“We fall in love when our imagination projects nonexistent perfection upon another person. One day, the fantasy evaporates and with it, love dies.”
– Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset
I learned more about love from a single sentence uttered to me when I was seventeen years old than I have from all my relationships, experiences, observations and studies to date combined. The summer of 2002 I was gearing up to move to Spain for a semester in the fall, and in order to get a taste of what was to come for me, I asked my parents if we could host a student from Spain for a month. In retrospect this was one of the best impulsive decisions I’ve ever made, since I wound up living with Paloma in Madrid after I very clearly did not get on well with the host family with whom I was placed.
The adviser for the 30-some students who spent the summer of 2002 in Atascadero, California was a man named Julian (hoo-lee-AHN, not JOO-lee-en), and he was a close friend to my exchange student, Paloma. I liked spending time with Julian and Paloma because I could understand much of what they said in Spanish, having studied the language in high school for three years. One day as the group was touring the Santa Barbara Missions, I overheard Julian say to Paloma “no existe el amor”—love does not exist.
I was single at the time, but I had broken up with my high-school sweetheart only a few months earlier, and I was convinced that by the oh-so-knowledgeable age of seventeen I had known true love. I immediately began denying Julian’s claims, and I wrote him off as a cynic.
Several months later, after I moved to Madrid to live with Paloma when things went sour between myself and the aforementioned host family I initially lived with when I moved to Spain, I was spending the afternoon with Paloma and Julian, when once again Julian declared that love did not exist. At first I started to push back, but Julian stopped me and explained to me what he meant. To this day, I can tell you that not only is this one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve ever wrapped my head around, but hearing it explained in Spanish made it radiate with an essence that cannot describe to you unless you understand the language.
“Love does not exist,” explained Julian. Commitment exists, and loyalty exists. Trust, honor, patience, desire, compassion—all these things exist. They’re all specific and measurable, and they all contribute to the emotional health of any relationship between two people. But when you bundle them up and wrap a blanket called ‘love’ around them, they lose a certain amount of their value as qualities in their own right. It’s sad that the word ‘love’ is used to undermine the complex emotions that should exist between two lovers. People often forget or neglect some of these important feelings because they can simply say the words ‘I love you’ and evade any demand for proof of the sentiments that are perhaps lacking and consequently damaging to the relationship.
This is exactly why there needs to be some level of substance between two people when, as Ortega y Gasset so aptly posits, the unrealistic delusion of perfection subsides.
Now mind you, this was an involved conversation that lasted the duration of a paella de mariscos served with rioja. Still, these were the points Julian made that rang home to me. Ironically, his message does not stray far from the meaning of the song “More Than Words” by eighties one-hit-wonder band Extreme, which my high school sweetheart had put onto a mix tape for me and never once executed in his actions while we were together. Still, it took saffron-infused rice, a bottle of red wine and a cultural immersion in one of the most captivating countries in the world to make me realize that love—the abstraction that is love—does not exist. It is merely a concept.
Have I clung to this notion and required that every person I dated henceforth be true to the ideology that the emotions that love comprises are more important than the blanket, worthless word in and of itself? Absolutely not. Like so many women before me I have dated far too many horrible men and not enough good guys. But to be sure, the only man to whom I’ve said the words “I love you” since that day in Madrid that I spoke with Julian was, in fact, a great guy, and he did show me love instead of just saying empty words. Of this I fact I am very proud, and I hope that whatever lies in my future, I can maintain that any man whom I truly love treats me as though love does not exist.