How to Know It’s Real Love

In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare’sKing Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only “I love you as meat loves salt.” The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. “All along,” he cries, “it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!” The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).

This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we’re making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn’t cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with. Real love, real commitment, does the same thing. 

Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are “meat loves salt” commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive.

1. I can live without you, no problem.
“I can’t live,” wails the singer, “if living is without you.” It sounds so tragically deep to say that losing your lover’s affections would make life unlivable—but have you ever been in a relationship with someone whose survival truly seemed to depend on your love? Someone who sat around waiting for you to make life bearable, who threatened to commit suicide if you ever broke up? Or have you found yourself on the grasping side of the equation, needing your partner the way you need oxygen? The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn’t love; it’s desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner’s needs.

The statement “I can’t survive without you” reflects not adult attraction but infancy, a phase when we really would have died if our caretakers hadn’t stayed close by, continuously anticipating our needs. The hunger for total nurturing usually means we’re in the middle of a psychological regression, feeling like abandoned infants who need parenting now, now, now! If this is how you feel, don’t start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. The “I can’t live without you” syndrome ends when we learn to care for ourselves as tenderly and attentively as a good mother. At that point, we’re ready to form stable, lasting attachments that can last a lifetime. “I can live without you” is an assurance that sets the stage for real love. 

2. My love for you will definitely change.
Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we’ve established some measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there’s no possibility of loss. It’s understandable, then, that the promise “My love for you will never change” is a hot seller. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a relationship than shore it up.

The reason is that everything—and everyone—is constantly changing. We age, grow, learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests, and drop old ones. And when two individuals are constantly in flux, their relationship must be fluid to survive. Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true. A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible. Infatuation relaxes into calm companionship, then flares again as we see new things to love about each other. In times of trouble and illness, obligation may feel stronger than attraction—until one day we realize that hanging in there through troubled times has bonded us more deeply than ever before. Like running water, changing love finds its way past obstacles. Freezing it in place makes it fragile, rigid, and all too likely to shatter.

3. You’re not everything I need.
I’m a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I’m puzzled by lovers who claim that their romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills. Trying to get all this input from one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a couple believes “We must fulfill all of each other’s needs,” each becomes exhausted by the effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.

It amazes me how often my clients’ significant others feel threatened when the clients revive childhood passions or take up new hobbies. I encourage people to bring their spooked spouses to a session so we can discuss their fears. The hurt partners usually come in sounding something like this: “How come you have to spend three hours a week playing tennis (or gardening or painting)? Are you saying I’m not enough to keep you happy?” The healthiest response to such questions is “That’s right, our relationship isn’t enough to make me completely happy—and if I pretended it were, I’d stunt my soul and poison my love for you. Ever thought about what you’d like to do on your own?” Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn’t strengthen a relationship. Mutually supporting each other’s personal growth does.

4. I won’t always hold you close.
There’s a thin line between a romantic statement like “I love you so much, I want to share my life with you until death do us part” and the lunatic-fringe anthem “I love you so much that if you try to leave me, I’ll kill you.” People who say such things love others the way spiders love flies; they love to capture them, wrap them in immobilizing fetters, and drain nourishment out of them at peckish moments. This is not the kind of love you want.

The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the beloved free to make his or her own choices. How you use the word make is also a tip-off. When you hear yourself saying “He makes me feel X” or “He made me do Y,” you’re playing the victimized, trussed-up fly. Even more telling are sentences like “I’ve got to make him see that he’s wrong” or “I’ll hide what I really think because it would make him angry.” You are not the victim but the crafty spider, withholding and using manipulation to control your mate’s feelings and actions. Either strategy means that someone is being held too close, wrapped in spider silk.

Getting out of this sticky situation is simple: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Begin by taking responsibility for your own choices—including the choice to obey the spider man who may have you in his thrall. Then communicate your real feelings, needs, and desires to your partner, without trying to force the reaction you want. If your relationship can’t thrive in the clear light of honesty, it is better to get out of it than to sink further into manipulation and control.

5. You and I aren’t one.
Perhaps you are neither a spider nor a fly but a chameleon who morphs to match the one you love. Or you may date chameleons, choosing partners who conform to your personality. Either way, you’re not in a healthy relationship. In fact, you’re not in a relationship at all.

I used to tune in so acutely to my loved ones’ wants and needs that I literally didn’t know my own. This denial of self ultimately turned into resentment, poisoning several close relationships. Then—once burned, twice shy—I went briefly to the opposite extreme. I found myself having a lot of lackluster lunches with folks who hung on my every word and agreed with everything I said. Narcissistic I may be, but Narcissus I’m not; hanging out with a human looking-glass, no matter how flattering, left me lonely.

