What Is This “Love” Thing All About? (Part 1)

This will be a two part post. Part one will consist of a repost/reblog of an advice column question and the answer that was given in that column. Part two (which will appear sometime in the next few days) will consist of my own thoughts on the question and the answer that was given.

The original advice-seeking question and the answer given can be found here


and here

http://www.amazon.com/Tiny-Beautiful-Things-Advice-Sugar/dp/0307949338 (starting on page 13)

(The copy of Dear Sugar’s/Cheryl Strayed’s advice in the book seems to differ only slightly—only a few words hear and there from what I can tell—from the advice that originally appeared in her online column.)

DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #41:

Like an Iron Bell

By Sugar

June 17th, 2010

Dear Sugar,

My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were too immature to get married back in the eighties and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.

But that’s in the past. I’ve had a few relationships in the three years since the split. One casual, one serious and one current. There was no issue with the casual one: I was up front about not wanting to settle down so soon. The second one started out casual and I actually broke it off when she got serious, but I couldn’t stay away and promised to consider long term plans with her. I also told her I loved her after a year of avoiding that word, the definition of which I don’t really understand. Predictably, I balked when it came time to piss or get off the pot and I lost both a lover and a friend in her.

Now I’ve again met a woman with whom I click very nicely. We have been dating and being intimate for about four months. She’s going through a bitter divorce and wasn’t looking for a commitment. That sounded perfect, but in reality neither of us was interested in dating more than one person, so here we are in an exclusive relationship.

She sounds like she’s falling in love with me, though she won’t say the word. I am avoiding that word as well, but clearly we’re both thinking it. I’m afraid of saying it out loud, as my experience shows that word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. I see people toss that word around so lightly, as if it were a hug between friends.

I guess my question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you? And what is this “love” thing all about? Good luck to you in this challenge.



Dear Johnny,

The last word my mother ever said to me was “love.” She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the “I” or the “you,” but it didn’t matter. That puny word has the power to stand on its own.

I wasn’t with my mom when she died. No one was. She died alone in a hospital room and for so many years it felt like three quarters of my insides were frozen solid because of that. I ran it over and over it in my mind, the series of events and choices that kept me from being beside my mom in her last hours, but thinking about it didn’t do a thing. Thinking about it was a long dive into a bucket of shit that didn’t have a bottom.

I would never be with my mother when she died. She would never be alive again. The last thing that happened between us would always be the last thing. There would be the way I bent to kiss her and the way she said, “Please, no,” when I got close because she couldn’t any longer bear the physical pain of people touching her. There would be the way that I explained I’d return in the morning and the way she just barely nodded in response. There would be the way I got my coat and said “I love you,” and the way she was silent until I was almost out the door and she called, “love.” And there would be the way that she was still lying in that bed when I returned the next morning, but dead.

My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.

I suppose you think this has nothing to do with your question, Johnny, but it has everything to do with my answer. It has everything to do with every answer I have ever given to anyone. It’s Sugar’s genesis story. And it’s the thing my mind kept swirling back to over these five weeks since you wrote to me and said you didn’t know the definition of “love.”

It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep. The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.

But before we get to that, I want to say this, darling: I sort of love you.

I love the way you wrote to me with your searching, scared, knuckle-headed, nonchalant, withholding dudelio heart on full display. I love that you compelled me to write “dudelio,” even though—on top of the fact that “dudelio” isn’t a word—I am morally opposed to the entire dude and dude-related lexicon. I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening when I was lying in bed with my man and he was reading “The New Yorker” and I was reading “Brain, Child,” I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so then my man put his magazine on his chest and asked what I was thinking about and I told him and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer to you in my head for so long that I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up and walked through the house and got a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table in the dark and looked out the window at the wet street and my cat came and jumped up on the table and sat there beside me and after a while I turned to her and said, “What will I tell Johnny?” and she purred.

I always knew what I would tell you. Not knowing wasn’t exactly the problem. What I was mulling over is how I’d get at the layers of things your letter implies to me: the questions you didn’t ask that stand so brightly behind the questions you did.

You aren’t afraid of love, sweet pea. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.

And in your case, it will be. You asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.

I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter.

