When you're young, you see red and think it's the most wonderful colour in the world. When you get older, you realise there are actually multiple types of red, as there are infinite shades of other colours. Red is red — but so is Magenta, Maroon, and Scarlet.
This is the concept of nuance. That there are subtle differences which matter. It’s what separates an expert from an amateur, wisdom from the superficial.
As in all important things, nuance appears in matters of love too.
Not that I’m an expert, but looking back at all the mistakes I’ve made and myths perpetuated by modern media — I’ve realised there’s much to be said about what we think love is, and how it’s often not.
For this article, I’ll just be focusing on the “life partner” kinda love.
With all due respect to love between family and friends — here’s all the wrong things I used to believe about love between two people.
1. Romance vs attraction
Romance is what you see in the movies when a boy meets a girl, but the girl isn’t interested. So the boy goes to extraordinary lengths to do something incredibly emotional for the girl. Like, if he finds out from her best friend that her favourite movie scene is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, he’ll sing and dance for her on a hillside underneath a sky full of stars.
The more irrational, the more romantic. But what you might be surprised to learn is — romantic love didn’t get popular until just about 200 years ago. Before that, doctors actually viewed it as a sickness.
Because romance isn’t "love". It might make someone feel “awww….” and grateful to you for a short time, but understand that you can’t persuade someone to like you.
Maybe I watched too many movies, but I fell into this trap once upon a time.
I thought being romantic was the key to winning a girl’s heart. I’ve gone through the whole grand romantic gesture thing, and even got into the toxic cycle of “if it doesn’t work, keep trying harder.” Which only ended up in more disappointment.
In fact, out of all the other facets of love, we’ll discuss, romance is likely the least important. Don’t believe me? Look at all the relationships around you where romance doesn’t exist any more. But are still going strong.
If love is a cake, romance is icing and cherries on top. Sure, it’s sweet and it looks nice — especially if you’re a sweet-tooth Instagrammer. But it’s not necessary for a good cake.
The reverse argument is also true. If you already have a good cake, why not add some sweetness to make it perfect? Men who are already in good relationships — don’t forget to romance your partner.
2. Attraction vs choice
Scientists have studied attraction for decades, and while they’ve come up with things that appear to be universally attractive, so much of attraction can’t be explained. What we do know is it’s more a biological response instead of a conscious decision.
You don’t choose to like someone just like how you don’t choose to like your favourite food. But after you like someone, you start mentally filling in the blanks with "I like him because … (insert 10 reasons here)".
In life, you’ll get attracted to many people (and hopefully vice versa). Don’t feel bad. And possessive people, don’t blame your partner if they get attracted to other people. It’s only human nature. But how they respond to it is what you should care about.
Because attraction is not love. Two people can fall head-over-heels for each other very quickly, only to realise later they’re not right for each other. If you have “friendly” friends, ask them how most of their one-night stands turned out.
Making commitments based only on attraction is dangerous. It’s the equivalent of agreeing to eat in only one restaurant for the rest of your life — based on how good the first meal tasted. But what if the food is bad for you?
3. Effort vs expectations
How much you get from a relationship doesn’t depend on how much you put into a relationship. It’s not a proportional thing — think of her 20 times a day, and she’ll think of me 20 times back. There’s no GODDESS OF LOVE who keeps a real-time ledger of who’s done what, and BONUS REWARDS the person who did the most.
It’s why you shouldn’t “keep score” in a relationship. Because if we’re being calculative, everyone will always feel they’re being taken for granted.
Like all the frustrated guys going “But I put in all that effort! The least she can do is give me a chance!” Unfortunately no, neither she nor the world owes you anything.
A better strategy: whatever efforts you put into someone, do it out of sincerity — without expectations.
This isn’t to say you should blindly keep giving yourself up for someone who doesn’t appreciate you. It’s about managing your own expectations. You should ditch someone who doesn’t treat you right. But the difference is, we want to be saying:
He isn’t serious about me. I’m moving on: thank u, next.
Instead of: “What a BASTARD! I’m gonna find someone 10x RICHER and MORE GOOD LOOKING, and RUB IT IN HIS FACE ALL OVER SOCIAL MEDIA!!!” (I know… I’ve felt that way before too. But it’s unhealthy, and besides, HE DOESN’T CARE.)
As Master Yoda once said, expectations leads to disappointment. Disappointment leads to the dark side.
4. Destiny vs probability
There are 7 billion people on the planet. There are maybe 10,000 single people in the city you live in. Maybe you just broke up and feel like you’ve lost the love of your life. Maybe there’s that one special guy you think you’re destined to be with, only he doesn’t realise it yet.
