Usually we imagine that true love will be intensely pleasurable and romantic, full of love and light. In truth, true love is all about work. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wisely observed: “Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in my life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure was more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work …” The essence of true love is mutual recognition – two individuals seeing each other as they really are. We all know that the usual approach is to meet someone we like and put our best self forward, or even at times a false self, one we believe will be more appealing to the person we want to attract. When our real self appears in its entirety, when they good behaviour becomes too much to maintain or the masks are taken away, disappointment comes. All too often individuals feel, after the fact – when feelings are hurt and hearts are broken – that it was a case of mistaken identity, that the loved one is a stranger. They saw what they wanted to see rather than what was really there.

True love is a different story. When it happens, individuals usually feel in touch with each other’s core identity. Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide. We are known. All the ecstasy that we feel emerges as this love nurtures us and challenges us to grow and transform. Describing true love, Eric Butterworth writes: “True love is a peculiar kind of insight through which we see the wholeness which the person is – at the same time totally accepting the level on which he now expresses himself – without any delusion that the potential is a present reality. True love accepts the person who now is without qualifications, but with a sincere and unwavering commitment to help him achieve his goals of self-unfoldment – which we may see better than he does.” Most of the time, we think that love means just accepting the other person as they are. Who among us has not learned the hard way that we cannot change someone, mold them and make them into the ideal beloved we might want them to be. Yet when we commit to true love, we are committed to being changed, to being acted upon by the beloved in a way that enables us to be more fully self-actualised. This commitment to change is chosen. It happens by mutual agreement. Again and again in conversations the most common vision of true love I have heard shared was one that declared it to be “unconditional.” True love is unconditional, but to truly flourish it requires an ongoing commitment to constructive struggle and change.

bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions