Rule 1: Let Yourself Be Alone
When you come to a relationship as a whole person, without looking for someone to complete you or to be your better half, you can truly connect and love. You know how you like to spend your time, what’s important to you, and how you’d like to grow. You have the self-control to wait for someone you can be happy with and the patience to appreciate someone you’re already with. You realize that you can bring value to someone else’s life. With this foundation, you’re ready to give love without neediness or fear.
Of course, relationships do heal us through connection, but you are giving yourself a head start by making the most of the time you spend in solitude. You want to go on a journey with someone, not to make them your journey.
Any step toward knowing yourself in solitude will help you love others because in addition to knowing what you bring to the table, the very process of learning to understand and love yourself helps you understand the effort required to love someone else. The work it took to understand ourselves teaches us that even when we’re with someone we care about, it will still be hard to understand them. Perhaps the most important lesson solitude offers is helping us understand our own imperfection. This prepares us to love someone else, in all their beauty and imperfection.
Rule 2: Don’t Ignore Your Karma
Karma begins with an impression. From the time we are born, choices are made for us. We’re surrounded by information and experiences that shape us: our environment, our parents, our friends, our schooling and religious instruction. We don’t pick these influences, but we observe and absorb their messages. Samskara is the Sanskrit word for impression, and when we are young, we collect samskaras. The impressions that we carry from these experiences influence our thinking, behaviors, and responses
As an impression grows stronger, it starts to shape our decisions. If you grew up putting milk in your cereal bowl, then adding the cereal, that becomes your norm. Then you move out and get a roommate who tells you you’re doing it wrong, that it makes much more sense to put the cereal in before you add the milk. Now you have a choice. Will you stick with the impression that you absorbed as a child, or will you try a new way? As we get older, we gain the intelligence to curate our impressions by choosing what we watch and who we listen to. We also have the opportunity to revisit, edit, and unlearn past impressions.
In youth, choices are made for you. These become impressions. As an adult, you use these impressions to make your own choices. Those choices generate an effect, a consequence, or a reaction. If you’re happy with the consequence, you probably won’t change your impression. But if you don’t like the consequence, you can revisit the impression and decide whether it steered you wrong. If it did, you can break the cycle by forming a new impression, which then steers you to a new choice, from which you get a new reaction.
Rule 3: Define Love Before You Think It, Feel It, or Say It
We say “I love you,” or wait for the right time to say it, or hope someone will say it to us, but there is no universal agreement as to what it means. For some it means “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” For some people, saying “I love you” means “I want to spend the night with you.” Between those two intentions are infinite others, and some of us say it without any particular intention because, in that moment, we just feel something we interpret as love. This leaves a lot of room for confusion, miscommunication, and false expectations
Writer Samantha Taylor says, “The first time I told my now-husband I loved him, we were spending one of those long nights on the phone early in our dating relationship. Back when people actually talked on the phone. Delirious with sleepiness, I told him that I wanted to tell him I loved him but didn’t want to scare him off. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told me. ‘Saying ‘I love you’ isn’t a big deal to me. I love my mom. I love my friends. I love you, too.’ Great. He loved me like his MOM. So romantic.” He was telling her that his definition of “I love you” was different from hers: broad, low-pressure, and not particularly romantic. She adds, “Fortunately, he must have grown to love me in a romantic way, because we’ve been married for almost ten years.”
Before we decide that we’re in love, before we tell another person we love them, and before we determine what it means when they say those words to us, we must consider how we define love. What do we expect love to feel like? How do we know we love someone? How do we know if they love us? The only way to avoid miscommunication is to talk about love using far more than those three words. This rule will help us figure out what we mean when we say “I love you,” what it may or may not mean when our partner says it, and how to find a meaning we can share.
To experience all that relationships have to offer means facing the challenges and rewards of every stage of love. Sometimes people jump from relationship to relationship because they’re trying to avoid the challenges that love requires. You could date someone new every three months and have a lot of fun. But there is no growth in the cycle of just flirting, hooking up, and ditching. It is this ongoing growth and understanding that helps us sustain the fun of love, the connection of love, the trust of love, the reward of love. If we never commit, we’ll never get to love.
