relationships for our culture and our children, then we have to throw out the old tropes and create new ones.
And not only can they still be as lofty as any pop song or romantic film, but they can actually be more powerful:
Instead of saying “I can’t live without you,” we can declare, “I can live without you, but I choose to be with you.”
Instead of saying “You complete me,” we can recognize, “I am complete. You are complete. And together we’re creating something new that grows deeper, more beautiful, and more precious every day.”
Instead of saying, “I’ll make you happy,” we can joyfully proclaim, “I’ve never been as happy as I am when I’m with you.”
Perhaps the biggest mistake I made in the past was that I believed love was about finding the right person. As the Disney song goes, “Someday, my prince will come.” But that’s another fairy tale. In reality, love is about becoming the right person. Don’t look for the person you want to spend your life with. Become the person you want to spend your life with.
To loosely paraphrase the psychoanalyst and author James Hollis, the biggest gift you can give to your lover for Valentines Day and forever is your own best self. Because the success of your relationship with your partner is dependent on one thing only: your relationship with yourself. So before showering your partner with love today, make sure you give yourself some of that love first. You’ll find, as I did, that the love you’re then able to share will be that much more powerful.