“When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” ~Fred Rogers
There aren’t many clichés I resent more than this old chestnut about finding true love: “When you know, you know.”
As a late bloomer and skeptic who took her sweet time to get into a relationship, after decades of singleness and observation, nothing made me feel more like an outsider than the idea that love is an unexplainable phenomenon reserved for people who “know.”
In my early years of singledom, I believed I “knew” things. I had unwavering faith in a myriad of beliefs, and when doubts cropped up in my mind, I dismissed them or stuffed them back down into my subconscious.
The most liberating day of my life was the day I embraced doubt as a friend. Confronted with an idea that conflicted with one of my beliefs, I said to myself, “I do not know the answer, and I will not pretend to.”
Everything changed then, but life didn’t become scarier without “knowing” the answers. On the contrary, a world of possibilities opened up, along with the appearance of many fellow voyagers who were on the same path as me. I hadn’t noticed them before because my “knowing” had scared them off.
Years later, I’ve turned my gaze to the phenomenon of love and the myth of “knowing” as it relates to relationships.
This message is everywhere. Pop culture makes doubts synonymous with warning signs, red flags. “If you have cold feet on your wedding day, then it’s probably because you shouldn’t be getting married in the first place.”
That’s not to say that doubts are never red flags. Of course they can be and often are. If you chose someone you’re not compatible with to avoid being alone, or you’ve had to compromise yourself, your morals, or your needs, then your doubts likely are red flags.
But it’s important to set a distinction between a gut feeling that says, “This is not the right person” and one that says, “I didn’t fall in love at first sight, so I must be wrong.”
In movies, doubts are presented as indicators that our partners are irretrievably flawed and do not deserve our love. Rarely do we see a tale where doubt is an invitation to look more closely at our complex feelings, or a natural consequence of comparing our relationship to someone else’s.
If our doubts make us cut and run, then the message remains that we must “know” and not doubt. If a question arises, you must leave, so therefore you must not question.
This breeds a vicious cycle of ignoring our feelings and pretending not to feel them. “If other people don’t have doubts, then there must be something wrong with me. I can’t let them see that!”
The cycle begets a lonely existence. And it’s unnecessarily lonely. Everyone has doubts and fears, and the most meaningful connections we can make with each other come from being brave enough to share them.
I can still feel the way my heart starts to race before saying something out loud that I’ve only thought silently in my head. It could be something as simple as, “You know, I’m not really sure that everything happens for a reason,” which, in some circles could be considered a scandalous belief.
You say the words, heart and tongue racing, fear of judgment impending, and then that trusted friend reassures you. “Oh my goodness, I thought it was just me! I feel the same way!”
This is where the gold is. We find people we feel brave enough to be real with, and when we open up, they embrace us. They don’t judge us, and we discover that we aren’t alone.
An unexamined, untested life does not interest me. The same is true of love.
When my relationship began, neither one of us knew what we were doing. Beginners that we were, we shared our thoughts with each other in a way that was unmarred by years of dating and learning how to “play the game.”
We did not “know” the moment we first saw each other that we would be anything more than coworkers or friends. We did not experience love at first sight, and even as our relationship began, we weren’t sure what to call our feelings for each other.
And we did not pretend to “know” or understand those feelings. We said, “I’m not sure what this is, but we’ll figure it out.” And it took some time, but we did just that, with honesty and grace helping us along the way.
Together, we learned that true love isn’t an instant or constant feeling. It may sound romantic, but real love is something you build and have to work at.
When my nieces ask me on my wedding day how I knew that I wanted to marry my fiancé, I will see it as an opportunity. I won’t say, “Oh, I just knew. Someday you will too.” I will tell them that he is good and kind, and that together we have grown and overcome, and that we make each other feel safe, loved, and supported.
That’s the message I want them to take to heart as their own concept of love takes shape. “Just knowing” might sound pretty, but it’s dangerous. The myth encourages us to chase a feeling rather than seeing ourselves, our partners, and our relationships in a clear light.
People may feel inexplicably warm feelings for someone who treats them terribly or is physically abusive, and that feeling might seem like “just knowing.” Having been told so many times that that is what love is, who could question that feeling or choose to leave it behind?
The people (especially the children) around us see and hear the way we define love, and it shapes their own definitions. We are all a patchwork quilt of the various influences around us, and I try to take that role seriously. If I can set an example that helps the next generation seek out love that helps them grow safely, doubts, fears, warts and all, then I will have done my small part.