Rule 4: Your Partner Is Your Guru
We don’t usually think about our partners as teachers or guides. But none of us can see ourselves or the world clearly on our own. We know from our reflections in solitude that each of us sees the world and each other through a different telescope with a limited range.
Psychology researcher Jeremy Dean at University College London says that typically we form our concept of how others see us based on how we see ourselves, which is inherently flawed. From the view inside our heads, we are the center of our own world and everything we experience is in some way related to us; psychologists call this egocentric bias. That’s not narcissism; it’s just what comes from viewing the world through a single lens. Others see us differently, through their perceptions.
Granted, our partners have their own biases, but learning to see ourselves through their eyes both expands and fine-tunes our own perception of ourselves. Your partner is like a mirror held in front of you. This mirror isn’t meant to make you feel bad and shouldn’t have that effect. When you can’t hide from someone, this makes you more transparent and aware of what you need to work on. There is no judgment or force, but support and encouragement while you work on yourself.
Your partner should be someone you want to learn with and learn from and learn through, and vice versa. We learn with someone when we try something new together and reflect on it afterward. We learn from someone when they have expertise they share with us or use to guide us. Learning through someone is the hardest. In living with another person’s mind, heart, and energy, we grow through observing their behavior toward us. We need to have the attention and patience to process their behavior and figure out the lesson it’s teaching us.
Rule 5: Purpose Comes First
People think that putting the other person first is a sign of love. We romanticize the idea of making sacrifices and devoting ourselves to another person, and there are beautiful ways to do so. But Jay has seen people who put their own purpose aside and years down the line feel lost or misled. They regret their choices and resent their partners for not helping them prioritize their purpose. And with reason—Jay doesn’t condone resentment, but if your partner can bear to watch you give up your purpose, that’s not love. Your purpose has to come first for you, and your partner’s purpose has to come first for them. Then you come together with the positive energy and stability that come from pursuing your purposes.
In every relationship there are actually three relationships: your relationship with each other, your relationship with your purpose, and your partner’s relationship with their purpose. We need to pay attention to all three. This seems hard, but it actually makes life easier. If you want to truly love someone and give them your best self, then you have to be your best self. Much as a depleted parent has a harder time caring for their children, a person who doesn’t take care of their own purpose has a hard time supporting their partner in theirs.
By looking after ourselves, we prepare to look after others. As marriage and family therapist Kathleen Dahlen deVos told HuffPost, the happiest couples are those who can move past their initial obsession with each other to prioritize their own pursuits and goals. “When couples rely solely on each other to meet all of their emotional intimacy and social needs, this ‘merging’ can stifle healthy personal growth or threaten to slip into co-dependency.” DeVos adds that couples need to maintain their individual identity within the relationship rather than let the relationship define them.
Rule 6: Win or Lose Together
Conflict has a bad reputation. It makes us look bad—to ourselves and to other people. We want to think we can be the couple who understands each other deeply and never fights. We’re special. We’re different. But no matter how compatible a couple is, to live in conflict-free bliss isn’t love, it’s avoidance. It’s easy to gloss over disputes for the first few months because the new attraction obscures the cracks in your foundation. But to sustain a conflict-free existence means floating on the surface, where everything looks pretty but we never achieve deep knowledge of each other.
Those who avoid fighting may be calm on the outside, but often they are upset inside. They’re afraid to talk about difficult feelings because they or their partner might get angry. They hide how they feel to avoid stirring up trouble. Keeping the peace often comes at the expense of honesty and understanding. And the converse is also true: Love built on honesty and understanding is deep and fulfilling, but not necessarily peaceful. Partners who avoid conflict don’t understand each other’s priorities, values, or struggles. Every couple fights—or should.
What if we approached a fight as a team? The specter of disagreement builds like a wave in the ocean. As it approaches, it grows taller and more daunting. But instead of turning away from the wave to pretend you don’t see it, the two of you face it as it looms over you. Can you keep your heads above water, or will it crash on top of you? The key is understanding that your partner is not the wave. The wave is the issue about which you disagree. If the two of you approach it together, kicking in the same direction, encouraging each other, you can swim through it side by side with a sense of shared victory.