If you’re living by the “We are one” ideal, it’s high time you found out how terrific love for two can be. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn’t go. Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you’re accustomed to disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you tend to dominate, you’ll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person rather than a human mirror.


Buddha once said that just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom. There’s no essential difference between real love and enlightenment. While many people see commitment as a trap, its healthy versions actually free both lovers, bring out the flavor of their true selves, and build a love that is satisfying, lasting, and altogether delicious.

28 replies
  1. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I used to feel so dependent on my partner that I had the impression he was my employer: my role was to fulfill his needs, and who cares about mine – in any case, as he pointed out once, neither of us had the faintest idea what my needs were.
    When I realized I was in fact not dependent on him, our relationship improved dramatically. For the first time, I discovered that it’s great to have him around!
    The cultural myth of romantic relationship (the can’t live without you kind) is really heavy BS.

  2. Carole
    Carole says:

    Most excellent wisdom, Martha. I see many of the unhealthy choices I’ve made in the past in what you’ve written, and am working on becoming centered within myself before I venture out again to choose a partner. Perhaps now I can use these five pearls to remind me to remain aligned with my own integrity, and allow myself to trust that this will be enough for someone to love me genuinely.


  3. Jhon
    Jhon says:

    While I appreciate this list, it is long. The simple answer to the question, “How do you know it’s real love?”, is, “When you don’t have to ask the question at all.”

    • Reynard
      Reynard says:

      “When you don’t have to ask that question at all.”

      Interesting point because this assumes that you will never have doubts – or let me put that more specifically — you will never have the need to reassess your feelings and actions. I think asking this some time during the relationship helps one think if his commitment to that other person is based on true love and his actions bespeak this. I think, if one never asks this question, he will just be blindly offering emotions or commitment to someone. One might not ask about it, but does not mean he loves.

  4. Sheryl Shields
    Sheryl Shields says:

    If only I knew this as a teen. The good part is that I’m now free to love and be loved in just this way. Thanks Martha for helping validate my desire for a romantic relationship that’s honest and authentic and totally free. What an amazing feeling that produces. I will be sharing this will all my single and married friends. It’s the only way to live and love!

  5. Harleigh Quinn
    Harleigh Quinn says:

    The buddha also gained all of his insights on love and marriage from hinduism (ironically, in his rebellion against the brahmins that had him leave his entire family high and dry so her could “follow his bliss”, and try to come back 50 years later as though nothing ever happened….pretty much narcissism, really, which is why I subscribe to the shambala lineage of mahayana buddhism instead)

    These beliefs came from Shiva, whom was such a devoted husband and lover he cut off the head of his own son (whom he did not know was his son, Ghanesh) and had to replace his son’s head, which he had already destroyed, with the head of an elephant.

    In other words, nearly everything listed above is one hundred percent AGAINST those beliefs.

    I really wished people were more versed in the lineage before attempting to incorrectly utilizing it to support their narrow view.

    Buddhism feels the husband and wife ARE one, just as it feels ALL are “one”.

    If you are not holding your lover close they are at arms length and that means they could be ANYONE.

    I can live without you, in today’s narcissistic society, usually precedes a divorce, so unless that is the direction one wants that advice to go, it should definitely be either looked at or re-worded.

    Taking up new hobbies is fine, as long as it is not at the expense of either significant other, whether it be financially or emotionally.
    In today’s society it seems that is how it is usually undertaken though, something better illustrated here:

    “This culture has designed acceptable justifications to continue acting like a child and not have to be an adult. I understand the appeal. I understand the power you might feel upon discovering such an advanced social technology. But it’s not worth it. Whenever you hear yourself start to think “my truth,” please go ahead and punch yourself in the face. Whenever you feel pulled to take a class or workshop or engage in a journaling exercise to “discover your truth,” I urge you: don’t do it.”

    And passions may change, but love definitely should not (see “arm’s length statement)

    This is the type of advice that usually destroys relationships, rather than mends them, as it did mine and countless others I know.

    Please, I implore you, stop attempting to advise others with not very well understood new age platitudes.

    It is causing more harm than good.

  6. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    You and I aren’t one. Hmmm. Yeah, that’s true on the ego/personality level, but the more I focus on our ONENESS in spirit the more of an easy flow there is in my relationship. I always try to remember to look just beyond his physical being and picture a light that is his true self. I focus on how the light of his true self merges and is indistinguishable from the light of my true self. How can there be any division of light? Whenever I do this I don’t have to say anything and we both start to feel very bonded in a healthy way, not in a clingy needy way. All our tension melts away, he becomes very receptive to whatever I have to say, I become very receptive to whatever he has to say, we end up laughing a lot, problems get solved easily and the love just keeps growing between us. So I would change #5 to: You and I are ONE just as we are also ONE with everyone else. Nothing but ONENESS exists. That’s REAL LOVE.

