Love Isn’t a Picnic. But You Knew That Already. (Right?)

As I wrote in a previous post, many questions that people ask me about love/sex/relationships center around people being afraid of messy situations (e.g., of falling for someone who is in a relationship, newly out of a relationship, divorced with kids, lives in a far away city, is someone who your siblings/parents/best friends don’t like, etc). And basically I believe that if you really like someone and think you might want to give it a try, you should, because life is messy (and I think that’s okay) and waiting for a sanitized Hollywood romance may mean you will be waiting a long time, or forever. It might also mean missing out on immense richnesses and joys in life.

One spiritual teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, even said that “chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” Make of that what you will.

Another common theme to questions that people ask me center around a myth that love makes everything easy. No one actually comes out and says this, of course (if they did, they would realize immediately that they were buying in to a silly myth). More often what I get are questions from people who are despairing at a wrong turn that a relationship has taken. Maybe they met someone, fell in like/love/lust, and thought this person was the answer to their hopes/dreams. They thought, “this is my ideal!” or “how long I’ve waited for him/her!”

Oh, sunny day!

While it’s very exciting to find someone who fits much of what you’ve wanted for a long time (months, maybe, or years), it would be a mistake to think that this person will make everything better for you. It’s unfair to them (what pressure to solve all your problems) and it’s unfair to you (because you will be sorely disappointed when you find this person is only human) and it’s unfair to you both because no relationship can hold up to such an ideal.

Sooner or later one of you will disappoint. He or she will turn out to be far messier than your Dream Person should be, with papers or dirty dishes all over the place. Or he or she will turn out to be a super neat freak whose closet is organized completely by season, and then color, and then label. Maybe your Dream Person will show up at your house, drunk or tipsy, late on a work/school night. Or else they won’t call, email or text when they say they will. Your Dream Person might be a terrible cook or else he or she might not cook at all and only have baking soda in their refrigerator.

Get the picture?

The thing is: any of these “faults” or “disappointments” can be overcome. None of us gets to escape being perfect. We will all disappoint people we like/love and the people we like/love will disappoint us back. We’ll see their pimples and they will see ours.

Here’s the other thing, though: if we’re lucky and open ourselves to life, we will keep liking/loving each other. We’ll find someone who gets that life is messy and who decides we’re a good person to jump into the thick of it with. Love isn’t about finding the person who will magically make us “happy” or make everything better; but it is about finding someone you want to face things with, the good and the bad and the stacks of newspapers or the long-winded stories or the taste in music you’re unsure you can work with. [My dad was notorious for stacking newspapers in a hoarders kind of way and at some point, I became okay with this and decided it was just who he was... an early lesson in love for which I'm thankful]

Related, earlier this evening I was out reading under a big, beautiful, blooming and fragrant magnolia tree. I was reading a book by Pema Chodron in which she wrote the following:

“When we begin our exploration, we have all kinds of ideals and expectations. We are looking for answers that will satisfy a hunger we’ve felt for a very long time. But the last thing we want is a further introduction to the boogeyman. Of course, people do try to warn us. I remember when I first received meditation instruction, the woman told me the technique and guidelines on how to practice and then said, ‘But please don’t go away from here thinking that meditation is a vacation from irritation.’ Somehow all the warnings in the world don’t quite convince us. In fact, they draw us closer.”

Though about meditation, I see similarities to love. We know that love isn’t a vacation from irritation or the pain of life. We know love isn’t a get out of jail free card. We know that relationships aren’t going to make our problems go away or make us stop feeling lonely or bring us every happiness in the world.

I mean, we do know this, right?

Well, we do and we don’t. We think we know it. We say out loud that we know it. But then we find ourselves relating to another person – a good friend, or someone we like/love – and we find ourselves feeling disappointed in their humanness. They haven’t done anything wrong, really. And in that moment we have no choice but to face the fact that we bought into these silly love myths after all. We thought this person or this relationships would save us from heartache, pain, loneliness, whatever we are running from. But no one else can do that for you.

My bottom line, which I will say over and over, is that life is messy. But keep trying. Keep trying to love other people and to love yourself and then whatever happens, you’ll be in the thick of it instead of hiding from it (protecting yourself on your computer or your smartphone or your hobbies or your work-a-holic-ness or substances or whatever else you use to hide from life).

Also? If you think I’m an expert and I have it all down, I can assure you 100% that I am still trying hard too. I believe these things firmly but I have to practice all of the time. Then again, that’s why I call all of this stuff – meditation, love, relationships – something I “practice”. I don’t have it down but I do keep working.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at

  • Kate

    I love the comparison between meditation and love. I recently had a conversation with a friend about how one of the primary barriers to meditating is the concern that you won’t be doing it ‘perfectly.’ The struggle for self-acceptance and embracing ‘messyiness’ seem to be universal experiences.

  • Debby

    Glad the comparison makes some sense for you, too. The hopes we pile into such things… and the fears of doing them imperfectly. Maybe time to give ourselves a break :)