My God, these folks don’t know how to love—that’s why they love so easily. 
— David Herbert Lawrence

Many people want to be in relationships, without really having a clue what it is all about or what they’re all about. 

Real love is akin to getting married, having babies, or even getting a dog. Many people have some romantic fantasy about all these things without looking at the work involved or the responsibility or the commitment required. Some think more about the DJ they want at the wedding, the gurgling and happy baby, or the fun-loving puppy. They don’t think about how to live with a person every day, deal with a colicky newborn, or manage a “mouthy” puppy who keeps eating the sofa.

Each of these wonderful things has another side that you must acknowledge going in, or you will fail. Every day, couples get divorced, dogs are dropped at shelters, and cranky babies are ignored or, worse, mistreated—because the responsibility inherent in marriage, parenthood, and pet ownership has been ignored.

Being able to love and be loved for many years in a good and healthy way takes work. It takes resisting urges. It’s about making a decision not to do things that would wreck your relationship or hurt your partner—like calling someone a name, being selfish when you should help out, not acknowledging or caring about your partner’s needs, or having an affair. It includes big and little things. Love is an action, love is work, and love is adecision.

It doesn’t take work to be in a dysfunctional relationship; people do it all the time. Taking someone hostage or allowing yourself to be taken hostage is boring and predictable. It might be chaotic, destructive and dramatic, but in the end…same old same old.

To love someone, really love someone who really loves you, too, is about being a good and sane and supportive and caring partner; knowing how to understand and compromise; knowing to accept your partner for who he or she is without trying to change them.

It’s not about taking someone away from those they love. It’s not about being locked into some strange desperation with each other, hoping and praying that no one cracks the shell. Too many unhealthy relationships depend on each person convincing the other that the world is out to get one or both of them.

My books, Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There, emphasize that real love is an enlarging experience and dysfunctional love is a narrowing one. But anything that is enlarging comes with work and responsibilities—responsibility to self and to each other. A couple must support each other’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

If you’re not there yet, you can start to work on what you will and will not do to nurture yourself and your idea of what a healthy relationship is. And there are some things you can do that will almost guarantee a healthier relationship:

1. To find the right person, be the right person. Before you get back into a relationship, build your life. Finish your unfinished business. Become objective about what went wrong in your last relationship, and in the relationships before that. Do a relationship inventory and a life inventory. You must discover the patterns and habits that torpedoed previous relationships before you get into a new one. If you’re in a relationship and trying to salvage or save it, you—both of you—must figure out and heal that which has been hurting you and your relationship. If one partner changes, the other is forced to change or leave. You cannot maintain the status quo when one of you chooses to change.

2. To be the right person and to find real love, you must develop your boundaries.Know what you stand for before you have to stand for it. Is an affair a deal breaker? What else will you NOT stand for: Porn use? Pot abuse? Drunkenness? Forgetting to call? Standing you up? Not being financially stable? Not holding a job? Not being honest? You have to know this before you are tested. You have to be able to say, “If x happens, I am out of here—without argument.”

Make sure you know what would be a deal breaker for you—and make sure you break the deal if it happens. Be committed to walking away when a deal breaker breaks. If there are other things that you think deserve second and third chances, then commit to walking away the second or third time it becomes an issue. If you stay beyond that, you’re basically lying to yourself. Walk away for what you believe in. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in dysfunction again and bargaining with yourself in order to accept what you shouldn’t accept.

3. Real love communicates in a healthy way. Name calling is out. Blaming and nitpicking is out. Accusations are out. Learn to begin sentences with “I feel” or “I think” or “In my opinion,” and be with others who communicate similarly. Don’t let anyone project onto you what you are thinking or feeling. Don’t defend yourself against that which you’re not doing. There is much game-playing in dysfunctional relationships. The only way to win is not to play. Healthy relationships are about forthright and honest communication.

4. Real love requires goals and aspirations, both individually and as a couple. You have to have plans and dreams, and agree on the future. You must help each other fulfill your hopes and dreams as individuals and as a couple. Figure out what you’ve always wanted to do—and do it. Find out what your partner wants in life and out of life. Figure out, early on, if you can and will support each other in achieving everything you’ve always wanted. It is important that you figure this out early on.