  7. AnitaMac
    AnitaMac says:

    Very impactful! A friend sent this to me as we were discussing our respective lives. We spoke of what a partner finds attractive in us when we first start to date, how that is changed by the relationship and the ensuing disappointment when you are no longer that person!
    Luckily, life is an adventure as well as a process…we can all learn and grow…you have given me many things to think about….thanks for the insightful thoughts – I will enjoy thinking about them over the next few days…

  8. Maria
    Maria says:

    That is a great article! But from the other side if one can apply this stuff, it could seem that 2 persons are just completely indifferent to eath other.

  9. Lupita
    Lupita says:

    I am looking for my lastlive partner I have, but I want him, and I haven’t find it. I really feel I want somebody to be to be with. Shoued I suscribe to a Internet club for singles?

  10. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    It all makes sense but still leaves me so confused. Being married to the father of my children but clearly, confirmed even more after reading this article, not to the “right” man… A good man… but not the “right one.” What to do? What to do??????

  11. myat maw min
    myat maw min says:

    My gf don’t care me after 1 year realationship.she pay attention to her friends n don’t care me.she end my call whenever her Fri call her even I m crying

  12. Sam
    Sam says:

    The saddest thing about our society is that we all have an unrealistic expectation of love from when we were children. We expect it to be like a fairy tale where two people meet under a set of circumstances and instantly fall in love and are connected, when in fact this ideal is misleading and most likely the reason for so many relationships that fail.
    In most relationship ships people try to get from their partner everything they have expected to get and measure their partners against this fairy tale ideal. This leads to disappointment and eventually failing of the relationship. In order to have a successful relationship that is ever lasting we must all realise that we are all individuals with our own needs and desires and they do not always conform with what society has told us should be our needs and desires. Society tells us to find the “one” get married, have children , buy a big house and live happily ever after. But for most people this doesn’t bring true happiness nor is it a reflection of true love. By understanding our selves first and separating ourselves from society’s expectation we will be able to understand life more, understand love more and have a better chance at real happiness rather then the fabrication we have been given.

  13. Paul
    Paul says:

    Well today finding real love is like trying to win the lottery which the odds are against many of us unfortunately since the times today are nothing at all like the old days when it was so much easier the way that our family members had it which today is a totally different story. Most women are very extremely picky when it comes to meeting someone since they usually want the best of all and will never settle for less. Most women do expect so much these days which does make it very difficult for many of us good men very seriously looking for love now when years ago both men and women in those days accepted one another for who they were which really did make it easy back then. Now that many women have a career today making a six figure income which made them much more spoiled and very selfish altogether since most women will never go with a man that makes much less money than they do since they usually want the rich man today anyway. So this is the real reason why many of us men are still single today when we really shouldn't be.

  14. Paul
    Paul says:

    Today unfortunately no such thing at all like the old days when it certainly was much easier finding real true love back then.

  15. Erin
    Erin says:

    Unfortunately, people want someone else to bring to them the things they feel they are missing in their lives. You should better yourself first, and love yourself first and you won't rely on your partner for emotional completeness.
    Great article!

  16. S.A Harrison
    S.A Harrison says:

    How I Got My Ex back.I'm from England, My husband and I have been married for about 7 yrs now. We were happily married with two kids, a boy and a girl. 3 months ago, I started to notice some strange behavior from him and a few weeks later I found out that my husband is seeing someone else. He started coming home late from work, he hardly care about me or the kids anymore, Sometimes he goes out and doesn't even come back home for about 2-3 days. I did all I could to rectify this problem but all to no avail. I became very worried and needed help. As I was browsing through the internet one day, I came across a website that suggested that Dr Mack can help solve marital problems, restore broken relationships and so on. So, I felt I should give him a try. I contacted him and told him my problems and he told me what to do and i did it and he did a spell for me. 28 hours later, my husband came to me and apologized for the wrongs he did and promise never to do it again. Ever since then, everything has returned back to normal. I and my family are living together happily again.. highly recommend Dr Mack, he is Powerful and really love spell caster. If you have any problem contact him and i guarantee you that he will help you. He will not disappoint you. Email him at: dr_mack@ yahoo .com

  17. lilin
    lilin says:

    Help me say a very Big Thank you to ( GREAT MUTABA ) for helping me cast a love Spell that return back my husband to me and save my marriage, if you need his help search is name on net and contact him he is a great love spell caster


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