Love Is…

By Michael Crichton

Originally Published February 1988 in Redbook magazine
This Valentine’s Day essay brought more reader mail than anything the magazine printed in a year.

Most of the people I know confuse love with possession. It’s easy to see why; it’s built into the fundamental assumptions of our culture. “You’re mine,” says the popular song, “and we belong together.” Hardly anyone stops to question the sentiment.

As soon as we feel love, we immediately attempt to possess. We speak confidently of my boyfriend, my wife, my child, my parent. We feel justified in holding expectations about those people. We consider that perfectly reasonable.

Why? Because all our concepts of love ultimately derive from romantic love — and romantic love is furiously, frantically possessive. We want to be with our lover, to have them to ourselves, to feel their eyes on us, to consume their minds and bodies…to possess them.

So strongly do we equate love with possession that we may even feel if someone doesn’t want to possess us, they don’t really love us. Yet I would argue that what we call romantic love is not love at all. It’s a kind of emotional storm, an overpowering, thrilling attraction — but it isn’t love.

Because real love isn’t possessive. It can’t be. We’d all agree that love involves giving, not taking. Yet the desire to possess actually springs from the lover’s own need — the need for approval from the beloved, for support from a parent, for straight A’s from a child, for status, for financial security — for something. A possessive lover is overly focused on what he’s getting, not what he’s giving. The lover may dignify his dependency with the name love, but it’s a lie. How can you really love somebody when you’re dependent on them for things you need? That isn’t love, that’s just manipulation to keep the needed stuff coming your way. Robert Palmer sings about being “addicted to love,” but nobody really is. People are addicted to their needs.

And love isn’t the same as need. It just isn’t.

Of course, a loving relationship will produce interdependencies. But all too often, the pleasure of freely giving changes to a fear of possibly not getting. It’s just that this person — your husband, your girlfriend, your child — is suddenly so important to you. You worry about what’s going to happen. What they’re going to do. And at that moment, love stops.

People sometimes wonder if they’re feeling real love. These same people never wonder if they’re sexually aroused, or sad. Then what’s the problem about recognizing love? Most often, because they’re sensing a conflict: they’re feeling the depth of their need, not the heights of their love.

There are ways to know real love. It feels calm. It’s steady, and it can easily last a lifetime. It’s nourishing — people grow under its influence. They become who they really are, and not what someone expects them to be. Real love isn’t blind; on the contrary, people feel understood, accepted for who they really are. It’s healing. People recover.

So whenever you hear that love is blind, or love can’t last, or love is destructive, you can be sure that you’re hearing a description of lust, or desire, or need. And it’s an accurate description, because needs really are transient and destructive.

But love is something else entirely. An emotion of deep caring that asks nothing in return, an emotion that is fulfilling without any expectation at all, is so rare that most people in our society can’t imagine it. They can’t imagine feeling it, or receiving it. They may even come to believe it doesn’t exist. But it does.

And it’s the best thing there is.