Love in practice

Love in Conversation

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bell hooks, among love’s greatest theorists, asserts that “the word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun,” but “we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” Love (of all kinds) is more than a feeling, she says. It’s an action, a practice, an ongoing commitment — one that, in our experience, looks different for different people.

Sonnet: My own default mode of loving is effusive: hands and wordsy. Next to someone I care about, I itch to blurt praise, tip my head onto their shoulder, rest a hand on their leg. One of our close friends always says, “You know we’ve reached the good kind of tipsy when Sonnet is going around kissing everyone on the cheek.”

I’ve never felt like the scope or frequency of my affection cheapened it. It always comes from a place of genuine tenderness, of reverence for connection. 

But I’ve been known to let bursts of affection stand in for the committed practice of love. I’ve dashed off and left a roommate in my wake for the fifth morning in a row, having neglected to make time for a real conversation all week, expecting my brisk, imploring “I love yous” and the kisses I drop on the top of her head to sustain our connection. 

Madeleine: There is never any day that I doubt how deeply Sonnet cares for me. Her love is not always perfect, but it is generous. Love pours out of Sonnet: She affirms relentlessly, verbally, soothing any worry that what I do is wrong or embarrassing. Even on her bad days, she spares a moment for a tight good-morning hug or a parting kiss on the cheek.   

This love, in all its genuine warmth, is intoxicating at first (and even still, three years later). 

But while I can reciprocate it, affection is not my instinctive mode of loving. Mine is quieter, subtler. 

It looks like this: On my way upstairs with a cup of coffee, I peek my head around my housemate’s half-open door. She is leaning toward a mirror, dabbing sap green eye shadow on her lids. I ask her how she is and she sighs, turning those big eyes to face me. 

Any looming assignment or agenda is displaced in my mind by this expression, and I kick her door a little more open. “What’s up?” 

We talk for the next 10, 20, 30 minutes, unraveling whatever has exasperated, stressed or saddened her. When one of us is inevitably summoned by some buzzing notification or impending deadline, we hug and promise to continue talking later. And later we do. 

This is what my love promises: I will be here. Though it’s sometimes punctuated by an “I love you” or a squeeze, that is not the meat of it. It is the time, the attentive interest. This is why, maybe, my bed has lately functioned as a plopping place, where housemates enter and spread out, seeking company or comfort. 

That promise is easy to keep, sometimes, when a love is new and exciting, or when my schedule is relatively clear. And sometimes it is not: I will overpromise, pledge my time to too many people and pursuits. I’ll run from class to work to distracted cafe meetups, and each minute of my time given feels like something given away. In the worst of these moments, I will start ignoring all phone calls and canceling all plans. 

Because the way I love is relatively quiet, this shifting of attention feels loud. Suddenly, time spent elsewhere feels like a rejection, a broken promise. When I do (inevitably) need to reassure those I love that I love them, I try to do it in a way that they’ll understand. This is when I look to Sonnet, and others who love warmly and overtly. I hug and kiss and lean; I tell them I love them. 

Sonnet: It takes me by surprise, still, how utterly loved I feel when Madeleine sets her tasks aside and looks right at me, really listening, for however long it takes to hear me out. She calls this a subtle form of love, but I think it’s huge, one of the most powerful I’ve known. Sometimes, despite all the affection and all the words at my disposal, I’m at a loss for how to reciprocate it. 

With time, though, I’ve learned to integrate my instinctive modes of loving with other people’s love languages. Madeleine has taught me to listen, to stand back and hold space for whatever comes up. 

One of our housemates feels most loved when the kitchen is clean, takes it as a personal affront when the couch cushions are askew. I’m not particularly bothered by a bit of mess: Crumbs, for me, are a sweet confirmation that someone lives here and ate toast off the counter last night. But in the name of love, I’ve made it a habit to sweep my crumbs dutifully into the sink.

I still blurt “I love you” a lot, still drop lots of kisses on the tops of my friends’ heads. I still don’t think repetition diminishes their power. But I’ve expanded the range of ways I enact and communicate my love beyond my knee-jerk effusiveness, to match what makes my friends feel loved. 

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The ways we love instinctively — Sonnet’s gushing pronouncements and vigorous graspings of hands, Madeleine’s consistent, unjudging attentiveness — are often the things that initially draw us to each other. 

But, as hooks reminds us, it’s not enough just to feel love on our end, to let it spill out in the ways that come naturally to us. When we decide to love someone actively, we commit to learning what makes them feel loved and adjusting our own behaviors accordingly. We commit to building a consistent practice of love across various modes: making time when we’re not sure we have it, tidying the living room when we’re not sure it needs it, leaving extra coffee in the pot. 

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]