What Real Love Looks Like

Throughout our lives we compile a picture of what we think real love should look like. Often this process begins early, as little girls listening to fairy tales at bed time will envision their very own knight in shining armor.   As we grow older, we often imagine finding a soul-mate, that perfect person who we were destined to spend our lives with.  To borrow a phrase from Shel Silverstein, we set out looking for our missing piece.

The trouble is that the reality of love is not quite as simple as the fantasy picture we create in our heads. Our fantasy idea of love often leads us to choose romantic partners for the wrong reasons. The romantic, rom/com idea of “You complete me” has potentially negative psychological implications. When we set out to find a partner to complete us by filling in the gaps we see in ourselves, we make the assumption that we are not a whole person on our own and try to find a partner to plug-up our self-perceived deficits. For example, someone who is shy and has a hard time being outgoing in social situations may gravitate toward a partner who is loud or even socially domineering.

There are several ways that loyalty to a fantasy can interfere with real love. For instance, many people cling to a fantasy of finding an unrealistically perfect partner and are critical of any individual they enter into a relationship with because the person cannot live up to the picture they have painted so meticulously in their heads. Other individuals tend to idealize anyone they wind up in a relationship with, overlooking negative qualities in an effort to hold on to a fantasized image of their partner.

Even when we choose partners for the right reasons, creating fantasies can interfere with the real connection two people naturally share. My father, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone, coined the term “The Fantasy Bond” to describe an illusion of connection that many people cling to in relationships. In article I wrote for PsychAlive.org, I described the difference between real love and a fantasy bond.

A fantasy bond is created when two people replace real acts of genuine love, admiration, passion, and respect with the role and ritual of “being” in a relationship. Though this process is often unconscious, people can begin to recognize patterns and behaviors characterized by a Fantasy Bond that are destructive to their closest relationships.

Individuals in a fantasy bond are often satisfied by the idea of loving and being loved by someone. They tend to focus more on what they are getting from a relationship, instead of looking at what they are giving in the relationship. I appreciate Dr. Pat Love’s definition of love as both “a wish to make someone happy” and taking the actions that will make the person you love happy, because really loving someone means making your actions match your words.

Real love may seem less exciting than our shiny fantasies, but it is a million times more rewarding.   Here are the qualities that I believe make up a truly loving relationship.

Honesty — Honesty is an essential component for a healthy relationship. Part of treating someone lovingly is being honest with them about your feelings. Often people try to shield their loved ones from the truth, believing ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt them’ or that they are protecting their partner’s feelings, however being lied to is even more painful than hearing painful truths. Part of real love is learning to trust one another, so betraying someone’s trust does a tremendous amount of damage to loving relationships.

Affection – Physical affection and sexuality are vital components of a loving relationship. Affection and sexuality are not only important in developing an intimate relationship, they are also essential aspects of keeping a relationship alive and exciting throughout the years. Once a relationship becomes more routine couples often fall into a pattern of placing less importance on physical intimacy and casual affection. However, simple acts of affection such as holding hands, making eye contacting and engaging in small flirtatious behaviors can help people feel closer to one another.

Companionship – It is important to share activities and do things with your partner that light both you up. Often when people first fall in love, they bond over a shared love of certain activities and mutual interests. To maintain a healthy relationship, I suggest that couples  continue to share their mutual passions and be willing to try new things together.

Respect – Respecting your partner’s individuality is a key factor in having a truly loving relationship. At the beginning of relationships, people have a natural respect for one another as separate individuals and they tend to relate to each other with kindness and genuine interest. As time goes on, couples often lose this sense of autonomy and relate to one another as part of a unit. When we lose perspective and stop thinking about our partner as a separate person, we often begin to act in ways that are more intrusive, manipulative or disrespectful rather than being sensitive, understanding and independent.

Openness – Issues are bound to arise in long-term relationships. Being open to dealing with issues is one of the most significant factors in creating and maintaining a successful partnership.  It is important to be open, willing to look at yourself and make changes, in order to develop a meaningful relationship. Rather than acting defensive, overly hurt or angry when your partner gives you feedback, try to adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity about what they are trying to tell you. When we are closed to suggestions, criticism, or new experiences, we limit our self development and often begin to resent our partners. When we are open, however, we are able to develop ourselves and our relationships further.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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Michael C

It does sound scary. This article sets the bar pretty high, too. There are quite a lot of dos and don’ts in there. I felt kinda uninterested in love after reading it. It’s kinda like the damning situation of wanting to, I dunno, take a drive to the beach and watch the sunset. But then you find out that one of the major roads is blocked and under construction, the next is backed up for miles with DUI checkpoints, and the last takes you 30 minutes out of your way. You just say screw it in the end and feed the gerbils.


It’s scary to you people, because you are emotionally unavailable. You have some issues you haven’t dealt with, and should not be in a relationship. A good healthy relationship does need all those listed. And why shouldn’t it? There’s something wrong with a person if they can’t give Respect, openness, honesty, affection & companionship,it should be easy! (you have to be in the right set of mind)
Although, sometimes it’s hard to have a mutual interest to do together, let’s say one person likes to play/watch hockey, while the other doesn’t.

It’s really about finding out what you’re looking for and not settling. Love is definitely not scary when both people want the same things and are on the same page to make things work ! 🙂

And The Truth Is

Real true love really did exists in the good old days the way that our family members had it. Quite a real change today unfortunately.


So wonderful what you said – totally agree in the good old days – love had morals, strong inner strength and control – self worth, adoration, respect for each other – no controlling, manipulation, destroying families, sexual pleasure – true real love waits


Well, I think true love involves respect, showing affection, doing things for each other, caring about the other person’s needs and feelings, looking the other person in the eyes, showing you care, placing them at the number one spot on the priority schedule, and just being there to serve them.


Real love existed many years ago which is why we really are here today, thanks to our parents. Dating and meeting the one in those days was certainly a lot easier than today, and nowadays unfortunately women have really changed since back then making it very difficult for many of us single men trying to find love now.


Love starts with me. I can choose to love someone who has no desire to return my love. A choice to invest myself in something that I may or may not return the gesture. I use the phrase love them where they are at because, they don’t return in kind. We can have our morals, values, respect, and adoration for each other but we cannot change the opinion or views of our partner. I have chosen not to let go. I will love where she is at. She may never love me by the definition of the day but I can try one day at a time to love her.


This is so painful. I had he same. So much love for him but it hurts when you are pushed away. I know the saying that if you love someone you don’t expect anything in return, you just love that person but I chose to stop that and move on with my life as I do need to feel loved too. After all we have just one life and it is short, we never know when it is going to end. So I rather move on and see where life takes me than be stuck in one place being hopelessly in love with someone that might (will not, I know this) never love me. Maybe it sounds selfish but we are only humans and we all need love.
Good luck though to you.. if that is your choice.

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