Rule 7: You Don’t Break in a Breakup
Love doesn’t disintegrate overnight. The early days of your relationship were like a freshly painted wall. Smooth, even, ready to be filled with images of the life that awaited you. The wall underneath may not have been perfect, but with the fresh coat of paint it looked nice and solid. But every wall eventually gets scratches—maybe even some from baggage that arrived on move-in day.
Perhaps you’ve been too busy to deal with it. Maybe you told yourself it wasn’t a problem, but you’ve just been saying that to smooth things over. You know the scratches won’t go away until you do something about them, but you can live with them for a while. Then, over time, more scratches accumulate. You walk past them every day. If they start to bother you, you might do some touch-up. Maybe you’ll even decide it’s time to repaint that wall.
In the same way, flaws emerge in relationships. The hustle of life generates scratches and nicks that won’t go away unless you address them. Maybe your partner always leaves the gas tank on empty. Maybe they spend too much time telling you how much their boss annoys them. Maybe they complain every time you have to visit your parents. What each person sees as a scratch will be different, but these are small issues. You could touch them up if you wanted to, and that knowledge should give you the confidence to live with them. But you must be willing to accept them as part of the charm of a lived-in house. Every flaw doesn’t mean the walls will collapse. If we treat every scratch like an earthquake, we put unnecessary stress on the relationship. In other words, pettiness stretches scratches into cracks.
If, in spite of our efforts to foster intimacy, our relationship faces one of these four or any other major, structural threat, we have a choice. Love is imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we should stay in an unhealthy relationship. Let’s look at how to know if you should stay together, work on the issues, and find ways to grow, or if you should break up. There is no right answer; there are only two choices: We can continue with growth—choosing to elevate our relationship. Or we can separate.
There is actually a third option, and it’s one that many people choose by default: We can continue as we are. Stagnation is never good—we should always be growing. But one way of growing is to accept things as they are. Sometimes we don’t feel the way we used to about our partner because we’re overworked and overwhelmed with responsibilities and don’t have time to nurture our relationship. We might start to imagine there’s someone better out there, someone we would never fight with and who would always entertain us, but it’s not fair for our partner to have to compete with that fantasy. In this case it makes sense to let go of the fantasy and stay the course.
Rule 8: Love Again and Again
We want love in our lives, and we naturally assume it should take the form of romantic love. But it’s a misconception that the only love in your life is between you and your partner, your family, and your friends. It’s a misconception that life is meant to be a love story between you and one other person. That love is just a stepping-stone. Having a partner isn’t the end goal. It’s practice for something bigger, something life-changing, a form of love that is even more expansive and rewarding than romantic love. Our partnerships give us a chance to practice for it, but we don’t have to fulfill our romantic desires to get there. It’s available to all of us, every day, and it is infinite.
Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess borrowed from Vedic ideas when he described a process of self-realization “where the self to be realized extends further and further beyond the separate ego and includes more and more of the phenomenal world.” In other words, when we “widen and deepen” our sense of self, we see our interconnectedness, so serving others serves the self—there is no difference. We come to appreciate love in different forms. We no longer serve out of a sense of moral duty, but out of an understanding of our oneness with all that is. We are connected, and when we serve others, we are serving ourselves
Science supports this concept. Psychologists refer to the things we do to help others as prosocial behavior. Marianna Pogosyan, who specializes in cross-cultural psychology, writes that prosocial behavior helps us feel more connected to others, and this desire for connection is one of our deepest psychological needs.
Why limit love to one person or one family? Why experience love only with a few people? When we expand our radius of love, we have the opportunity to experience love every day, at every moment.
When you think this way, love stretches its arms wider and wider. If a parent loves their children, they love the other children who surround them at school because they care about the community their own children experience. And if you care about the community, then you care about the school itself. And if you care about the school, then you care about the ground where it sits. This is why, if you love your kids, you should want to better their world and the world at large. Loving those around us teaches us to love each living entity, and loving everyone teaches us to love the world around us—the place they call home.
You can seek love your whole life and never find it, or you can give love your whole life and experience joy. Experience it, practice it, and create it instead of waiting for it to find you. The more you do this, the more you will experience the depths of love from different people throughout every single day for the rest of your life.