Since my early teens, I’ve been on a mission to solve the love mystery.
I have filled countless notebooks in my attempt to uncover the root of love—how and when it enters us. Where inside our bodies does it live? Why does love’s departure leave scars on our soul that last a lifetime?
As children, our need to love and be loved burns through any abuse or neglect we may experience.
Reflecting back on my childhood, I see a little girl crazy in love with her mother. I thought she was the most beautiful creature that ever walked the earth.
When visiting my maternal grandparents, I’d sleep in her old bed, in her old room, dizzy with the thought that I was breathing in her exhales. Like the moon shining in the glow of the sun, I basked in her love—growing, thriving. The times she entered her darkness and her light dimmed, I struggled, wilted, and began my education in the contradiction of love.
I watched my mother in the throes and the destruction of love, first with my father and then my stepfather. Neither of these two relationships was slow-burning. Both sparked, exploded, and then burnt out in a manner of terribly painful ways.
I observed my mother and father with the hypervigilance of a hawk. I unconsciously came to believe that love, true love, bloody well had to hurt.
It is no wonder, then, that my romantic relationships were founded on this blueprint handed to me in childhood. I replicated the drama and chaos that reigned between my parents, believing it to be a normal expression of love. I got hooked on the crazy-making cocktail of dopamine and cortisol, oxytocin, and adrenalin. Like an addict desperate for her next fix, I attracted partners who would deliver.
My first love experience felt like an inferno. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. All my mental and physical faculties were occupied by him: his smell, his smile, the way his shoulders pushed against the seams of his cotton T-shirt, the swirling of heat that made it hard to breathe when his gaze penetrated me from across the room.
I’d spend entire evenings in the bathtub with eyes closed, imagining his kisses, the soft pad of his thumb brushing the knobs of my nipples. I was a lilac bush being ravished by the spring sun, the scent of its blossoms filling every dark crevice of my body. It was an initiation into eroticism, the realm of Aphrodite.
He and I made out only once on a blustery fall afternoon; a kiss—my first French experience. He was walking home from his shift at the Red Rooster convenience store. We crossed paths on a deserted sidewalk; dry poplar leaves swirled around our feet. I remember his faded denim jacket and the green, bundled-up apron in his hand. We greeted each other; I, in my halting English, and he, in his almost-a-man voice. Then it happened. The kiss. Right there. In the open. It felt sloppy and wet, nothing like what I had imagined in the steamy heat of the bath.
He had no intentions of loving the 14-year-old immigrant child. There were no dates, no more kisses. He found a girl his own age and moved on. The heartbreak leveled me. It was my induction into the land of melancholy where my heart received instruction in the pleasure and pain of vulnerability.
Love is beyond our understanding and definitely out of the realm of our control. Love is the soul longing for itself. It will move through us in ways we may not be prepared for. It will take us by the hand and guide us into the dark night where it will demand its painful resurrection time and time again.
I married the first man with whom I orgasmed. I mistook my body’s reaction for love. (Forgive me. I was young.) I ignored the red flags—the signs that pointed to his woundedness and unavailability. I had created a fantasy marriage with a white-picket fence and daisies planted in the front yard. Our daughter was born of that fantasy. It was my naïve attempt to secure a love that had no foundation. I left when she was two.
I filled my prescription for Zoloft and dove right back into the relationship merry-go-round. The men in my life became a distraction from the darkness where all our healing takes place. I was not yet ready to unbind my childhood programming. The lessons were only beginning.
My second husband was a kind, generous and loving man. He was eleven years older than me. I was attracted to his wisdom and his open desire to take care of me. Without realizing it, I found the healthy father figure I had been denied as a child. The relationship grounded me. I looked up to him. I believed I was a better person because of him. I bore two children. I lost myself in my roles of wife and mother. I left my career. I lived in a box of denial. I could not live my passion, could not allow Aphrodite to take over my body and mind. I was slowly killing that part of me that was wild and free.
About halfway through our 18 years together, my life felt drained of color. I began to have graphic and disturbing fantasies about other men, other relationships. I couldn’t understand why and I hated myself for it. I remember the day when in my Morning Pages, I wrote in thick, angry script: I hate my life. It was the lowest point in my marriage.
I lived the next nine years in purgatory. I couldn’t leave and I couldn’t stay. I didn’t yet have the tools to do the shadow work necessary to meet my true self in the dark, where real soul growth happens.
In his book, Dark Night of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals, Thomas Moore writes:
“You can’t love deeply until you are a deep person…, and the torture of difficult love is the very ordeal that makes you a person capable of strong love. Your love for another, especially when it is difficult or impossible, works on you and prepares you for a different way of loving.”
I’m in my mid-50s now and have recently ended my third, long-term relationship. It is here that I unlatched the doors to my shadow side. I willingly submitted to my dysfunction and betrayal. Childhood trauma after childhood trauma surfaced for healing. I lost myself and found myself only to lose and find myself again and again. A powerful trauma bond developed. The love I nurtured in the darkness of this relationship shed light on my many wounds and complexities. It is here that I did my healing work.
I am grateful for it all. I was scorched earth when I finally found the courage to leave him. The dark soil of my soul is now ripe and fertile for new growth. It is ready for love that is deeply rooted in trust, safety, monogamy, integrity, authenticity, and honesty. I am grateful for the scars left behind on the surface of my heart. They give my life substance and wisdom.
Have I found the answer to what love is? I think I’m getting closer. Love is a map by which we navigate life. It is our soul’s sole reason for existence. It will demand we feel the pain of being emptied as much as the pleasure of being filled. Love has the potential to sculpt us into the human we are meant to be.
“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this too, was a gift.”
~ Mary Oliver