Know How to Love - smallerIf identifying and securing a loving, romantic relationship is a priority for you, you must reject the commonly accepted, yet misguided notions many of us have been taught about finding love. It is critical that you identify and challenge these ideas and beliefs—whether planted by your parents, peers, popular culture, religious upbringing or other sources—and uproot them. You have two options: learn through experience, i.e. trial and error, or via education, drawing from the expertise and experiences of others.

The good news for you is that we have loads of both experience and expertise when it comes to personal growth and healthy relationships. If only we knew then what we know now! On the other hand, what we know now is harvested from the experiences resulting from our past choices (including four failed marriages between us). These lessons are what motivated us to launch our Grown Zone personal growth initiative, with a mission of shortening the learning curve for others, so you can avoid the high experiential “tuition” we paid. With that in mind, we’re sharing three love lessons we learned the hard way, so you won’t have to.

What we are taught to value in potential mates cannot sustain healthy relationships. In our search for authentic, lasting love, we are taught to look for:

Good looks: The most physically attractive person you can find.

Good living: Someone willing and able to share the lifestyle that you have or aspire to.

Good sex: Someone who fulfills all of your erotic fantasies and sexual needs.

Good money: Someone with financial means and earning potential.

Good status: Someone who will bring you popularity and respect by association.

Good religion: Someone who worships the same God, and in the same way, as you do.

These are all legitimate relationship attractors—they draw people to one another, which is both healthy and natural. However, looks, sex, money, status, lifestyle and religion are not love. They can’t possibly be, particularly because they are temporary and bound to change over time and in ways we can’t control. Our insistence on believing otherwise is the underlying cause of unhealthy relationships, unhappy marriages and the oft-referenced 50-plus percent divorce rate. Attractors are why we enter and commit to relationships that have everything we thought we wanted, only to find that they don’t have the one thing we need: healthy love.

Love—true love, the kind that nurtures relationships and the people committed to them—is a very specific thing, defined by respect, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, fidelity and safety. These are what we call relationship sustainers in our book, Loving In The Grown Zone; they tend to not only last, but get stronger over time in relationships of honor, esteem and respect. If you want to decrease the likelihood of getting stuck in failed relationships and increase the odds of finding and maintaining a resilient, loving one, focus your search on sustainers, not attractors.

The love you seek from others can never exceed or substitute for the love you demonstrate for your self. Unfortunately, most of us are taught to believe the opposite of this, that we are incomplete and incapable of knowing real love until and unless we find it in another (our so-called soul mate). When you buy into this notion, you surrender responsibility for your own happiness, while waiting for someone else—that “special” someone, a.k.a., The One—to bring it to you. Eventually, this feeds the belief that life in a relationship—any relationship—is better than being alone. And this leads to lowered standards, poor choices, and unhealthy, dissatisfying and unsustainable relationships.

Instead of learning this lesson the hard way, accept this truth: The capacity for others to love you can never exceed the love you demonstrate for yourself. If you are desperate for love, you don’t need the love of another; you need to focus on building a more loving relationship with yourself. The more expert you become at loving self, the better your judgement will be when determining who is qualified to meet that standard of care for you, and demonstrates a willingness to commit to it. Regardless of your relationship status (even after you are happily married), it is your responsibility (not your mate’s) to set, communicate and enforce your standard of treatment. Good, healthy love cannot happen without self love.

We do not instinctively know how to love. Assuming that because we fall in love, we know how to love, is like assuming that we’ll instantly know how to swim if thrown into the sea. Which, of course, is absolutely untrue; some of us may manage to survive, while many of us—likely most of us—would drown. Yet people take major risks and make permanent commitments—including unprotected sex, procreation and marriage—based on the mistaken, but widely promoted idea that merely falling in love is all the qualification you need to be in a relationship. The result is the equivalent of drownings in relationships, including (but not limited to) 50-percent-plus divorce rates.

The truth is, while we are all born with the need, instinct and capacity to love, we are not born knowing how to do it. Learning by trial and error is a costly proposition, take it from us. Better to commit to actual education and preparation, including from books like Loving In The Grown Zone and classes and other training to determine and strengthen your understanding and aptitude for healthy relationships. Do not make the false assumption that you know how to love, no matter how strong your desire for it.