5. As a prelude to finding real love, learn to be discriminating in all your relationships—with family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. Learn to make choices and not just let friendships and professional relationships “happen.” Don’t spend time with family just because they’re family. Choose to only have those in your life who are loving, respectful, honest, and open, and who care about you. Choose people who knowthat trust is earned and that once broken, it’s next to impossible to get back. Choose people who do not keep you guessing about how they feel, or how they feel about you. Choose people who are not ambivalent about you or their relationship with you.

Don’t put up with people who say, “I’m confused,” “I gotta be me,” or, “I want to be a good partner, but I don’t know how.” You get what you put up with. If you want less doubt in your life, stop putting up with it. Real love is discriminating and insists upon loving treatment no matter what.

6. Stop being a victim. Stop thinking you have no control over what happens to you. Most people stuck in unhealthy patterns (including me when I was) are stuck in a mud pit of denial, justification, and rationalization. Learn to call yourself on your own rationalizations, and stop believing the justifications that keep you stuck and “victimized.” You need to untangle yourself from any need you might have to be pitied. If you find yourself telling stories in which you were taken advantage of or someone did you wrong, and the stories are being told to generate sympathy, stop and realize that going through life as a victim is not attractive to healthy people. Take charge of yourself and what happens to you day in and day out.

7. Live with purpose. Spend some quiet time alone each day, without interruption, to think about your life and how it’s structured. Think about what you need to do to “get better” in different areas. Learn to meditate by getting quiet and relaxing. Meditation is not sitting on a pillow chanting—it’s just learning to calm down and go inward without distraction. Living purposefully is the opposite of living randomly. It’s thinking about what you’re doing when you’re doing it. It’s about not looking at your phone every 10 minutes, or mindlessly checking Facebook 200 times a day. It’s about having your head where your feet are. Look around, and see what’s going on where you are at this very minute.

Learn to be disciplined and control your urge to be tied to your phone, to dive into ice cream when you’re not happy, or to do anything without really thinking about it. It’s about doing the “tough” things, like sitting with your feelings, going to the gym, or eating healthy. Spend some time each day thinking about your impulses and mindless behaviors. and ways in which you can improve your self-control and self-discipline. Quiet time each day is so important to building a healthy life. Try to stretch it out. Set goals for building the amount of time you can spend every day in quiet meditation and purposeful action (and purposeful inaction). Having a say in everything you do and everything you don’t do is important to being healthy and being capable of giving and receiving real love. (It is also important, when you’re in a relationship, to continue to cultivate this practice and to have your own “me time” and alone time every day.)

8. Know that real love does not hurt. Yes, there are misunderstandings and upsets and disappointments in every relationship, but in healthy relationships they are not a regular happening. Real love and really loving relationships are consistent. They are not always easy, but they tend to run smoothly because everyone works at it. Love is what helps you deal with the curves that life throws at you—not what makes things more difficult. Love, real love, is support in a difficult world, not something that makes your life even harder. Real love gives each other the benefit of the doubt without being foolish about it. Pick your battles, and don’t fight over everything. Don’t be with people who turn everything into an argument or a challenge. It’s exhausting, and doesn’t need to be that way. Healthy people refuse to live that way.

9. Real love does not ask us to sacrifice that which we love. Not our interests, not our hobbies, not our friends and family. If someone is asking you to do that, it’s not healthy and not good for you. If you’re willing to do that without even being asked, it’s even worse. It’s normal to cocoon in a new relationship but after a time, you have to get back to the things and the people you love. Keep your life balanced; if you give up what you love and the people you love, you will look around one day and realize you can’t leave your relationship because you have nothing else. You may need to rework the ratios of how much time you give to each of your interests and loved ones, but it’s important that nothing (and no one) is treated as an afterthought.

10. The most important thing to know about real love is that love is an action from you and to you. Act it and insist on it. Every single day, whether in a relationship or not, you must affirm that love is what you do, not what you say, and you must insist upon it with everyone in your life. If it’s a “non-love” relationship (i.e. professional), respect is the action and you must be treated with respect in all your relationships.

If people understood what real love entailed they would be less inclined to go in and out of relationships in which they know they will experience anything but love. Use your time out of a relationship wisely, to build what you need to be in a healthy relationship. And then, go out and build it.

Written by Susan J Elliott JD, M.Ed.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today