How I Discovered That Love Is More Than Just A Feeling

by Zara Barrie

I used to think ~love~ was this elusive, magical thing, a mind-altering substance we're completely powerless to.

I used to think love was a drug that no one is safe from becoming wildly addicted to.

I used to think it was love that drove the masses to do crazy, irrational, sometimes destructive things.

I used to think love could be felt in an instant. In a heartbeat. You know, the whole "I caught her eye from across the dimly lit bar and that was it. I knew it" rhetoric.

I used to think love was a drug that no one is safe from becoming wildly addicted to.

Mainly, I thought we had no choice in who we fell in love with. It was almost as if love was one of those unpreventable diseases that doesn't discriminate. It can just happen out of blue, and a totally healthy girl can become infected and fall in love.

I realize, now, that I was tragically wrong and misguided about all of it.

Love is far more than just a feeling. Love is made up of so many different components: respect, cohesive lifestyles and timing, just to name a few.

But the feeling that makes us feel drunk off our lover's scent? The feeling that makes us animalistic, fueling us with the desire to rip our clothes off in the middle of the street and start fucking the person we're dating? The feeling that makes our brains turn to mush and our hearts feel like their pounding so loudly the next door neighbors can hear it's THUMP, THUMP, THUMP?

Yeah, those feelings aren't love. My bad.

That's just chemistry — sexual attraction. Those are two very important ingredients in the recipe of love, but those are just two ingredients out of at least 30.

Love is far more than just a feeling. Love is made up of so many different components.

Sexual attraction is so powerful, it makes sense we confuse it for love, especially if you're like me, a naturally depressed person, who's always looking to feel a little bit elevated.

Since I was a kid, I've always been looking for a way to get a little high, to feel a little better and to get a little dopamine fix.

Let's talk about dopamine. When we're first in the throes of a crush, our brains release a feel-good hormone: a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Every time we think about a crush (something that makes us happy), dopamine is released, and we get that nice little dopamine-induced buzz.

So our thoughts keep circling back to our crush to keep the high going. And who doesn't like to feel a euphoric buzz?

I was always obsessed with finding this 'love' feeling.

Naturally, being a sort of melancholy entity who's low on dopamine, I was always obsessed with finding this "love" feeling that movies described as more mind-blowing and intoxicating than any drug on the market.

I first felt it at a pretty young age. I was 15 and was in Boston visiting my older brother with my family. We were at this super trendy restaurant, and I felt very cool and grown up sipping on the bubble-gum pink Cosmopolitan my sister ordered underage me on the sly.

I was wearing a black, sheer t-shirt, had cut up fishnet stockings and turned them into sleeves. My long black hair hung all the way down to the zipper of my pin-striped pants.

My arms were bedazzled with clanky, silver bracelets, and my winged eyeliner was so dramatic, it surpassed the edges of my eyebrows.

I looked like a gothic, teen prostitute, but I felt hot, baby.

As I excused myself to the bathroom to touch up my purple lipstick, I stopped dead in my tracks as the air drained from my body.

I felt like my brain was raining a rabid storm of dopamine.

Is this what it meant in books when writers wrote about feeling breathless in another person's presence? Is this what the melodramatic senior girls meant when they wrote, "I had the wind knocked out of me," on their LiveJournals?

I was standing before a tall woman wearing a waitress apron. She had cheekbones so sharp, they could slice through glass and short blonde hair styled into a slick, 1950s school boy cut.

I was completely mesmerized. I felt acute euphoria wash over me that felt stronger than any ecstasy pill I'd ever consumed. I felt like my brain was raining a rabid storm of dopamine.

Now, this was a big deal for a few reasons. It was the first time I felt the dopamine buzz of physical attraction, but it was also the first time I had ever consciously been attracted to a woman.

But I was too overwhelmed by this feeling to even begin to process the fact that I might be gay on top of everything else.

Of course, I never spoke to this hot waitress, nor did I ever see her again. But I was convinced I had fallen into love at first sight.

Later that night, after doing gravity bong rips with my brother in his apartment, I confessed my epiphany.

"Blake, I just fell in love at first sight... with a girl..." I slurred, high as a kite from the pot and lust.

"That's great, Zara. I accept you no matter what," my stoned, liberal older brother assured me.

But he didn't realize I wasn't freaked out by my possible homosexuality. I was freaked out because I had just fallen in love at first sight! The mystical force of love had happened to ME, baby. It was SO real.

