One idea she’d never entertained showed Hilary Lauren how “real love” works — and kept her from sabotaging another relationship.

I would liken my views on love prior to this year to a beaten dog racing to stay ahead of the pack of disappointment, fed-up-ness, disgust, and the last surprisingly-fast weiner dog who came nipping at my  heels, disinterest.

Then I read that love is a choice and I stopped running. Boom! Just like that. I stood still as the dust clouds settled around my ankles and assessed my view of the world upon which I stood. Then I licked my wounds and re-embarked on the path I wanted, trodding along at the pace I desired, slow enough to notice the details surrounding us all: love, love, love. I starting trying to explain it in Let Me Love Your Filthy Heart, my first article for The Good Men Project.

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I didn’t understand, when I wrote that piece, why such a phrase and a way of thinking would stick to me like the thin layer of jelly on my fingertips after eating a PB&J. It was ordinary. Not fluffy, not overly romantic. Real. The kind of real I coveted in couples who married shortly after high school, in wrinkled older spouses walking down the street, still holding hands. I had wanted “real” so badly I often wondered if I had given so much power to the fantasy relationship that I couldn’t hack it, that I sabotaged it so I could never have it for myself.

What I missed when assessing other people’s relationship was their real. I saw sugar topping the cookie, not the month-old flour involved in the baking. I saw the delectable outside they presented to the world and attempted to live by what I saw; one irresistible duo, with no flaws, no weaknesses. No wonder it never worked. At the first sign of trouble, I wept, panicked and began to mourn the loss of what would surely be next. I just knew the end was coming. I beckoned to it and created all the right circumstances for it to happen.

I viewed relationships as a cycle: infatuation, crazy-making love, annoyance slide, disinterest, then the break.

Until this morning, reading those words “Love is a Choice,” I never realized, making love a choice means you give yourself permission to make decisions, too. You know how aggravating it is to complete a series of jigsaw puzzles, only to discover that each one is missing a piece? A piece you had hidden, but forgot where you put it? I can finally understand how to hold myself accountable for what I do or don’t do in relationships, and that was the missing piece.

I had been a subconscious victim of my past relationships, “But he was like this and was angry all the time, and he was unfair and a slob.” I was spouse blaming and removing my own control.

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This is what happens when we hand the reins of our life over to another. I ceded my own power, subtracted my own vital input, and lingered on the outskirts of my partnership, forever a blamer and bystander until I changed something.

When you love you take a hard vow to be there, and the phrases come easily: “I will be there for you always, I will love you forever, I will never leave you.”

It’s what we are supposed to say, so we say it. But we don’t understand the weight of each of these statements, and the real promise we are making to our partner, who surely does not detect any hint of guesswork as we numbly blather out what is expected, what movies and Lifetime TV and rom-coms have taught us.

Why do we cry at these stupid bits of film? Because we know in the movies, in a make believe world, the love you’ve witnessed between the starring characters goes on until the end of time. But in life, if you’ve been like me, it’s never like that.

This idea that love is a choice was exactly what I needed. I immediately felt comfortable asking for what I needed, elected not to tiptoe around how I wanted to proceed. I asked for clarification, and it was granted. I asked for space and it was given, I asked for help, for a shoulder, a hug, uninterrupted no-screen time, sex, snuggles, kisses, laughter, it was all given to me as simply as lifting the lid and plucking a cookie out.

And I felt better about things because I took an active role in forming my life, our life together. I took an active role in nurturing us the way I saw we needed.

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On the flip side, I responded and anticipated in the manner I knew my other, “the Otter,” would need to be acknowledged and loved. Because he speaks a different love language than I, I dusted off the Rosetta Stone Love Languages Lesson in my head and rolled with it.

The Otter loves tangibility, his favorite candies on his flat bed-pillows, a fresh pot of coffee without asking. He requires you to know the look in his eye that means he is still hungry , but doesn’t want to inconvenience you for a snack. He must know, at any time you can find him more important than yourself, that you can pull yourself out of your own skin and jump into his. If you don’t know him well, and you have lost your Otter Manual to Happiness, you might feel a tad lost, and yes, he loves for me to exercise extra-sensory powers of loving, codes I have to decipher, but I signed on for this, I want it, and I choose it every day.

In contrast, as a love speaker, I adore it when he stops and takes my face in his hands, kisses me like I am the most precious treasure he’s ever unearthed, love it when he writes notes for my lunch and includes happy, goo-goo faces. When he says he loves me, I whirl around within myself, a dance no one else can see, the only evidence shining from my eyes. When we make time for intimacy, I strut around beside him at the Home Depot searching for duct tape, wallowing in the special knowledge I have that he and I claimed each other only 20 minutes ago, and no one else knows our secret. It’s something only we own.

He chooses me and my shedding hair on the bathroom floor that gets tangled in his bare feet. I choose him and his unfortunate habit of smelling up the laundry room with clove cigarettes, and there is no partner blaming because we both know what we need to about the other, we make the decision every day to stay in the midst of little and big misunderstandings that plague every relationship. Once and for all, ladies and gents, there is no happily ever after, and this is the best discovery I have ever made, even better than when I viewed the right way to peel a banana — a pinch from the bottom up, in case you’re wondering.

I gave him a chance to heave-ho when I got sick and pushed harder than ever in the history of our relationship to get him out the door, after all, wasn’t my illness and disability robbing him of an active life? Wasn’t I taking away his choice? Hello Backwards Thinking, yeah, I suspected that was you again making me doubt my worth…get the frack out of here.

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A curious idea, that I’m worth something to him. If he had responded and left without wanting to because I pushed hard enough I would have been depriving him of me.

It is ultimately his choice to stay, he expressed as much and  he re-expresses it each day without saying a word. When he teaches my teenage daughter, Lauren, to drive and his trying-to-be-patient voice fills the car as I smirk at them both, when he brings home new nightshirts for me to sleep in because I feel like warmed over crap so much of the time, shampoo that he picked out by test driving the sent, sniffing the bottle in the aisle, ignoring the strange looks he gets, when he fills the blue wiper juice in my car.

I don’t make him do any of those things. They are his choice and I refuse to control any methods originating from his heart. Instead, I wait to be surprised, and it is always lovely. Because he retains the control, he makes every day mind-blowing.

If I am tired because I went out of my way to get a number 17 at McDonald’s so I can see his brilliant smile and kaleidoscope eyes light up before we fall into bed, that is my choice. If I put myself out showing my love for him and need to devise a way to snatch some downtime, my choice again.

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Learning love is a choice for both people and believing two want to remain together through their un-coaxed actions healed me and changed my outlook on love permanently. It cured my abandonment issues, too — after a few too many decades — and invited me to trust again…in the gentlest way.

Challenge accepted.

Original article appeared at The Good Men ProjectReprinted with permission.

Photo: Flickr/Shinichi Sugiyama

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