10 Things You Need to Know About Real Love

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 


by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. Copyright Ⓒ All Rights Reserved

To find the right person, BE the right person

Many people want to be in relationships, without really having a clue what it is all about or what they’re all about. Real love is akin to getting married, having babies, or even getting a dog. Many people have some romantic fantasy about all these things without looking at the work involved or the responsibility or the commitment required.

Some think more about the DJ they want at the wedding, the gurgling and happy baby, or the fun-loving puppy. They don’t think about how to live with a person every day, deal with a colicky newborn, or manage a “mouthy” puppy that keeps eating the sofa.

Each of these wonderful things has another side that you must acknowledge going in, or you will fail. Every day, couples get divorced, dogs are dropped at shelters, and cranky babies are ignored or, worse, mistreated—because the responsibility inherent in marriage, parenthood, and pet ownership has been ignored.

Being able to love and be loved for many years in a good and healthy way takes work. Stephen Levine called it “conscious relationship” or “intentional relationship.” He said you must merge the clarification of the mind with the full participation of the heart.  What does that mean? It means that you can know (via Standards and Compatibility and doing “the work”) what you want and what is reasonable and good and healthy. That is the mind clarifying what you need to be in a “good” relationship. The participation of the heart means you trust yourself enough to trust someone else and to walk when that is no longer the case. You are able to love (participate with your heart). You can trust yourself because you are no longer being driven by unresolved childhood wounds and broken adult relationships. You are no longer swinging from “this person represents crap from mom” and “this person represents crap from dad.”  That nuttiness very often feels like “Oh this must be love!” and we’ve all felt it multiple times. It’s not that hard to find. What is hard to find is a healthy relationship with a healthy partner. 

Successful coupling takes resisting urges. It’s about making a decision not to do things that would wreck your relationship or hurt your partner—like calling someone a name, being selfish when you should help out, not acknowledging or caring about your partner’s needs, or having an affair. It includes big and little things. It involves what Getting Back Out There calls the 3 C’s: Communication, Compromise and Compassion. Without those 3 things on a CONSISTENT (4th C!) basis, no relationship works. It simply can’t. 

Real love is quieter than what we’ve all been led to believe. The writers of songs and movies have obviously not yet found it because they keep representing it as something it’s not. The SPARKS and CHEMISTRY that we’ve had with others is usually our dysfunction saying hello to their dysfunction.  It’s NOT GOOD.  When there is DANGER ahead, there may be fireworks. Your subconscious senses the danger and wants to play…oh boy does it want to play!  It’s the thrill of what is to come: lots of crazy crap that you each will feed off of though it will not nourish you. In “real love” there are no sparks in the way there used to be sparks because you have healed the unhealed parts that craved and helped create those sparks.  The sparks are often about “I can work out my unresolved stuff with you.” Water seeks its own level.

The sparks are about the person who has fear of abandonment pairing with the person who has fear of intimacy. They each sense the other’s water level and the opportunity to “win the battle” of the unresolved “stuff.” This person is an opportunity to play in the sandbox of dysfunction and come out a winner (we don’t know yet that it never happens and you MUST resolve that stuff on your own.)  At some point the person with abandonment issues feels abandoned and the person with intimacy issues feels smothered. That is when the fight to the death happens.  The push-me-pull-me march to destruction. And we “go at it” like sumo wrestlers who fail to understand why this person isn’t healing our unhealed parts.  We are angry and disappointed. And our relationship tanks and the unraveling is what we are left with. No one has fixed our broken parts and now we must be alone to fix our broken parts and our broken chooser. But that is the only way we move toward healthy and real love.

Once we heal our broken parts, comfort and love and trust is we seek and what we appreciate because it’s rare to find. Sparks can be found with most banana heads. Without those sparks, it’s just a lot of madness.   

Robin Norwood talks about “great sex in bad relationships” but love-making needs to happen in every room in the house and with your clothes on most of the time.  Intimacy involves every room, with and without clothes and knowing someone else on a level that is more than just carnal knowledge.

Intimacy is sitting and talking and being able to share and care. It’s also the very brief, temporary breaking down of walls during love making. That momentary shattering happens in both functional and dysfunctional relationships. The difference is that in functional relationships, there is so much more once you get out of bed and put your clothes on. In dysfunction, that is all there is and you hang onto the rest of the crap so that you might feel that temporary blending once again. In dysfunction, the putting on of clothes signals a return to insanity and one big mess. In healthy, the putting on of clothes signals the need to bring the relationship to another thing that needs attention (the laundry, the kids, the what’s for dinner?)  Together. As a team.

The SPARKS you feel for someone is usually not a great sign. I have had countless people over many years tell me they NEED that physical chemistry/spark/fireworks. If you NEED it, you’re going to find it only with those who elicit a feeling of danger and distrust. You won’t know that is where it’s coming from, but think back on your relationships – isn’t that where it came from?

