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Pieces of Heart

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"Pieces of Heart" (on the meanings of love)



Like most good sons, I tell my mother that I love her. I have also used "love" to express my feelings for girlfriends, best friends, pets, possessions, and Star Trek. Obviously, I don't mean the same thing every time I use the word "love." The question is, what do I mean? What does anyone mean?

This essay is about the meaning of love. It's not a monologue about what "love" means to me; it's a study of how the word is used by other people, and what I think it means to them. After all, the meaning that matters is the one that people intend when they say the word, and understand when they hear it. The dictionary definition doesn't have much impact on the way we truly live and love.

I claim that "love" has four different meanings, and I like to call them "the Pieces of Heart." The word "love" is often used to express several of those meanings at once, and I think it always describes at least one of them whenever it's used.

These are the Pieces of Heart:
{1} Compassion
{2} Infatuation
{3} Attachment
{4} Commitment

Now that I view "love" as a word with four meanings, I don't see "Do you love me?" as a yes-or-no question. It's not that simple anymore. In the past, I assumed that a person who said, "I love you," meant basically the same thing as a person who said, "I love you too." Now I realize that people who say they love each other can be telling the truth and still mean very different things.

The First Piece: Compassion

The first thing that "I love you" can mean is, "I care about you." When it's used that way, it expresses Compassion for someone---the desire for that person to be safe and happy.

Compassion is the broadest meaning of love. It's natural to feel Compassion for a lover, a child, a parent, or a friend… but it's also possible to feel Compassion for a stranger. In a perfect world, I think that every person would have at least a little bit of Compassion for the rest of the human race. After all, cruelty and selfishness can exist only where Compassion is missing or suppressed.

One of the most important things to note about Compassion is that it can exist without romance. Also, romance can exist without Compassion… but I think romance without Compassion is doomed. Small resentments build up in a long-term relationship, and -- without Compassion -- those resentments turn into spite. Spite turns lovers into enemies (who are focused on their own happiness instead of their partner's). The best way to keep from fixating on the ways that your partner has made you unhappy is to keep your focus on their happiness instead. That's Compassion.

Of course, Compassion must go both ways. If only one person is Compassionate, while the other is spiteful, the relationship will decay. Spite causes pain, and pain is the opponent of Compassion (because it's hard to care about another person's emotions when you're overwhelmed by your own). If your partner has caused you overwhelming pain, you're unlikely to feel much Compassion for that partner. In a nutshell, that's why break-ups get so nasty.

The Second Piece: Infatuation

The second thing that "I love you" can mean is, "You make me feel good." When it's used that way, it expresses Infatuation with someone---the excitement, admiration, and contentment that you feel when that person is near.

Infatuation has a bad reputation. It's a word that's usually used to describe silly crushes and whirlwind affairs… and it's used that way for some good reasons: Infatuation is the most selfish kind of love, and the most fickle. It's rooted in all of the ways that someone else can make you happy, and it comes and goes with mood and circumstance. (The things that usually excite you probably don't excite you nearly as much when you're ill, or distracted, or annoyed.) In my opinion, Infatuation is like a drug: You feel an immediate high when it grabs you, but you can fall to devastating lows when it lets you go. Its effect even weakens over time, just like the effect of a drug.

In spite of all those drawbacks, Infatuation is not entirely bad. It's the spark that keeps romance alive into old age, and falling in love wouldn't be so wonderful without it. (In fact, the expression "in love" seems to always describe Infatuation. I've never heard someone say, "I'm in love," to describe one of the other Pieces.) Infatuation is to romance what salt is to food; it adds flavor, but it's not healthy by itself. Indulge in it too much and you'll get sick, but life would be fairly bland without it.

By the way, I think it's possible to be Infatuated with possessions too, and even with movies and fictional characters. In this, I disagree with a woman who corrected me when I was a child. I told her, "I love Star Trek," and she answered, "No, you don't love Star Trek; you just like it." By the common understanding of "love" that I'm using here, she was wrong. When I watched Star Trek, I felt excitement, contentment, and admiration---in short, I felt Infatuation. In her view, the word "love" shouldn't have been used to express that feeling… but, like it or not, that's the way it's commonly used. Therefore, to a lot of people, that's what it means.

Two things that I don't count as Infatuation are lust and pride. Lust results from physical attraction, and pride can result from flattery… but I almost never hear the word "love" used to express those feelings directly. Lust and pride, rather than being parts of Infatuation, are separate feelings that can strengthen or transform it.

