Years ago, somebody asked Nathaniel Branden how you know when you love somebody. His answer was something to the effect that, "When they enter a room, for you, the room gets a little brighter, like the lights had been turned up a notch."
What is it that makes love matter, that brings that glow, that brightness from another fellow human being? Love is too rich and complex to boil down to some single facet or data point – and I wouldn't want to do it if I could. But one of the elements that goes into feeling love for somebody, is the experience of being seen.
When you fall in love with someone you are not only seeing who they are; you are also seeing the best within them. And to be seen in this way is one of the greatest, deepest joys of life. One of the important ingredients in marriages that are successful and happy over time is that both parties continue to see each other that way. In happy couples, the respective mates always rate their partner more highly than other friends or observers.
This is not some fantasy pretense, or delusional wishful thinking, or post-modern "deconstruction" of some narrative. We are complex beings. We are not just what's on the surface. We are each full of potential and aspirations and abilities and courage that are not obvious to just anybody – they are all available for expression, just as in any given moment there are many possible futures. It takes getting to know somebody deeply to see what they are made of and in that knowing, a loving mate will choose the best of these possibilities to focus on, to reflect back towards, and in that way, to encourage more of.
In contrast, when love dies, that focus turns toward criticism and disappointment and the gaze moves to see those very same qualities that once inspired and delighted now as weaknesses or irritations. This is a choice that each of us has available; we can choose at any time to see the best in another human being or the worst. If you want love to grow, choose the former.
Of course, sometimes people do objectively bad things, harmful things, even despicable things. It matters very much what we do. I do not recommend denial or ignorance; love is not founded on pretense and it does not grow through disconnection from reality. Nothing grows from disconnection from reality but more disconnection, and ever growing obstacles to true love, respect and joy.
The room does not get brighter in the presence of despicable behavior; and it does not get brighter in the presence of a lie.
So what I am advocating is not simple, really. On the one hand, I am saying to see the best within your mate, your kids, your friends, the people you care about. On the other hand, I am saying that this does not include being delusional or dishonest.
To see the best within another person is to, somewhat paradoxically, also be aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses – and to accept these for what they are. If you are looking for perfection in your mate… let me be blunt – you will never be in love. Perfection is a silly, childish, ridiculous thing to look for in another human being. First of all, your idea of perfection will be different from my idea of perfection – and I can guarantee you that your idea of perfection will be different from your mate's idea of perfection; and you probably don't want to know what your mate's idea of perfection is for you, either.
So even if perfection were possible in this world, it would be impossible to define what exactly it would look like in a way that would translate to a human relationship.
Beyond that, I strongly suspect that your vision of perfection today is different from your vision of perfection from ten or twenty years ago. So to expect perfection would be to expect that your mate would not only fit your vision of perfection from the past but would somehow be continually scrambling to meet your vision of perfection as you grow and change. Not likely, or in any stretch of the imagination possible.
Furthermore, if you are looking for perfection in your mate, then by definition you are looking for an ideal within your own mind. That means that by definition you are not seeing the living, breathing, feeling human being who is right in front of you! If you are expecting your mate to be "better" than he or she is, by definition you are expecting him or her to be different than he or she is – in other words, not who they are but who you want them to be.
I have seen this expectation many, many times over the course of my counseling and coaching career; I have never seen anybody who has ever been successful in wishing another person into being who they think they should be.
(This is no less futile with kids, either, by the way. You can influence them, inspire them and above all love them but you are not Pygmalion carving them out of stone into your vision of beauty and greatness. If you want to be an effective parent, see your children for who they are; listen to them, pay attention to them, get to know them and love who they are.)
As you can see, love cannot exist with the expectation of perfection. They are antithetical; one cannot occupy the same psychological space as the other.
Love is fundamentally about seeing, hearing and knowing another human being deeply. You cannot do that from within your own idealistic fantasy. You have to come out and look into the eyes; listen to the voice, the thoughts, the dreams; and feel the heart of another. Love begins with attraction, is made possible with empathy and grows into deep admiration and trust through giving and receiving the greatest gift that one human being can give to another: the experience of being seen.
If you want love to grow, pay attention to your mate. Listen to her, ask him questions about his experience, spend time with each other. Do you remember how you met? What drew you to one another? Do you know what your mate did today? What her plans are for the day? What moves him? What makes him happy?
What brings the biggest, most glowing smile to his or her face? Arrange for more of that to happen if you can.
What matters to her? What inspires him? What is exciting, enjoyable, delightful?
If you want love to grow, spend time getting to know each other. This takes not just "quality time," but time. Love grows and is nurtured in the little things, the many benevolent points of contact each day, the reputation that you build with each other of trust and caring and delight.
Love grows through seeing and being seen; and through genuinely and honestly seeing the best within each other.