I went back to school and dramatically gabbed to everyone that I had fallen in love, that I saw a stranger, and she "knocked the wind out of me," and it was the worst tragedy that I would never see her again.

My friends thought I was nuts, but they were just jealous. 

And of course, this whole experience happened again. And again. And again.

Each time, I would confuse the intoxicating dopamine buzz, the sexual attraction and all the post-sex oxytocin (another feel-good hormone released after sex) for love.

I thought love was supposed to be visceral.

It didn't matter if the person was nasty or if I didn't have anything in common with her. I thought love was supposed to be visceral.

That is, until I found myself in a deeply toxic relationship with an adult woman. We'll call her Hannah*.

Oh, I had the love feeling for Hannah. I thought I would keel over whenever we kissed. I felt endorphins surge through my entire body whenever I had a ~new~ text message from her. My entire body trembled when her fingers grazed my lower back.

But Hannah wasn't very nice to me. She critiqued the way I dressed, she critiqued the way I did my makeup and she critiqued my family and career choices, too.

Also, Hannah didn't want any of the things I wanted in my life.

Hannah wanted to live in a small town, tucked away in the bohemian mountains of California. I wanted to live among the glamazons, the gays and the drag queens in the West Village of Manhattan.

Hannah didn't care for nice things. I, on the other hand, craved leather designer bags and five-star hotels. Luxury might as well have been my middle name!

"I don't get what the hell you guys have to talk about?" my father once said to me after meeting her for the first time during a very awkward dinner.

I took a swig of wine. "I know we have nothing in common, but we love each other."

He grumbled. "Love is not enough."

Love is not enough.

I sighed. He clearly didn't understand the magnitude of this magical love force.

But things got darker and darker with Hannah. She pressured me to move to a small town in California, which, to me, felt like a palm tree-adorned prison. She, on the other hand, hated New York.

How could I love someone who didn't love New York? How could I possibly be in love with someone who didn't love the golden fall foliage, who didn't love to hop on planes and travel the world and who didn't love SUSHI, sad coming-of-age movies and Tori Amos music?

Most of all, how could I love someone who refused to be open to the possibility of ever having a child?

How could I love someone who refused to be open to the possibility of having a child?

For my entire life, I've known that I was going to be a mother someday. And suddenly, I was committing to a person who thought children were vile creatures and that it was an entirely selfish act to bring a little human being into the world?

I called my mother.

"You need to break up with her," she told me.

"But I love her."

"No, that's not love."

"But she makes me feel things — big THINGS."

"That's sexual attraction. That's chemistry. Love is a combination of things, Zara. Love is wanting the same things. Love is respecting each other. Love is understanding each other. God, I've never met two human beings who understand each other LESS than you and this girl," my mother told me bluntly.

I finally broke up with Hannah after she verbally abused me in front of my friends at a holiday party. And little by little, my mother's golden advice began to sink in.

I realized, if I wanted to be happy, I had to understand that the dopamine high, the chemistry and "the feeling" of love is not LOVE.

You can't love someone who treats you like garbage. A big ingredient of love is respect, after all.

And then, I met someone new. Trust me, I had the dopamine rush with this girl. And of course, I would never date someone I didn't have the feeling with (because I love that feeling so much), but I had so much more than just the feeling.

We had the same sense of humor. We both never wanted to leave New York. We blissed out to the same music. We shared a similar moral compass. She didn't just respect my career — she loved what I did.

I respected her more than I'd ever respected anyone, so much so that screaming at each other in the streets and picking unnecessary fights seemed reductive to this pure, sacred relationship we shared.

I realized that's what love is.

The feeling of love is so important, especially in the early stages, but love isn't a magical force that sweeps you off the ground.

When girls say things to me like, "I know he's addicted to drugs, lives with his mother, treats me like garbage and never wants to get married even though I hope to one day, but I LOVE him," instead of empathizing with them, as I used to, I tell them they aren't actually in love.

You can't love someone who treats you like garbage. A big ingredient of love is respect, after all.

And you can actually choose who you love, babes! If someone is mean to you or doesn't want the same things in life as you do, that's not love! That's nothing but chemistry and attraction.

If someone is mean to you or doesn't want the same things in life as you do, that's not love.

Once we shift our thinking in this way, we realize we're actually NOT powerless to love like we thought.

Instead, love becomes safe. It becomes empowering.

And most of all, we love ourselves in a deeper way when we realize there is nothing in the world that can control us. No person. No feeling.

Only we can can control ourselves. And that's far more dope than some mystical, ethereal love force ever could be.