There should be some physical attraction but understand that REAL LOVE is quiet and good.  You have to know that you should have a physical connection, but please disabuse yourself of all the notions of fireworks and chemistry.  It doesn’t work well in this model.  If sexual attraction and a lot of sexual chemistry is a “must have” for you, that’s great, but understand where yours comes from.  Is it your choice or is it your dysfunction?  You can have great sex in good relationships, but you may not feel the chemistry as quickly as you do in dysfunction. 

Have your Standards and Compatibility Inventory DONE and make sure that the sexual connection you want is there and healthy.  It’s okay to have crazy, wild sex but not to have it in a relationship where nothing else works.  Have the Sexual Inventory (in GBOT and the workbook) done.  Know what you want and know that it’s reasonable and okay. Being with someone who may unlock our unresolved childhood struggles IS exciting and intoxicating to the dysfunctional, unhealed, unhealthy us. The “rush” of the earth moving underneath your feet is what we all have come to define as “love” or “falling in love” or “what I need in order to feel like this is the one.”  It’s the “you complete me” bs and the “oh my goodness!  My prince (or princess) has come!”  But it’s not any of that. It’s simply your dysfunction saying hello to theirs. It’s danger and the thrill of finding someone with whom to work out our issues.  That is all dysfunctional hodge podge and,  unfortunately, it’s what we are taught is “real love.” It’s anything but.

I’m sure you have had the earth move beneath your feet with crazy people in bad relationships. The fireworks are nothing more than dysfunction saying “Well hello there!” to someone else’s dysfunction. You have to disabuse yourself of the notion that is what “real love” or “falling in love” should feel like. If you’re working on yourself and healing the unhealed parts, you will not feel that ever again. But you have to come to terms with the fact that real love, true love, grows over time and you are blown away by this person BEING THERE for you over and over again and loving you on your most unlovable days and putting in the effort for you and the relationship. That feeling – one of trust and caring and being loved beyond anything you thought imaginable – blows your mind when it’s there. And it can’t be compared to ANYTHING like dysfunctional hormonal blathering. It’s quiet and good and it absolutely takes your breath away – over and over again. THAT is what real love feels like. And it’s rare and it’s worth the price of admission. 

Love is an action, love is work, and love is a decision. It doesn’t take work to be in a dysfunctional relationship; people do it all the time. Taking someone hostage or allowing yourself to be taken hostage is boring and predictable. It might be chaotic, destructive and dramatic, but in the end…same old same old.

To love someone, really love someone who really loves you, too, is about being a good and sane and supportive and caring partner; knowing how to understand and compromise; knowing to accept your partner for who he or she is without trying to change them. It’s not about taking someone away from those they love.

It’s not about being locked into some strange desperation with each other, hoping and praying that no one cracks the shell. Too many unhealthy relationships depend on each person convincing the other that the world is out to get one or both of them.

My books, Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There emphasize that real love is an enlarging experience and dysfunctional love is a narrowing one. But anything that is enlarging comes with work and responsibilities—responsibility to self and to each other. A couple must support each other’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. If you’re not there yet, you can start to work on what you will and will not do to nurture yourself and your idea of what a healthy relationship is. And there are some things you can do that will almost guarantee a healthier relationship:

  1. To find the right person, be the right person.Before you get back into a relationship, build your life. Finish your unfinished business. Become objective about what went wrong in your last relationship, and in the relationships before that. Do a relationship inventory and a life inventory. You must discover the patterns and habits that torpedoed previous relationships before you get into a new one. If you’re in a relationship and trying to salvage or save it, you—both of you—must figure out and heal that which has been hurting you and your relationship. If one partner changes, the other is forced to change or leave. You cannot maintain the status quo when one of you chooses to change.

  2. To be the right person and to find real love, you must develop your boundaries. Know what you stand for before you have to stand for it. Is an affair a deal breaker? What else will you NOT stand for: Pornuse? Pot abuse? Drunkenness? Forgetting to call? Standing you up? Not being financially stable? Not holding a job? Not being honest? You have to know this before you are tested. You have to be able to say, “If x happens, I am out of here—without argument.”

Make sure you know what would be a deal breaker for you—and make sure you break the deal if it happens. Be committed to walking away when a deal breaker breaks. If there are other things that you think deserve second and third chances, then commit to walking away the second or third time it becomes an issue. If you stay beyond that, you’re basically lying to yourself. Walk away for what you believe in. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in dysfunction again and bargaining with yourself in order to accept what you shouldn’t accept.

  1. Real love communicates in a healthy way. Name calling is out. Blaming and nitpicking is out. Accusations are out. Learn to begin sentences with “I feel” or “I think” or “In my opinion,” and be with others who communicate similarly. Don’t let anyone project onto you what you are thinking or feeling. Don’t defend yourself against that which you’re not doing. There is much game-playing in dysfunctional relationships. The only way to win is not to play. Healthy relationships are about forthright and honest communication.

