What Love Is Not and What Love Is

This is a collaborative work of the 50 Love Project, Rose and Carlos del Rio. 

We are now 6-months into the adventure of investigating how people build their families and communities. One of our central goals is to explore all of the ways that people love, and things that people love, that might not have occurred to us before. Along with the wide variety of healthy ways that people express and enact love, we think it’s important to address some of the damaging behaviors that happen under the guise of love.

What Love is Not

Love is not about guilt. Invoking a sense of guilt in your partner or child is not an act of love. Even though many people in the Baby Boom generation grew up in a time where invoking guilt was a common tool of parenting, using guilt to control someone’s behavior is a form of abuse (cc @Pontifex). Telling someone that you are treating them like this because you love them is not a form of love.

Love is not about wearing someone down. Berating, insulting, and annoying someone into doing what you want are not the tools of loving people. If you are trying to neg someone into interest you are abusing them. If you are sending your adult daughter repeated text messages calling her a bad mother or bad child you are committing abuse, not love.

Leveraging children is not love. Invoking, “But what about the children?” is not a form of love; it’s a form of guilt, and an attack on a person’s worth as a parent. Using children to deliver messages or restricting access to children is a form of blackmail and emotional manipulation.

Emotional blackmail is not love. Saying things like: If you loved me (fill in the blank), I won’t have sex until you (fill in the blank), You are welcome back in the family if you divorce your husband, are all attempts at control—not expressions of love. Unilaterally placing demands on how someone must behave is not an act of love, it is an act of control.

Isolation is not a form of love. Telling a person whom they can interact with, or how they can interact with people is controlling and abusive—especially if the goal is to avoid responsibility for other offenses or behavior. Telling a child that they aren’t allowed to talk to the rest of the family, or telling a partner that they can’t see a friend is not an act of love.

Threats are not love. Telling someone you will cause him or her problems if you see them or their partner is not an act of love. Threatening to isolate someone or cut them from the herd is not a form of love.

Transferring blame is not a form of love. Saying things like: you shouldn’t complain about me, my parents PHYSICALLY abused ME; you brought this on yourself; I’m doing this because of (fill in the blank), are not expressions of love, they are attempts at shaming and controlling the person.

Tolerance is not a form of love. Tolerating your children’s decisions is not a substitute for talking to them about their decisions. Tolerating that homosexuals, Muslims, and people of color exist is not a substitute for protecting their equal rights. Tolerance is the barest minimum requirement for decent behavior; it’s a neutral state, at best.

Blackmail, duress, and intimidation are not forms of love. Ignoring situations that are difficult to discuss is not a form of love. Below you can see the Wheel of Power & Control. This wheel was created to help people recognize the patterns of abuse that happen in domestic violence. This one is largely focused on peer relationships, but these patterns also are seen in parent-child dynamics.



What Love IS

Here you can see the flip side of the issue, the behaviors that we see displayed in loving relationships. Meeting all of these is a lofty goal, but this is much of what we strive for, and try to return to when we fail each other.

Love is sharing responsibility. This doesn’t mean that each person does X% of each thing, or certain things, it means that people do what needs to be done. This means that if something isn’t getting done, you ask if the person needs help or trade them one responsibility for another.

Love is negotiation. Love is a LOT of negotiation. Not just negotiation but also compromise. Love means that remembering that when there is a compromise, usually your partner didn’t get what they wanted either. Real life requires reacting to changing circumstances and moving forward together with your community (family, partner, friends, etc.). Sometimes things will go your way, sometimes you should make sure that it goes someone else’s way.

Love requires respect. Not just respect for what a person wants/needs, but also a respect for who they are. Small gifts and simple quiet moments where you let them be vulnerable, or outside their normal, and then return back can be very powerful expressions of love.

Showing trust and being trustworthy is an act of love. Carlos talked about how letting someone see your vulnerable side is a very real expression of love. Responding to another’s vulnerability with respect shows you are trustworthy. Both sides of these moments require and express deep love.

Love means sharing. This can take a variety of forms: money, food, time, sadness, joy. No matter what form we have heard it expressed as, it almost always has the same foundation: thinking about what you have that can help someone, not what they have that can help you.

Love means accountability. Examine your own actions and be accountable. Help your friends, family, and lovers see the world honestly. Judge yourself honestly. One of the best ways to show love to your partner is to recognize that you have a problem before they do. Seriously, it comes back to that vulnerability thing from earlier, “I love you and I trust you. I need your help to solve a problem I have.”

The Wheel of Equality is the flipside of the Wheel of Power and Control. These are the behaviors that healthy relationships are built upon:



Good love really comes down to stepping outside of our own comfort and taking consideration of someone else’s needs. Taking care of someone else’s needs doesn’t have to be a sacrifice – often, their needs and our own are in alignment, or there is a clear reason why their needs should come before our own (those of us with little kids know this one well). When there’s conflict or stress about it, take that step back and remind yourself that we are in this together.


– Rose and Carlos (@50LoveProject)

6 thoughts on “What Love Is Not and What Love Is”

  1. I think you make love sound a little too complicated.love should be free and unconditional,forgive and forget.

    1. The sad truth is that many people end up in toxic situations that others try to call love. I wish love was easy, but most of the time it is deep commitment.

  2. Facilitating a class with incarcerated mothers, I find many have backgrounds that reflect the horrors you listed in “not love”… and they often mistake them for love. Your list of what loving partnerships involve is excellent. May I print this for my classes?

  3. I struggle with this one when it comes to parenting. I love my son, but there are times when his lens is so far off and his understanding of things leads him to behave in such wrong ways, that he needs to get set straight. Not negotiated with.

    Sometimes when we set him straight, he feels shame, and feels guilt. We don’t tell him truth in order for him to feel this way, but sometimes that’s the natural way to feel when you’ve done something wrong.

    I hate seeing him in pain, but I also feel responsible to teach him.

    1. In parenting I think there is a line that has to be drawn. If you are talking with your son earnestly you are fine, if you are being malicious you are not. There is a difference between feeling guilty because you know you did something wrong and recognizing that someone is trying to make you feel guilty.

      Functionally I try not to use the phrase “You should be ashamed,” you can’t control someone else’s feelings, and you certainly don’t want other people to tell you how to feel. Teaching your son right from wrong means, at times, walking him through how you would have done things differently, or how you would feel in his shoes. Ultimately, he is going have to make decisions down the road without your input, he may make the same decision for different reasons. Teaching your son how to feel about a situation will lead to him having conflicts and internally dissonance between who he is and who he is told to be.

      Rose and I take the stance that feelings belong to you as a person–actions are what we are judged on. Focus on teaching your son how to think about the proper course of action. With luck that will lead him to understand why you have to take certain approaches, and that it isn’t for lack of love.

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