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in a long-time monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word love are leftover from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

A proclamation of love is not inherently “loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken.” The terms you agree to in any given relationship are connected to, but not defined by whether you’ve said “I love you” or not. I love you can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful and I’m going to do everything in my power to be your partner for the rest of my life. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m in transition right now, so let’s go easy on the promises and take it as it comes. It can mean I think you’re groovy and beautiful but I’m not interested in a commitment with you, now or probably ever, no matter how groovy or beautiful you continue to be.

The point is, Johnny: you get to say. You get to define the terms of your life. You get to negotiate and articulate the complexities and contradictions of your feelings for this woman. You get to describe the particular kind of oh-shit-I-didn’t-mean-to-fall-in-love-but-I-sorta-did love you appear to have for her. Together, the two of you get to come to grips with what it means to have an exclusive, nicely clicking, non-committed commitment in the midst of her bitter divorce and in the not-too-distant wake of your decades-long marriage.

Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.

So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.


. . . . . . .


What advice would you have given Johnny?


About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "Dear Sugar", "Tiny Beautiful Things", Cheryl Strayed, Courage, Death, Honesty, Intimate Relationships, therumpus.net, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What Is This “Love” Thing All About? (Part 1)

  1. Cat Forsley says:

    ……….. Tell her you love love love – search you own heart – before and then if there is no question because the answer is Love – then say it ……….

    • John says:

      Hello Cat,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. 🙂 And that is the question–what does this love thing mean? Johnny is clearly having a problem with it–he doesn’t have the clarity and he perhaps lacks the character and maturity to actually love another. He “loves” very selfishly and blindly. And so searching his own heart may not be very helpful to Johnny, because Johnny may not know what his “heart” is or he may be as confused about that as he is about “love.” He may well say to you, Cat, in response to what you wrote, “What is this heart thing all about.” Johnny seems fairly much in the dark.

      So what should he search his heart for in particular? And if the answer is Love–and Johnny just asked what is this love thing all about–how can that be made clearer to him? What is Love? If the answer to “what is this love thing all about?” is “Love,” then what does that mean? Johnny is lost and would likely need more to go on than that. He’s struggling. He needs to know what love is, he needs some ideas, some insights, some advice, some story, some guidance, that shows him what love actually is. . . . As in “This is what Love is, Johnny, and this is what Love is not, Johnny” . . . and then examples of what Love is or might mean would be spelled out for him, and examples of what Love is not (telling a woman you love her because you’ve been dating her and sleeping with her for a while and you’re trying to take things to the nest level, and so you think telling her you love her is the way to do it, is not an act of Love, it’s an act of ignorance) would also need to be spelled out to him. I think that’s what Johnny is asking, and what is needed for Johnny, and is what he would likely respond well to. He’s confused, he’s looking for someone to help clarify things for him and spell out for him what Love is and is not.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting, Cat.

      Warmest regards,


  2. Pingback: What Is This “Love” Thing All About? (Part 1) | What Is Real True Love? | Love Advice

  3. There are just too many things I’d like to say to Johnny and not enough time but it wouldn’t matter what I said, unless he discovers for himself, no words are going to open him up but I would say one thing here and now….why enter any relationship before you are prepared to love? Stop using people Johnny.

    • John says:

      Hello Leanne,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment as well. 🙂

      And as a writer and a thinker, my main currency is words. Much of what I write and share here are “essays” or “attempts”–my attempts at either better articulating or clarifying something for myself, or my attempt at better reminding myself of something I already know. But sometimes my posts are also attempts as well at trying to compress and compact whatever insight or wisdom I may have into strings of words, trying to string words together in such a way that they actually matter to the reader, that they actually make a difference–a profound difference. I do tend to go on and on in my writing, and that’s more indicative of the level of detail in my thinking–that I am seeing some sort of difference and I’m trying to better clarify it or finepoint it for myself. But at other times–and certainly in real life–I do believe in the potential power of words to potentially open people up, to stop them (some of them) dead in their self-absorbed unthinking little tracks.I do believe that discoveries we make can be passed on to others in some way and serve to goad them towards making their own similar discovery. That is why I love quotes and aphorisms and excerpts–places where I’ve found something so well stated and articulated, and done so in a very condensed and highly potent fashion–for those with ears to hear, of course, as the saying goes. But there are even words and quotes, et cetera, that can even help people develop ears to hear. That’s part of the gig when you’re a writer and thinker and teacher at one’s core.