The Third Piece: Attachment

The third thing that "I love you" can mean is, "I don't want to lose you." When it's used that way, it expresses Attachment to someone---being so accustomed to having that person in your life that it would be hard to adjust if they were gone.

This Piece of Heart is the slowest to grow, the slowest to diminish, and the hardest to control. In a sense, Attachment is habit; it's what happens when someone becomes a part of your routine. Maybe you're used to talking on the phone, or chatting online, or hanging out together every weekend. The point is, that person takes up space in your life. If they move away, or die, or break up with you… they leave a hole where they used to be. The more involved they are in your life, the bigger the hole they leave behind.

You can get Attached to dreams too---even simple ones. The easiest dreams to get Attached to are the simple assumptions that we make about the future. Based on the way things are now, we imagine the way the future will be… and, if something changes, it throws us off. (We break up with the person that we thought we would marry, and everything that we imagined about the future must adapt to the idea of not being married to that person.) It's Attachment that makes breaking-up so difficult. After a break-up, you have to let go of the things you share in the present and the things that you imagined sharing in the future.

Attachment is powerful, and it sneaks up on you. Its strength varies from person to person, but I think it affects everyone. It's also the least fickle Piece of Heart, because it comes and goes very slowly. It develops automatically over time, and it diminishes only with the passage of time. The strength and sluggishness of Attachment make it a dangerous thing, because it can hold people together who aren't compatible at all.

By the way, Attachment -- like Infatuation -- can be focused on possessions. When I say that I love my car, I mean that I'm Attached to it. It's familiar and comfortable. I'm used to it. If my car were totaled, I would miss it. It would be hard to adjust if it were gone.

The Fourth Piece: Commitment

The fourth thing that "I love you" can mean is, "I will not abandon you." When it's used that way, it expresses Commitment to someone---the intention to devote yourself to that person indefinitely.

There are many levels of romantic Commitment, from conventional marriage to dating, but Commitment is always -- basically -- a contract.  Whether you're agreeing to date someone or to get engaged, you're making a list of promises. The promises are mostly unspoken, but they're understood well enough that both parties realize when a big one (like "I will not cheat") is broken.

Of all the Pieces, we have the most control over Commitment. It can be made or withdrawn at will, so -- to sustain Commitment -- we must continuously choose it. That's why Commitment is both the strongest Piece of Heart and the weakest. When the other Pieces are uncertain, this can be the one you cling to for support, or the one you throw away. The responsibility of choice makes Commitment the Piece that people seem to worry about the most… and that's appropriate, because making the wrong choices about when to Commit, and how much to Commit, can ruin lives.

Picking Up the Pieces

Compassion. Infatuation. Attachment. Commitment. These are the Pieces of Heart. I don't think of them as broken pieces, but rather as connected parts of a whole. The real human heart has four pieces too -- four chambers -- and they all work together, but each one is unique and has a particular job.

When I was a kid, before I learned about the chambers of the heart, I only knew what the heart was for; I didn't know how it worked. Even now, my understanding of the heart is limited… but that's okay, because I'm not a heart surgeon. I don't need to know exactly how the heart works, because I won't ever be asked to operate on one.

Love is a different matter, because we all operate on love. The problem is that most people understand love in the same limited way that I understand a beating heart: They understand what it is, and what it does, but they really don't see how the parts fit together. That's why, in this essay, I've taken love apart. I want to show you how I believe it works.

The Pieces of Heart are a framework for thinking and talking about love. I've claimed that, when the average person uses the word "love," that person is describing at least one of these. If I'm right, then "love" isn't a simple, foundational emotion like "happy." Instead, it has a basement of meaning underneath, and that basement has four rooms: Compassion, Infatuation, Attachment, and Commitment.

With this framework in mind, relationships make a lot more sense to me. I'm now able to understand some of the complex emotions that I struggled with in the past, and I find it much easier to discuss matters of romance overall. But, to demonstrate how the Pieces of Heart can be used to shed light on relationships, I need a relationship to use as an example.

The Romance of Robert and Rose

Robert and Rose are not real. But, if they were, I would tell you that they were married one year ago today, after a whirlwind courtship, on the parking lot of a McDonald's in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Their families thought it was strange, and in somewhat poor taste… but, to Robert and Rose, it offered everything they wanted: It was fun, and it meant something to them. After all, that parking lot -- or, technically, the adjacent picnic area -- had been the site of their first date.

