When we first opened up our marriage, I never considered the possibility of either of us falling in love. I know that to many this might seem preposterous (if not simply naïve), but I had a very narrow view of love. To me, love fell into three different, and distinct, categories: familial love (love for parents, siblings, children and other family connections); friendship love (I will watch your cat for you when you travel even though I don’t really like cats) and romantic love (the all-consuming, heart, body, mind and soulmate love that I have for Viktor).
Consequently, when Viktor first told me that he was in love with Justina, I was devastated because I couldn’t understand how his love for her fit into one of my categories without eclipsing his love for me. This obviously wasn’t familial love; they were having sex so it went far beyond friendship love; so it must be romantic love and thus, a replacement for the love he had for me. I tried to wrap my head around it and to make sense of how these two things could co-exist simultaneously: Viktor’s love for Justina and Viktor’s love for Jeannie. I repeatedly failed and it continued to eat at me, causing significant pain, confusion and loss.
More recently, as Viktor and I have spent significant time talking about all that has happened between us as well as between him and Justina, I am starting to expand my view of love. I realize that due to abandonment trauma, insecure attachment and the lack of unconditional love from my mother, I have been closed off to love in many ways due to fear, distrust and a lack of self-worth. As I invest the time to heal and do the work, I am slowly trying to open my heart and mind to love.
Part of the work that Viktor and I are doing has centered around the need for a shared vocabulary. We desperately want to be able to clearly communicate with one another and have the other fully understand what we mean by our words. This desire to create what I jokingly refer to as our “Family Dictionary,” has been particularly challenging when it comes to defining “love.”
In this regard, love is such a tricky word. We use it all the time… I love ice cream; I love that sweater on you; I love the feel of the sun on my skin. And, when we interact on social media, we “heart” posts, photos and comments, distilling this 4-letter word into an inconsequential signifier. Yet, on the other hand, we recognize that it is an extremely big deal when someone first says, “I love you,” to you.
So where does that leave us? Confused? Maybe. At a minimum, we are at a loss to truly distinguish what we mean by love, especially in a romantic context. Viktor and I have no doubt that we are soul mates and that our love is unique and special, but when he used the same word in connection with both Justina and me, he was unable to clearly communicate the difference.
With this experience in mind, when I first started dating Alex, I began to think about the “L” word from my perspective. But I also knew that, unlike Viktor, I do not easily love or fall in love. In fact, I was fairly confident that I was not capable of loving more than one person at a time. Moreover, I worried that if I were to let myself be fully open to this possibility, it would significantly jeopardize our marriage (and possibly my mental health). To that end, I remained hyper diligent about how much I let myself feel with Alex, carefully resisting the initial pull of New Relationship Energy.
And yet, now that we have broken up, I feel somewhat bereft at the loss of that relationship – I miss him; I miss us – and I wonder if, in fact, I did love him to some degree. Not the type of love that I share with Viktor, but some other, equally lovely, yet less intense, type of romantic love. I have sought in vain to find the right word(s) to describe it. The closest I have come is LOKE, but admittedly, although it does reflect the hierarchy I wish to denote, I find this word (an amalgamation of LOve + liKE) to be a bit too flip.
From the very beginning of my relationship with Alex, I was unable to define things; it was so different from any previous relationship I had encountered during our open marriage. At that time, I made the decision to let go of labels and simply enjoy what was, but now that these unidentified emotions still linger, I feel called once again to make sense of them. Part of it is to understand what feelings I am capable of and part of it is to have a better sense of things going forward. More specifically, if what I feel for Alex is some type of love, then I can more easily understand and accept that Viktor’s love for someone else (if similar in intensity to what I have with Alex) is NOT a threat or danger to our marriage.
In the aftermath of our respective break-ups, Viktor and I are focusing on repairing and strengthening our own relationship and love. We find ourselves struggling to make meaning and to parse out different types of love. For now, it is a moving target, but we are hopeful that we will somehow find a way to more easily designate and differentiate among the various emotional options.
Are there 50 shades of love? I don’t know, but I concede that there are certainly more nuances than the three I first described and I am committed to being more open to love in its many guises.