By Meredith Shirey, MS, LMFT

As a therapist specializing in relationship issues, I often see people in therapy existentially contemplating what love really means. Some wonder whether they truly love(d) their partner, or if their partner truly loves/loved them. These are complicated questions because they often require defining “true love.”

This is, of course, a subjective venture; love may look and feel different to different people. But in considering such questions for yourself, it may be helpful to think about love on a couple of levels: ego love and authentic love (often referred to as “soul love”).

Ego Love

When we determine we have fallen in love with someone, this is often done based on euphoric feelings of infatuation. We think about the person constantly, craving connection with them both physically and emotionally. We want to know their thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. We want to know about their past, be in their present, and dream about a future together.

And in return, we expect them to do the same. We expect reciprocity, desiring them as we expect to be desired. As we give them our time, attention, and affection, we expect the same. We view this quid pro quo as healthy and necessary: I will continue to give so long as I continue to get.

Ego love is not truly selfless because we inherently attach some condition of control or possession to it.

While balance is healthy and necessary in relationships, what really separates authentic love and ego love is this litmus test: If your partner were to leave you tomorrow, would your feelings toward them change? Would you no longer feel love toward your partner out of resentment and anger?

We are conditioned to feel hurt and sadness when we are rejected. This is normal. The question I am posing here goes beyond natural feelings associated with rejection. This is a question of whether you truly love the person or if you love only what they give to you.

Ego love is based on conditions and expectations. Ego love says, “I love you to the extent you love me in return. I will not love you if you decide you do not love or want to be with me.” Ego love has strings attached: “I love you, but you have to change _____.” “I want you to be happy, so long as your happiness is in some way attached to me.” Ego love is not truly selfless because we inherently attach some condition of control or possession to it.

Authentic Love (“Soul Love”)

When love is authentic, it does not seek to control or possess. Authentic love is based on a selfless admiration and fondness for the other person. We truly value and wish them happiness, even if that happiness does not include us.

Authentic love says: “I love you, even if you do not want to be with me. I will not act out in malice, and will not wish you harm if you decide you do not want to be in my life.” Authentic love does not leave room for bitterness.

If You’re Not There, It’s Okay

Ideally, we all want to express authentic love and not ego love to our partners. However, this is not easily done. Often when we are hurt and feel rejected, it is easy to become angry and resentful. We do this out of self-protection, as a means of rationalizing and coping with the pain we feel.

Demonstrating authentic love takes practice, patience, and self-awareness. If you want to move away from ego love, try exploring what makes you believe you love your partner. Find ways to grow your fondness and admiration for the person they are, not what you gain from being with them.

Originally published on GoodTherapy.