How do you know if you’re good at loving? Is it how you feel? What you miss when the ones you love are not there? 

What words would you use to describe the best love there is? Self-sacrifice? Elation? Happiness? Completedness? Pain? Something else? 

I used to make my mother sad as a kid when I came back from camp or whatever and she’d ask whether I’d missed her. 

No. I hadn’t. 

Not even a little bit? 

No. Not even. 

Why not? 

I just didn’t. 

Truth is, I had no way to answer that question. But it was indeed an important one. Why hadn’t I missed her? Why hadn’t I even realized that I wasn’t missing her? 

She used to say I was incapable of love, that I had a heart of stone. Maybe I did. Maybe I still do. Or maybe not. 

Love is an emotion, but it’s also a state of mind. Sometimes it’s an infatuation. But let’s leave aside for the moment the kind of love that gives you butterflies in the stomach and keep our focus only on those relationships that are, relatively speaking, calm and collected. 

Like your kids. Or – unless you’re me – your parents. Your longtime friend who is like a sister to you. What kind of person are you when you feel love for them? What kind of person are you when you express love to them? Are those two persons the same? 

Do you speak differently to your loved ones as you do to the bus driver? Are you more considerate, or less? 

When you’re away on a business trip, do you find yourself missing your kids? Or does this feeling only show up when you call or text them? 

Some people can go for days without touching their significant other or telling them how much they care for them. Some loving couples rarely kiss. Others need constant contact, even when physically apart. Is the love shared by the non-touchy kind of folks better or worse than the other kind? Does it matter? Is a kiss a proof of love? The Cher song seems to imply it is. But I don’t know. Ever kissed someone you don’t love? Me, too. Did it fool them? Maybe. Does it matter? Beats me. 

Some parents shake hands with their young children. When he was prime minister, Stephen Harper got in some trouble for doing just that. Apparently he felt very hurt by the criticism. Truth be told, I found the handshake cold, although I understand kids may not like hugs from their parents when news cameras are there to immortalize their every move. But me, I hug my kids lots and always have. I will continue to do so until they beg me to stop. Which I hope is never. It’s not because kids grow up that they don’t want to feel your arms around them. 

Is one kind of parent better than the other? Does hugging mean you love them more? Are hug-friendly kids better than more standoffish ones? How do you even measure this stuff? 

It’s mightily tempting to believe that people who show their affection differently than we do must have something wrong with them. Love is such a basic emotion, we all take it very seriously and personally, even those who’ve given up on it. Maybe especially them. 

But is all this justified? Is there such a thing as being a “good” loving person or a “bad” one? And who’s to judge? According to what criteria? 

I don’t see my kids every day since I moved out of their house this summer. And I don’t find myself aching to see their faces on the days when I don’t see them. I’m in regular electronic communication with them; some days we yak up a storm, other days it’s monosyllabic. Kind of like face-to-face conversations with your own tweens, come to think of it. And it’s all good. I enjoy the time we spend together, especially when they open up to me and we talk about more serious stuff than how annoyed they are to have math homework again. But I don’t feel a void in the pit of my stomach when they’re not with me. 

Do I love them? 

Yes of course I do. But is it the right kind of love? Well, that depends who you ask. For some people, you can’t possibly love your kids from an apartment 12 km away. If you love your kids you live with them otherwise you’re just selfish. Yes, some of them say it that way. They think it, too. But are they right? Because other people see the love despite the physical distance and since they don’t know what’s in other people’s heart they refrain from judging too quickly. Which one is right, even if you discount the insults? 

What’s important in a meaningful relationship? To be present? To say the right things? To bring gifts? To listen? To care enough to pick up the trash? 

What’s a good parent? Kids have been known to love theirs even when they didn’t deserve it. Some parents continue to love their children even after they were convicted of nasty crimes. Is love contingent on behaviour? When I was growing up, I believed that. And since I wasn’t always behaving all that well, it made sense that I should consider myself unlovable. Or at least difficult to love. But was it true? 

What’s a good marriage? Is it enough to be polite and kind to each other? Is a sexless marriage acceptable? Some people live very happily together that way. Others couldn’t imagine. But is it still a good marriage if both partners are happy with the situation? Do you need to have proof of love to feel it? What if he never brings you flowers but always clears the snow off your car before you go to work. Is he still a keeper? 

Do you owe your children everything? Including denying your own essence to be with them? Or do you owe them the best of who you really are? What, exactly, is unconditional love? Are you supposed to put up with being taken for granted because of it? What about adult children who steal money from their parents. Are the parents obliged to keep loving the children? Is it OK for them to do so, even as they call the cops to report the behaviour?  

What do you need to do or say, how do you need to behave, to prove your love? Or do you even have to? If the person you love doesn’t feel it, is it your responsibility to be a different person who loves differently? Or would that different love feel fake? What’s worse: a love that’s misunderstood or one that’s artificial? 

Am I a monster because I never missed my parents when I was at camp? Am I supremely loving because I hug my kids so hard sometimes snot comes out? Or am I a lost cause since I moved out? You, with your happy loving marriage that hasn’t seen sex since 1982, are you better off than this hot steamy couple over here with the messy sheets who argue over breakfast every single day? 

Love is complicated and gloriously simple at the same time. You know when you feel it – whether you’re giving it or receiving it or, miracle of miracles, when you feel it and receive it at the same time. 

But like art, is in the eye, or heart, of the beholder (the belover?). Maybe some mysteries are better left unsolved.