All About Love: New Visions is a book by bell hooks, and if you are a person who likes to think critically about your relationships, romantic, platonic, or otherwise, you need to read it. Like, now.
I will freely admit that love is a word that thoroughly intimidates me, though at the same time it’s a word some would say I overuse. I would say that it’s a term I understood how to apply to friends, and had always applied liberally to family members, but is not a term (or even a concept) I felt comfortable with when you combined it with romance or sexual affection. In that context, “love” has always felt very out of my league. This has caused problems in the past.
I know what it feels like to like someone. To be infatuated. To feel an instant sort of “click” or connection–some might call it a “spark.” I know what it is to be totally comfortable with someone. I know what it is to be overwhelmed with lust around someone. I know what it feels like to wake up next to someone and wish that my every morning started that way. I know what it feels like to snuggle into a relationship and think that I could enjoy this for a while. I just never knew if any combination of those feels added up to big words like “love.”
Enter bell hooks.
Affection is only one ingredient of love. To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. […] When we feel deeply drawn to someone, we cathect with them; that is, we invest feelings or emotion in them. That process of investment wherein a loved one becomes important to us is called ‘cathexis.’ (hooks, 4)
Mindblown is not a strong enough word for what this “cathexis” word did to me. It never occurred to me before that there could be a word for the process of becoming emotionally intimate with someone outside of the term “love.” This passage, like the book as a whole, shone a harsh light on the relationships that I’ve thrown the term “love” around in, and very few of them meet all the requirements hooks lists: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and open and honest communication.
hooks reminds us to think of love not as a feeling, but as an action. Love is a verb. It is a choice. It is a way of life.
Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions. […] I know no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become more joyous and more fulfilling. The widespread assumption that ethical behavior takes the fun out of life is false. In actuality, living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth. (hooks, 88)
Embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all the dimensions of love — “care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge” — in our everyday lives. We can successfully do this only by cultivating awareness. Being aware enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn. (hooks, 94)
To live our lives based on the principles of a love ethic (showing care, respect, knowledge, integrity, and the will to cooperate), we have to be courageous. Learning how to face our fears is one way we embrace love. Our fear may not go away, but it will not stand in the way. (hooks, 101)
hooks even addresses how I find it easier to identify and declare love in my friendships than in my romantic relationships. She puts the word into perspective on both sides.
Since we choose our friends, many of us, from childhood on into our adulthood, have looked to friends for the care, respect, knowledge, and all-around nurturance of our growth that we did not find in the family. […] Loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected. […] …friendship is the place in which a great majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community. Learning to love in friendships empowers us in ways that enable us to bring this love to other interactions with family or with romantic bonds. […] In friendship we are able to hear honest, critical feedback. We trust that a true friend desires our good. (hooks, 133-4)
A while ago, I challenged myself to treat the next committed romantic relationship I enter the same way I treat my relationship with KS. hooks says this is the right path.
When we see love as the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, revealed through acts of care, respect, knowing, and assuming responsibility, the foundation of all love in our life is the same. There is no special love exclusively reserved for romantic partners. Genuine love is the foundation of our engagement with ourselves, with family, with friends, with partners, with everyone we choose to love. While we will necessarily behave differently depending on the nature of a relationship, or have varying degrees of commitment, the values that inform our behavior, when rooted in a love ethic, are always the same for any interaction. (hooks, 136)
I have said this countless times, that my friendships do not take a backseat emotionally to my romantic relationships. That I don’t plan for them to suddenly in the future. That my closest friendships are the emotional spaces in which I see love most clearly, and that I want to model my romantic life after them. I felt like bell hooks got me like nobody I have revealed these sentiments to in real life gets me.
She goes on to recognize the feelings I’ve had that I listed at the beginning of this post and relate them to the l-word.
We can acknowledge the ‘click’ we feel when we meet someone new as just that — a mysterious sense of connection that may or may not have anything to do with love. However it could or could not be the primal connection while simultaneously acknowledging that it will lead us to love. How different things might be if, rather than saying ‘I think I’m in love,’ we were saying ‘I’ve connected with someone in a way that makes me think I’m on the way to knowing love.’ Or if instead of saying ‘I am in love’ we said ‘I am loving’ or ‘I will love.’ Our patterns around romantic love are unlikely to change if we do not change our language. (hooks, 177)
We fail at romantic love when we have not learned the art of loving. It’s as simple as that. Often we confuse perfect passion with perfect love. A perfect passion happens when we meet someone who appears to have everything we have wanted to find in a partner. […] While perfect passion provides us with its own particular pleasure and danger, for those of us seeking perfect love it can only ever be a preliminary stage in the process. We can only move from perfect passion to perfect love when the illusions pass and we are able to use the energy and intensity generated by intense, overwhelming, erotic bonding to heighten self-discovery. Perfect passions usually end when we awaken from our enchantment and find only that we have been carried away from ourselves. It becomes perfect love when our passion gives us the courage to face reality, to embrace our true selves. Acknowledging this meaningful link between perfect passion and perfect love from the onset of a relationship can be the necessary inspiration that empowers us to choose love. When we love by intention and will, by showing care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility, our love satisfies. (hooks, 178-9)
I felt both recognized by and changed by this book. It comes with my highest recommendations, y’all.