These are irrational beliefs. I know it’s unromantic to view relationships as a numbers game. But if you agreed to go with an open mind, and I can somehow arrange a new single, attractive person to meet with you every week for 100 weeks in a row — I 100% doubt you won’t find someone else who you like.
Your problem isn’t that you lost “the one,” or the stars haven’t aligned for you to meet him yet. Your problem is you don’t meet enough people.
5. Feelings vs commitment
When relationships start, they’re all about good feelings. But eventually, they get tested by bad feelings.
This is painful. There will always be challenges that make you feel like strangling your partner. Especially since our human minds are biased against bad feelings. Researchers say it takes five good experiences to make up for just one bad experience.
When I was younger, whenever I ran into conflict and bad feelings — my knee-jerk instinct was to look for the exit. I expected my relationships to be perfect, feel-good sessions all the time. Talk about unfair expectations. No wonder I failed a lot.
But the older I get, the more I understand love isn’t about how you feel at the moment. Feelings are important. But for the long term, commitment and responsibility are even more important.
6. Attraction vs compatibility
Girl meets boy. They fall in love, get married, then hope they’re not part of the huge statistic of couples who get divorced.
What’s the difference between the couples who made it, and those who didn’t? Compatibility is a big factor.
Compatibility ensures you fit well into each other’s lives. That after the sparks die down, you still genuinely enjoy each other’s company — whether it’s been 16 months or 16 years. The simple “rule” to this is the common saying, “Marry your best friend.”
Unlike romance or sexual attraction, compatibility is a lot more practical. It’s also affected by external factors. Like if both of you are finance professionals in Kuala Lumpur, it’s more compatible than say one of you is a billionaire business heir in Singapore while the other is a middle-class university lecturer in New York.
Yeah, I know this kinda (temporarily?) worked in “Crazy Rich Asians” but look at how pissed off Michelle Yeoh was.
Many years ago, people valued compatibility over attraction. That’s why we had arranged marriages — because not only did parents know their kids fairly well, it was important for the families to get along too. Surprisingly in today’s age of romantic love, some research has shown arranged marriages have good rates of success.
7. Intentions vs technique
"If we love each other enough, we’ll be able to work things out." That’s a common belief: love conquers all.
It’s the equivalent of saying “If I have the right intentions, I’ll score full As on my exam!” But you forget that when you’re preparing for your exam, you don’t do it with just intentions. Instead, you use techniques like group discussions, past-year exam papers, and a tutor. Intentions are good, but for best results, they need to be complemented with good technique.
Psychologists and counsellors and therapists have studied strong relationships for decades. If you’re struggling, there’s no shame in reaching out for professional help — whether it’s in the area of sex, money, communication, or anything else that’s not working.
You could also start by reading some books.
8. Permanence vs evolution
You know how the honeymoon period feels like, then goes away? When you started, every ding on your phone electrified you with expectations, hoping it was her. Now, you get annoyed whenever she texts you too much.
The bad news is — it’s never coming back. Love moves through multiple stages in life, and the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling doesn’t last very long.
Expecting things will always feel the same is a bad strategy. Instead, expect that your love will continue to evolve and change. Instead of fighting to keep things the same, prepare to change together over the years.
Also, please stop falling into the common trap of giving everything to “get the girl” then proceeding to neglect her over time. Instead, here’s a suggestion: Every year, make your relationship better than before. Put more effort in this year than last year. Imagine how good your relationship will be when you celebrate your 40th anniversary.
Be thankful for the past and savor the memories. But keep looking forward.
9. Bad advice vs good advice
The problem with love is everyone feels they know enough to give advice, but how many actually give it responsibly? Additionally, love is one of those complex things where everyone’s situation is different.
It’s why you hear a lot of horrendously-shallow relationship advice. Things that don’t consider nuance.
Adding to the problem: the way the Internet works, extreme opinions get amplified. The valid advice your mother gives you: “treat him with respect” gets ignored. The stupid “#LIFEHACK TO MAKE ANYONE FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU!” gets shared a million times.
But hacks can only get you so far. Instead, fundamentals — timeless truths that have served people for thousands of years will likely remain useful for thousands more.
Would talking to your wife gently and doing nice things for her be good for your relationship 1,000 years ago? Well, they’ll probably still be good today.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Much of what I write here I learned from personal experience
A lot is based on years of reading. But again, I’m no expert — what I’ve learned in life is to never think you know it all. Do your best to prepare for the future, then let go and enjoy the ride.
I’ve spent 2,000 words trying to explain what love isn’t and describing multiple shades that make up the mysterious colour of love. But after so many years, I don’t think anyone has yet been able to come up with a universal definition of love that covers all of humanity, but more importantly — also makes sense to you and me as individuals.
If you want love, you have to experience it for yourself.