In the generation of Tinder, Netflix & chill, and ghosting, it’s hard to define and identify what love is. Merriam-Webster defines love as “(1) strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; (2) attraction based on sexual desire; affection and tenderness felt by lovers; (3) affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.” However, the top definition of love on Urban Dictionary is “nature’s way of tricking people into reproducing.” With these polar opposite meanings for a word that rarely goes a day without being said, how are we supposed to know when we love? And more importantly, how are we supposed to know when that love is healthy? In honor of Valentine’s Day, I set out to find the answers.

These days, the media paints a specific picture of love: romance and sex. Every rom-com that has ever graced the big screen includes these two components. It seems simple. Two people meet and sparks fly, complications arise and are overcome, and they profess everlasting love for one another. But what about what happens after happily ever after and the credits roll? Yes, attraction is a key player in the dating game, but I’m interested in determining the difference between love in the long haul and the long con.

In my research, I came across what psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone terms “The Fantasy Bond.” Now, this sounds like something that wouldn’t be all that bad, but a fantasy bond occurs when two people replace genuine feelings of love, admiration, and passion with the routine and ritual of being in a relationship. A major identifier is the way a couple communicates, i.e., having an open mind vs. being defensive and angry. True love requires listening to your partner’s truths without shutting them down and pushing them away. As part of Dr. Firestone’s theory, other identifiers of a real relationship include being honest, having respect for independence, showing physical affection and personal sexuality, being understanding, and avoiding manipulations and controlling behaviors. While these might seem fairly obvious, apparently, we fall into these unconscious ruts where we unknowingly replace actual love with a false image of love where we’re just going through the motions of being in a relationship.

Now that we’ve determined the difference between true love and the fantasy bond, how do we make this relationship last in a healthy way? According to psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Brenner, a long-lasting relationship requires a set of factors that help bridge the gap between two individuals while maintaining their uniqueness. These factors work with the identifiers set by Dr. Firestone for a real relationship but expands on what works in the long-term.

♥ You and your partner are on the same page in terms of your basic values and life goals. You both know what you want out of life, what your common goals are, what you wish to accomplish in life, and are firmly committed to achieving these together.

♥  There is a strong sense of trust between you. You openly discuss everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is no hidden agenda and no secrets from your past.

♥  You keep your own identity within the relationship and so does your partner. This is so vital. Marriage may be a large piece of the whole pie that identifies who you are. But above all, you’re still who you are as an individual beyond your various roles in life.

♥  You spend quality time together doing things that are mutually fulfilling as well as quality time apart doing what is important to you individually.

♥  You encourage each other to grow and change. In other words, you inspire each other to be a better person.

♥  You and your partner feel safe communicating personal needs and wants. Time is set aside to discuss issues relevant to you as a couple or each of you individually. Listening carefully with undivided attention is essential to real understanding.

♥  You respect each other’s differences even if you disagree on important issues. And you are able to turn your differences into fair compromise.

♥  You share realistic expectations for the relationship, not what you wish or fantasize it should be. Remember that you’re dealing with another extraordinarily complex individual in addition to yourself. There’s enough to work with without pursuing unrealistic ideals.

♥  Each of you contributes your fair share to the relationship, whatever that happens to be. Each partner brings their best strengths and abilities for the benefit of the “team.”

♥  You and your partner honor each other’s family ties and friendships. While it’s important to set aside time for family and friends it’s also important to maintain healthy boundaries between you and your partner as a unit apart from other close relationships.

Whether you are straight, gay, bisexual, trans, or something else, we all want a little love in our lives. But love is nothing if it’s not healthy, and healthy relationships happen when two independent people agree to help each other become the best version of themselves. More than anything, love is respect. Respect for self, respect for your partner, and respect for the life you build together.

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