      Thanks again for reading, Leanne, and for commenting. 🙂

      Warmest regards,


  4. biologymad says:

    This is a question I’ve been wondering about myself- how do I know I truly love someone? In my past relationships I really thought that I was truly in love, & would have no hesitation in saying ‘I love you’. But now I’ve been discovering that my understanding of love was very incomplete, & that it’s very easy to convince yourself you really love someone, when really the relationship is more about yourself. I guess you need to really look deeply into your heart, your motives, your desires, etc. to know whether or not you truly love someone. You need to ask yourself whether your bigger desire is to receive love or to give love; whether your happiness or the other’s happiness is more important to you. The bible tells us that true love is laying down our lives for another, so we should consider whether we pour out our lives in love for another, & even be willing to die for him/her. I still don’t know at what ‘level’ our love should be at before saying ‘I love you’ though. I don’t think there’s a threshold as to how much love is enough love, as love is as limitless as God Himself. So how can we determine at what point we know we truly love someone? I look forward to reading more of your blog posts :).

    • John says:

      Ah . . . when to say “I love you” to another human being. Great question, Bekki! I have a short answer, and I’m happy to share it, if you want.

      Short answer, part I: say “I love you” when you are very clear by precisely what you mean with that phrase and with what you want or are intending to communicate with that phrase.

      Most people are anything but precise and clear about what they mean when they say “I love you” to another human being. The phrase is nebulous, and is often said because it seems like it’s something that should be said at a certain time in a relationship, or because the person wants to feel what it feels like to say that phrase, or because they want to hear it said back to them, et cetera. There are tons of reasons why people say “I love you,” and most of the time people are not clear about why they are saying it or what they mean by it.

      This leads me to part II of my short answer: Say “I Love you” when the love in “I Love you” can be capitalized, when it means something more than a feeling (unless you want to convey that you feel love for him, in which case, be clear about that). Say “I love you” when you know the I in “I love you” well enough to know what your capacities as a human being are in terms of what you stand for, what you believe in, your own character, motivations, and your ability to keep promises and not succumb to temptations, laziness, fear. And say “I love you,” when you know the You well enough as well–when you know what your partner stands for, aspires to, what he values, will fight for, his character, principles, the type of person he is in difficult times or when he gets jostled by life or by others, et cetera. (Thanks for the question, Bekki 🙂 this will probably morph into a post that I will put up at sometime in the near future 🙂 “When To Say ‘I Love You’ “)

      Bekki, you wrote, ” I guess you need to really look deeply into your heart, your motives, your desires, etc. to know whether or not you truly love someone.”

      When it comes to love, *everyone* needs to look inside their heart, as well as soul and conscience, and really objectively and honestly observe themselves, and question themselves and pay attention to their own behaviors, patterns, motivations, expectations, et cetera. Love is not easy. Nor is it easy to be a self-aware sentient being conscious (at some level) of its own mortality. Love and work and death are fundamentals–and biggies–of the human experience. How best and morally to earn a living? What does it mean to truly Love another? What does it mean to truly be loved by another? And is it even possible for two human beings to truly love each other? These are huge questions that each human being ought to ask and try deeply to answer (an answer that no doubt will evolve over time with the accumulation of new learning and more and more life experiences, being exposed to different books, ideas, philosophies, spiritual traditions, et cetera). Some other great questions are: Who am I? What really matters in life? What do I stand for? What am I willing to die for? These are crucial essential questions, in my opinion, that every human being ought to ask him- or herself and really think on. They’re questions that are part and parcel of living an examined life. so to me, these questions are anything but impractical and speculative: rather, they are fundamental to deciding / discovering (I think both words apply) who we are. And if we don’t ask these questions and think on them, then we tend to live like falling leaves–we tend to live unreflective, reactive, surfacy lives.

      And one of the biggest questions to ask in life, in my opinion, is: What is Love?

      But most people tend not to ask it until they’ve gotten the heartbreak and or been betrayed or rejected, or lost someone.

      So good on you, Bekki, for asking such questions as you did above in your comment and at such a young age. They are really good questions, in my opinion!

      I hope this finds you well. Warmest regards,


      • biologymad says:

        Thanks for your reply & for the encouragement :). Yeah you make a good point; it’s important to really know both yourself & the other person. It can be all too easy to say ‘I love you’ even if you don’t really know the other person all that well. People may complain that their love has gone because the other person has changed, but maybe they’ve simply shown their true colours… Take care, Bekki.

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