It didn't start out as a date. It started out as Robert sharing a boring dinner at Red Lobster with his parents, his big brother, and his new sister-in-law. Orders were completely backed-up, and Robert complained to the waitress -- who happened to be Rose -- that he could probably catch a fish himself in the time it was taking them to cook one. "You're welcome to try," she snapped. "There's a stream in the McDonald's picnic area. I think that restaurant's more appropriate for your maturity level anyway."

Robert was so taken by the idea of a McDonald's with a scenic picnic area that he forgot he was angry and asked her where it was. Rose was so taken by the idea of not dealing with her job anymore that she left and showed it to him on the spot. They stayed for hours, abandoning his family (and everyone else who was waiting to eat) at the restaurant. That night, she got her wish to stop working at Red Lobster… and he got her phone number.

At first, he avoided calling her more than once a week. He didn't want to come on too strong, and he wasn't sure that she actually enjoyed his company. Then, one day, she called him. For hours afterward, he gave a goofy smile to everyone he met. He spent his days looking forward to their next conversation, and he was happiest when he heard her voice. Soon, they were calling and texting every day.

After they made the leap to hanging out in person, they were inseparable. The same was true after they made the leap to kissing. They agreed to enter a relationship officially, and seven months later, Rose had become such a big part of Robert's life that he couldn't imagine his life without her. More than that, he didn't want to imagine it. He proposed.

Two months later, they were married, and glowing with conviction that their choice had been the right one. But, ten months after that, Robert's feelings had changed. He had become confused and uncertain, although it took him three more months to realize why. When he did, it staggered him.

He still couldn't imagine his life without Rose, and he still didn't want to… but he also realized that she didn't make him happy anymore. His old feelings of excitement and contentment were weak, and shaky. There had been fights, and grudges, and pet peeves. He had seen sides of her that he didn't like, and he realized there were sides of him that she liked even less. Still, he said nothing.

When his silence finally broke, it broke because he was hurt, and angry, and his guard was down. In that moment, he searched for the words to describe the ways he'd changed, and the only words that came to him were these: "I'm not sure I love you anymore."

Piecing It All Together

I claimed that the Pieces of Heart make it easier to discuss romance, and this story shows how difficult romance can be to discuss without them. Robert is struggling because he still has feelings for Rose that he thinks of as "love," but some of the other feelings that he thinks of as love are missing. He doesn't know how to make sense of that because he's locked into thinking of "Do I love Rose?" as a yes-or-no question. He thinks that the answer must be "yes" or "no," but neither fits completely.

With the Pieces of Heart, Robert's situation is easy to explain: He's made a Commitment to Rose, and he's very Attached to her… but his Infatuation has faded, and his Compassion is suppressed because he's angry and hurt. His Commitment and Attachment make him think that the answer is "yes," that he does love her… but the decline of his "romantic" feelings (Infatuation and Compassion) makes him wonder if the answer is "no." In short, he does still love her, but the way in which he loves her has changed. He's not equipped to explain that, so he only says, "I'm not sure I love you anymore."

From what I've seen and heard, Robert's situation is fairly common, because most relationships in modern America are led by Infatuation. I wrote the romance between Robert and Rose to be an example of that: The night that Robert met Rose, he spent hours with her in a McDonald's picnic area because he was content to be with her. Later, he was excited that she had called him. In other words, he was Infatuated with her. After that, they started talking every day. She became a part of his routine, and he got Attached to her as well. At that point, assuming that he's a decent guy and felt some Compassion, he already loved her with three Pieces of Heart. Once that happens, it's hard to back up.

I often say that there's no such thing as "casual dating," and this is why. After you start dating someone -- even casually -- only two things can happen: One, you can break up; or two, you can stay together until one of you dies. The trouble is that both of those possibilities are kind of scary. In Robert's case, he reached a point at which he didn't want to imagine his life without Rose. He was scared of breaking up with her, and the only other choice was to stay with her indefinitely. (Even if you don't call it "marriage," spending the rest of your life with someone always represents a massive Commitment.)

Robert has made a Commitment by marrying Rose, but he's scared again. When they first fell in love, she made him feel admiring, excited, and content (Infatuated) but those feelings aren't as strong as they used to be. He wasn't prepared for his Infatuation to fade like this. He thought that, if he really loved her, he would always feel like he was in love with her. Unfortunately, Infatuation fades over time. The novelty wears off of a new relationship in the same way that it wears off of a new car.