  2. Real love requires goals and aspirations, both individually and as a couple. You have to have plans and dreams, and agree on the future. You must help each other fulfill your hopes and dreams as individuals and as a couple. Figure out what you’ve always wanted to do—and do it. Find out what your partner wants in life and out of life. Figure out, early on, if you can and will support each other in achieving everything you’ve always wanted. It is important that you figure this out early on.

  3. As a prelude to finding real love, learn to be discriminating in all your relationships—with family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Learn to make choices and not just let friendships and professional relationships “happen.” Don’t spend time with family just because they’re family. Choose to only have those in your life who are loving, respectful, honest, and open, and who care about you. Choose people who know that trust is earned and that once broken, it’s next to impossible to get back. Choose people who do not keep you guessing about how they feel, or how they feel about you. Choose people who are not ambivalent about you or their relationship with you.

Don’t put up with people who say, “I’m confused,” “I gotta be me,” or, “I want to be a good partner, but I don’t know how.” You get what you put up with. If you want less doubt in your life, stop putting up with it. Real love is discriminating and insists upon loving treatment no matter what.

  1. Stop being a victim. Stop thinking you have no control over what happens to you. Most people stuck in unhealthy patterns (including me when I was) are stuck in a mud pit of denial, justification, and rationalization. Learn to call yourself on your own rationalizations, and stop believing the justifications that keep you stuck and “victimized.” You need to untangle yourself from any need you might have to be pitied. If you find yourself telling stories in which you were taken advantage of or someone did you wrong, and the stories are being told to generate sympathy, stop and realize that going through life as a victim is not attractive to healthy people. Take charge of yourself and what happens to you day in and day out.

  2. Live with purpose. Spend some quiet time alone each day, without interruption, to think about your life and how it’s structured. Think about what you need to do to “get better” in different areas. Learn to meditate by getting quiet and relaxing. Meditation is not sitting on a pillow chanting—it’s just learning to calm down and go inward without distraction. Living purposefully is the opposite of living randomly. It’s thinking about what you’re doing when you’re doing it. It’s about not looking at your phone every 10 minutes, or mindlessly checking Facebook 200 times a day. It’s about having your head where your feet are. Look around, and see what’s going on where you are at this very minute.

Learn to be disciplined and control your urge to be tied to your phone, to dive into ice cream when you’re not happy, or to do anything without really thinking about it. It’s about doing the “tough” things, like sitting with your feelings, going to the gym, or eating healthy. Spend some time each day thinking about your impulses and mindless behaviors. And ways in which you can improve your self-control and self-discipline. Quiet time each day is so important to building a healthy life. Try to stretch it out. Set goals for building the amount of time you can spend every day in quiet meditation and purposeful action (and purposeful inaction). Having a say in everything you do and everything you don’t do is important to being healthy and being capable of giving and receiving real love. (It is also important, when you’re in a relationship, to continue to cultivate this practice and to have your own “me time” and alone time every day.)

  1. Know that real love does not hurt. Yes, there are misunderstandings and upsets and disappointments in every relationship, but in healthy relationships they are not a regular happening. Real love and really loving relationships are consistent. They are not always easy, but they tend to run smoothly because everyone works at it. Love is what helps you deal with the curves that life throws at you—not what makes things more difficult. Love, real love, is support in a difficult world, not something that makes your life even harder. Real love gives each other the benefit of the doubt without being foolish about it. Pick your battles, and don’t fight over everything. Don’t be with people who turn everything into an argument or a challenge. It’s exhausting, and doesn’t need to be that way. Healthy people refuse to live that way.

  2. Real love does not ask us to sacrifice that which we love. Not our interests, not our hobbies, not our friends and family. If someone is asking you to do that, it’s not healthy and not good for you. If you’re willing to do that without even being asked, it’s even worse. It’s normal to cocoon in a new relationship but after a time, you have to get back to the things and the people you love. Keep your life balanced; if you give up what you love and the people you love, you will look around one day and realize you can’t leave your relationship because you have nothing else. You may need to rework the ratios of how much time you give to each of your interests and loved ones, but it’s important that nothing (and no one) is treated as an afterthought.

  3. The most important thing to know about real love is that love is an action from you and to you. Actit and insist on it. Every single day, whether in a relationship or not, you must affirm that love is what you do, not what you say, and you must insist upon it with everyone in your life. If it’s a “non-love” relationship (i.e. professional), respect is the action and you must be treated with respect in all your relationships.

If people understood what real love entailed they would be less inclined to go in and out of relationships in which they know they will experience anything but love. Use your time out of a relationship wisely, to build what you need to be in a healthy relationship. And then, go out and build it.  Go to the workbook and make sure you’ve done your inventories and you know what you want.  That is VERY important. 

Copyright  Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author and a link back to the original content 

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