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September 2, 2019

For Happy Relationships: Where we Learned to Love is just as crucial as How & From Whom.

In the digital age, more than ever, love is both closer and further away.

It’s a vast and ever-changing landscape, but it’s not amorphous. There is a geography to it, if we looked closely.

I’ve written in the past about tests we could take to become a better partner, but perhaps along this road of discovery, we could also become a cartographer of love—because there’s a geography to our behaviour, and there is a zip-code to our beliefs. Recognizing and understanding this is critical.

This is more than identifying our love languages, which is a good starting point, for those of us getting acquainted with becoming a better partner.

It’s more about the cultures and subcultures that our love has been conditioned in, from the moment we first learned what love could be. The same words could carry different meanings for different people. The same behaviors could show attachment or be simply just a friendly gesture.

When a British person ends a text with “x’s,” it’s definitely not the same as a non-Brit sending you x’s. When you meet the parents of a significant other—it may or may not be significant, at all. When someone asks you out, when is it a date and when is it just casual?

We attach significance to specific things, and brush aside behaviors that are also quite specific, but all this filtering and labeling of content could mean a lot of misunderstandings.

A friend recently told me that only bad guys ask you out because the good guys are too reserved! How funny, I thought. It’s worth noting that the context of this statement wasn’t in the North American culture. But even within North America, there is great variation. Dating in New York has a specific backdrop to it—it’s almost its own language, so when you date people “not from here,” it’s a whole new landscape. But it’s always a “whole new landscape” when you encounter someone new, someone arriving from a different place than we had come from. Someone with a different “language” of romance.

When I first moved to New York in my early 20s, the dating scene was almost assaulting. I remember reading a quote that said something along the lines of Jane Austen set me up for unrealistic expectations of love. It’s true. My upbringing was split between Europe, China, and Canada, so I carried a little bit of each with me. Jane Austen ended up being the through line, because that’s where the origin of my love goes to. I learned what romance is from her novels, all of them, and how terribly that set me up for New York City.

I often attributed too much feeling to people who didn’t want any of that. And by the end of my 20s, I could no longer recognize the Jane Austen kind of love, even when it was before me. It was subtle, of course. Though, perhaps only subtle to me, because my conditioning has changed.

I am reminded of the line, “being obvious doesn’t suck when it comes to love,” and I repeated that often to my now fiancé, who is about as far from New York style as possible. That’s a good thing, but it wasn’t easy at first. Because it was as if we spoke different languages, and I could never be with someone who I couldn’t communicate with. Yet, things remain tricky even when we do speak the same language, because embedded within the same text are meanings, intentions, moods, and emotions that we each assign our own set of values to. Therefore, we interpret different meanings from common behaviors and words. We attribute different meanings because we each learned how to love from different people, from different cultures, from different spaces, with different frames of references.

In the digital age, where we come from seems to be ever more irrelevant, because the internet doesn’t care if you’re a dog from Neptune, and most convenient of all, if you don’t slap on a label of your origin, the qualities that mark you as foreign don’t seem to be as visible online as they would be face to face.

Except our behaviours and beliefs are still very much encoded by where we are from, and where we are domesticated. We can’t be a better human being if we can’t put our fingers on the origins or makeup of our love.

Don Miguel Ruiz defines domestication as a system of control, operating on (and thus teaching those who are a part of it) conditional love:

“Starting when we are very young, we are presented with either a reward or a punishment for adopting the beliefs and behaviours of what others find acceptable. When we adopt these behaviours and beliefs, as a result of either reward or punishment, we can say we have been domesticated.”

Domestication happens to all of us, to various degrees. If we are raised differently, we have been conditioned to love differently. A country can differentiate us, but so can an experience, a book, a movie, a former lover, a memory, a need, and even an attitude.

Because domestication steeps within us, normalized beliefs and behaviours—through conditional love—become what we know best, and they become our default. We don’t enter a relationship with a clean slate. Not even if it’s our very first relationship. We enter into a relationship with normalized beliefs of what love is, in all their limiting and controlling ways, before we ever accumulate any baggage or toxins…so, is it any wonder that most of our relationships fail?

We will each arrive at our “domestication” crossroads in our own time, but here are some guiding thoughts to help us figure things out a bit sooner:

1. Everything in life prepares us how to love. Where we have come from, the places where our values and expectations have been inherited and shaped, the places where our behaviours and ways of thinking have been normalized…make a list of all these places.

2. Have your partner do the same exercise, and compare lists. Zoom in on the differences, and address them through “traveling”—sharing of how this came to be. This kind of traveling together is needed to bridge these gaps, because there is a different meaning of “normal” for each longitude and latitude of our planet, and learning what is “normal” will guide us toward what’s extraordinary.