But people aren't cars. You don't make a romantic Commitment to a car, or feel Compassion for a car. (It's okay to get a new car every few years, but you'll earn a bad reputation if you get a new husband that often!) Compassion and Commitment are the Pieces that separate a deep, loving relationship from the shallow, novelty-driven kind that people enter when they think that Infatuation is the same as love. Infatuation is an intoxicating, wonderful thing… but it's shallow, and fragile. Compassion and Commitment are the Pieces that should glue the relationship together when Infatuation is weak, or missing.

Infatuation may be doomed to fade (and sometimes go on vacation for a while) but that doesn't mean that you have to settle for a relationship devoid of admiration, excitement, and contentment. It just means that you won't feel those things all the time. That's okay, because I believe that -- if a relationship is deep and loving -- Infatuation will never truly die. When old couples talk about keeping the "spark" alive, I think they're talking about Infatuation. The important thing to remember is that Compassion and Commitment should sustain Infatuation---not the other way around.

It's so important for Compassion and Commitment to be the "glue" because they're the selfless Pieces. Attachment, on the other hand, is selfish (just like Infatuation). A relationship that's held together by Attachment recalls the saying, "You can't live with 'em, and you can't live without 'em." Robert's relationship is a perfect example: Infatuation has faded, Compassion is lacking, and Attachment is strong. He's unhappy enough that he doesn't know whether he can continue living with Rose, but he's so Attached that he can't imagine living without her.

Even I don't know whether Robert and Rose will work things out. Truthfully, it doesn't matter; I wrote their story as an example of the way that relationships form, so the important part of that story is the beginning---not the end. Recall that their relationship, like most, was led by Infatuation. (It was the first Piece they felt for each other. Attachment followed, and then Commitment.)

Even though Infatuation is usually first, it's worth noting that a relationship can be led by any Piece of Heart: What if two close friends become a couple? That relationship is led by Attachment. What if strangers enter an arranged marriage? That relationship is led by Commitment. What if a caring person tries to "fix" a broken one by dating him? That relationship is led by (misguided) Compassion.

Often, it's society that determines the leading Piece. (For example, arranged marriages are the norm in many societies; in other societies, they're seen as oppressive.) More often, I think that circumstance and character determine the leading Piece. For example, some people are deeply affected by Infatuation; others are deeply affected by Compassion, and others by Attachment.

I think that everyone is vulnerable to at least one Piece of Heart. For example, I rarely allow Infatuation to drive my actions, and I take Commitment very seriously, so I'm fairly resistant to both of those. But, I have trouble adjusting to change, which makes me vulnerable to Attachment… and I once entered a relationship because of my Compassion for a girl who longed for a prince to set her free. We were Infatuated with each other too, but it was Compassion that drove me to enter the relationship. I wanted to make her dream come true, and I wanted to take care of her. That experience taught me that Compassion is one of my weak points.

Knowing your weak points is one of the best reasons to study the Pieces of Heart. If you know which Pieces affect you the most, you'll have a better chance of realizing how your judgment is being skewed by love. It's impossible to completely stop that from happening (because you always sacrifice some objectivity when you fall in love), but at least it's possible to account for the skew when you make important decisions. Maybe it's even possible to keep a relationship from sneaking up on you---to avoid the predicament that Robert stumbled into when his Infatuation led him to Attachment.

Now that I know I'm vulnerable to Attachment and Compassion, I'm better-prepared to guard myself against them. I guard against Compassion by making sure that I never confuse romance with my desire to take care of people. I guard against Attachment by keeping a safe distance from any girl that I admire. If I meet such a girl, I consciously avoid talking to her regularly. I do that to avoid making her a part of my routine, knowing that Attachment could sneak up on me if I did. (I still try to get to know her, of course---but slowly.) Ultimately, this is why I developed the Pieces of Heart. I wanted to make better decisions about romance in my future.

Pieces of Change

The Pieces of Heart have changed the way that I think about romance, talk about romance, and seek a romantic partner. I believe that they will change the way I conduct myself in my next relationship and -- with any luck -- my marriage. I wrote this essay because I hope that these thoughts, and these changes, will have some value to others.

The Pieces have changed the way that I think and talk about romance by putting a name and a description to the things that I feel. By understanding my emotions, I take back some of their power to control me. If I meet a girl who quickens my heartbeat and lifts my spirits, I tell myself, "That's just Infatuation. Savor it, but don't give yourself to it." If I find myself daydreaming about such a girl, I push my mind in another direction, because fantasies would build Attachment to a dream that might never come true. The biggest change is that, when I use the word "love" in the future (for my mom, my girlfriend, my best friends, my pets, my possessions, and Star Trek), I will know exactly what I mean.

