The Circle Line

Learning to Love

Do you love? How do you love? The Big Question. Related of course to “What is love?”. Hmm. How do we begin to answer that?

Learning to love… it’s something we’re taught, whether by our parents when we were children or, if their example was somewhat inadequate, something we learn later in life. It’s something that we as social beings observe and copy. But it’s also in us innately; a primeval drive to love and be loved.

Note that last sentence: to love and be loved. This means that:

Love can be like a see-saw. There is a perpetual motion to it – and it can go on indefinitely and beautifully when it flows in both directions. The thing we call unrequited love psychotherapists believe arises from unresolved feelings from childhood. An unconscious longing for an absent parent perhaps. Some undone grief. Or a desire for something deeply unfulfilled within your life or your self.

Love can be seen and felt in daily practice. It doesn’t only descend like a gift (although in moments a person we may later choose to actively love may appear in our lives like a gift). If we want it to last we must manifest it in actions and words. It is us that give love life.

Love means freely doing positive things, like the things below, for both ourself and for others:

  1. Being open – talk about ourselves and ask about others
  2. Expressing our feelings – identifying and saying them
  3. Being physically affectionate – touch, hug, stroke, kiss, have sex
  4. Thinking positive things about our self and others (obviously necessary for No.5…).
  5. Saying the positive things we are thinking
  6. Doing things others like, and doing things for ourselves that we like
  7. Doing things to help ourself and others
  8. Listening – without interrupting or assessing, with no agenda, without calculating what to say next, without trying to control the conversation. Listening to our selves means pausing and being quiet, so we can note our thoughts and emotions as they arise and acknowledge them.
  9. Forgiving. Knowing when you want to let something go, and moving on, seeing the bigger picture.

Nearly all of these take practice. Two of these are particularly hard…


Listening is one of the most important. It underpins empathy and understanding but is a skill that with time and practice we can learn. Most of us find it very hard; we jump in with our thoughts, respond with “me too”, or wait for the person to stop talking so we can give our advice. The best way to start practising truly listening is simply to shut up. Don’t say anything. Don’t respond. Just hear and nod. But on a deeper level, it takes a strong awareness and perhaps suspension of your self to really listen well. This is what therapists are so good at. And this is what shores up a strong relationship – seeing the other’s point of view, empathising; we may not always condone the behaviour that comes with it but if we listen we can understand.


Forgiveness is one of the core aspects of love at its most generous. It can also be the hardest. When the hurt caused has been great, or long-term, the resentment and anger can be intense and deeply entrenched. Digging it up, excavating it from its buried tomb, and acknowledging it is the first step. Then, when you’re ready, express that hurt and anger, to them or to yourself. When you decide you really don’t want it in you any more, you don’t want to think and feel like that any more, you let it go. In that sense, forgiveness can be seen as a decision.

There’s an exercise on forgiveness (taken from the 1990s classic – and dated! – book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’) that’s actually quite useful. Here it is if you want to try it.

Take some paper and pen and write to someone you feel you might be ready to forgive for something. Freely write, without thinking (you won’t actually send the letter), going through everything you can think of connected to each of the following emotions:

Brief example: “Dear Dad, I’m so angry at you for missing my birthday. I felt sad that you weren’t there, I missed you. I feared that you don’t love me and that I’m unimportant to you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I missed you. I’m sorry I didn’t read the book you gave me as a present – I feel very guilty about that. I want you in my life. I love you.”

This is a short shallow example – try going into more depth. Write every little thing that comes to you. Excavate as much as you can from those buried tombs you carry around with you. You may feel something as you write, you might cry or feel your heart thumping – ground yourself, breathe deeply and take a break. When you are ready, start again.

We may not instantly be able to forgive, but after enough of the excavating and expressing how we really feel about someone, at our own pace, lightness comes. Once we get it off our chest – where love comes from.

Love in all its wonderful forms is both a feeling and an action. It is a “gift” – but it’s a gift we were all given at birth – an innate ability in all of us and the very essence of being human. However, if many of the above actions weren’t taught – weren’t modelled – to us as kids, it might take uncomfortable daily practice to learn to love.

But that is lucky. Because we all have the ability to practice something. In this way, love in all its myriad forms truly is for everyone.

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