3. Common vocabulary does not equate to common meanings. So it’s critical to pinpoint where we learned what we’ve learned. What do we align ourselves with? To what do we anchor our references? Learning what is truly meant behind the simple texts can bring us closer, as we form a deeper bond. Oftentimes, we say things we don’t mean, or take things at face value when there is more. Understanding each other’s subtext is crucial to a healthy and strong relationship.

I’ve had the fortune to have lived in several places around the world, and I remember exchanges with other traveling girls about dating experiences, where they repeatedly said, “this is not normal.”

It was jarring for me to hear it the first time, not simply because of the sentiments this sentence carried, but because linguistically, it is not structured in a way that a local person—someone with the same zip-code as I, would say it. “That’s f*cked up” is more our tongue, but this is exactly the point I’m trying to make.

If we don’t ever venture out of our zip-code to love, then we would find a lot of comfort and alignment where we continue to cultivate something that is homegrown. The problem is, when we do venture to love in a foreign zip-code, which happens more and more often, the outcome could easily be painful and disastrous.

One of the nighttime radio shows I host, “Women’s world,” offers a fascinating space where international (mostly Asian-American) codes of love collide.

A caller dialed in and asked, “I know my husband has a mistress, but he won’t admit it, and he won’t end the affair. What should I do?”

Of all the views that had been expressed that night, one stuck in my head, because it wasn’t something that I would ever offer as a piece of advice, but it was a loud reminder of the zip-code I broke away from, and thus understood.

She said, “It depends on whether you want to save your marriage. If you want to stay married, then don’t ask about it, let him lie, and play the perfect family because at least he is saving face for you by keeping his affair quiet. But if you can’t tolerate a constant mistress, then confront him and end the marriage.”

This stayed in my mind because it was a sharp reminder of the heritage I was born with. It was a culture and mindset that valued “saving face” above all, and at all costs. It’s also a culture where love and affection isn’t vocalized or lathered much. In order to maintain an image, we end up in tacit agreement to what harms us. So, I’ve always dated outside of my culture of origin, because I couldn’t align myself to what’s normal and expected.

The reason I refer to this case is not to say how poorly the piece of advice is—because a lot of callers agreed with this. It was not only “normal” for them, it was considered “superior and a wise choice.” We are each normalized differently, so of course, wisdom tastes differently to us, too.

To listen and observe without judgement has been a personal and professional daily practice for many years. Even so, there remained a deep gap between understanding our domestication of love, and loving with such discernment, because the way we are normalized conditions us to survive within just that particular area code.

For this particular conditioning to be successful, it necessarily separates us from our authentic selves, but conditioning isn’t irreversible. We are capable of unlearning, just as we are of learning. As long as we grow, this cycle never ends.

New York City, like most big cities, normalizes you in a way that is considered deviant to many non-New Yorkers. The way I had behaved helped me survive and cope with relationships that also carried New York area codes, but this set of encoding derailed me beyond the jungle.

The code of our behaviours bleeds beyond romantic relationships.

My mother and I have had different conditioning growing up. Needless to say, our love is geographically different from one another, but we love just as hard and just as real. We love differently, but we love the best we know how to. Sometimes, our best doesn’t meet the minimum requirement of the other’s conditioning, or standards of “basic,” but that in no way diminishes our love, its existence, or its intentions.

We used to fight over menial things that I thought were “basic,” but it wasn’t so for her. What was “basic” for me had been quite foreign to her. Imagine failing a test that was never part of our curriculum or repertoire. When I didn’t know better, being upset over her not sharing the same conditioning had been hurtful to her. Understanding the geography of her love, and the codes of her behaviour, was critical to transforming our relationship, which is now the best it’s ever been.

At the multicultural media group where I work, my boss attributes the line, “common sense is not so common” to me, not because I invented it (even though she first heard it from me), but because I use it most often, in an environment where our studios are over-saturated with country codes around the world, and it’s unfortunate that some codes carry judgement more than compassion, and other codes value silence over curiosity. The clash of norms has been a daily constant that’s sadly become white noise.

In the enlightened age, we care more and more about where we buy what we buy. Is it ethically sourced? Where is it made in? Where does our food come from? What about our clothes? Our wine? Our chocolate? Our soaps?

Yet, we don’t seem to ever question: where did we learn how to love? Because surely, a love that’s made in sweatshops doesn’t feel the same as a love that’s artisanal. Love expressed in North Korea doesn’t look the same as love expressed in North Dakota, does it?

Understanding where we’ve come from helps us build a more solid identity. The same goes with love—where and how we learned to love, along with its expressions, shape our relationships. And it’s often the unsaid, assumed feelings and meanings that derail us.

Until we map out where we learned what we learned, we will always be swimming in somewhat of a confused sea.

Until we figure out the origins of our own love, we continue to carry the consensus of what love is, according to our immediate physical environment, and the problem with consensus is, that it’s not always correct, and even when it is, it may not always be what’s right for us.

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