The Pieces have also changed the way that I think about the emotions and intentions of others. When I talk with my friends about their relationships, I think in terms of Compassion, Infatuation, Attachment and Commitment. That gives me a unique perspective, along with the vocabulary to explain it. And someday, when a girl turns to me and says, "I love you," I won't waste time wondering if she really means it; I'll just try to understand what she means by it. I won't make the mistake of thinking that she doesn't really love me just because she doesn't show her love in the way I would. I've learned that people who say they love each other can be telling the truth and still mean very different things.

The Pieces have changed the way that I seek romance by turning me from a gambler into an investor. Once, when I was a "gambler," I looked for love the way Robert did: If I met a girl that I was Infatuated with, I spent a lot of time with her. If that went well, I made a dating Commitment and allowed Attachment to form. In other words, I gambled on that girl being a suitable partner for me, and I gambled on myself being ready for a relationship. The wager was my freedom, my time, and my heart.

Incredibly, "gambling" like that works---eventually. It's worked for many of my married friends, and it would probably work for me too, after a few more tries. I could just keep entering relationships, hoping for the best every time, until one of them doesn't fail. But, if I did that, would I really find someone who's a good match for me? Or would I just end up staying with the first girl who isn't a really bad match?

When I choose that person to spend my life with, I want to use a better standard than, "This was the first relationship I entered that didn't fall apart." That's why I decided to stop being a gambler and become an "investor"---someone who makes careful choices about whom to trust with precious things, like love. When I'm interested in a girl now, I hold back the Pieces of Heart as much as I can: I want to feel Compassion, but I won't enter a relationship again because of it. I want to spend my time and my attention in a way that discourages Attachment from forming, and I want to avoid making a Commitment to anyone too quickly. I can't stop myself from feeling Infatuation, but I can at least prevent myself from acting on it.

My hope is that I'll get to know my next girlfriend very well before she actually becomes my girlfriend. Eventually, I'll still have to take a risk, enter a relationship, and hope for the best… but I'm going to choose the next person that I invest myself in very carefully. I'll still be taking a risk when I make that first dating Commitment (love is always a risk), but it will be a smaller risk than it would be if I continued with the "gambling" method and pursued the first girl that captured my interest. My future is too important for me to trust it solely to chance and intuition.

I can't know how the Pieces will change my conduct in my next relationship until the time comes, but I predict that they'll guard me against some of the most common blunders. For example, I'm prepared for my Infatuation with my partner to fade, so I won't allow that to shake my confidence in the relationship. I also recognize the power of Attachment to skew my judgment, so I'll consider that when I'm deciding whether to continue the relationship or end it.

Ultimately, it's my desire to guard against blunders that drove me to ponder what love means, both to me and to others. I want to get married someday, and when I do, I want to get it right. I believe that, for a marriage to thrive, the people in that marriage must love each other with every Piece of Heart. I also believe that, to be a good husband, I must understand myself. Knowledge really is power, and my knowledge of the Pieces of Heart is my power to someday become the best husband I can be. I hope that this knowledge will give me the strength to nurture the selfless Pieces (Compassion, Commitment) and beware the selfish ones (Infatuation, Attachment).

In the end, this all comes down to choice. These Pieces of Heart are worthless unless they offer something useful, and I believe that what they offer is the insight to improve our choices. After all, life and love are too precious -- and too fragile -- to jeopardize them by making choices carelessly. Sure, it's impossible to make perfect choices… but most of us could be a lot more careful than we are. In saying so, I display an attitude that I've held for a long time:

You can't control what you feel, but you can control what you do about it.
David Grant Grimes has been thinking and writing about love since the end of his first relationship in 2005. He considers "Pieces of Heart" to be the final installment in a trilogy of essays that began with "Why I Wait" in December 2005, and continued with "The Long Game" in July 2006. Many of the ideas in "Pieces of Heart" have their origins in those early essays, including the idea of getting to know a prospective partner before entering a relationship. A month after posting "The Long Game," David ignored his own advice and entered a relationship. During that relationship, which ended in April 2009, he found it conspicuously difficult to be objective about matters of the heart. In the wake of the relationship, many of his old thoughts about love resurfaced---now tempered by age and experience.

[Graphic by me, using stock photos obtained through Google Image Search.]
© 2010 - 2022 David-Grant
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