One Question Quiz
The most romantic two-day love of all (Image: Archi Banal)
The most romantic two-day love of all (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJanuary 18, 2024

Help Me Hera: What does romantic love feel like?

The most romantic two-day love of all (Image: Archi Banal)
The most romantic two-day love of all (Image: Archi Banal)

What does it look like? How does it move? How do you spot it in the wild?

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to

Dear Hera,

My early adult life I replicated the abusive dynamics of my parents because I genuinely thought that love was supposed to be a rollercoaster. Then, after realising hurting people intentionally was probably not it, I spent a fair chunk of time dating people who hurt me. In other words, I was still mistaking an abusive dynamic for a loving relationship, I was just doing it from the other side.

So I went to a lot of therapy and started unpacking what healthy and unhealthy patterns were. I shifted my focus from someone who gives me heart palpitations towards someone who is a really good, attractive friend. Then, surprise! I met someone incredible and I thought – hot dang, I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it.

But, like Janet from The Good Place, despite all assurances, it was another cactus. I can go into details about it, but if I’m honest, I’m really embarrassed about how badly I let her treat me. I really did feel like I had got it this time.

Now I am left with a deep distrust of my own judgement. Mostly, I think, because it’s clear I am still kind of fumbling around in the dark, hoping I stumble across something healthy so I can at least get a feel for what to look for.

Any direction would be much appreciated! I’d love to believe I am not doomed to seek this shit out forever!

Much love,
Cacti Collector

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Cacti Collector 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines romantic love as “when a man sees a lady, and she has nice hair.” But the truth is, love means radically different things to different people. In Texas, it’s an airport. In tennis, it means nothing at all. 

You ask how to spot romantic love in the wild. But I think what you’re really asking is how to tell whether the person you’re dating is a worthy candidate for your heart, or a nasty little freak, who will wizen your every happiness, and give you recurring stress ulcers.

Honestly, I can understand your dilemma. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the relationship you’re in is good for you, and if not, whether you’re the one to blame. Especially when you’re in your early twenties, when everyone’s a freelance emotional terrorist. Is it normal that your girlfriend sleeps over at her chiropractor’s house once a week? Is this how ordinary couples behave, or are you trapped in a toxic dynamic of prematurely middle-aged resentment? Not knowing the answer to these questions doesn’t mean your romantic compass is irreparably broken. Only that it can be hard to see something clearly when you’re right in the middle of it. Like Jonah trying to taxonomically classify a whale from the inside.

Learning to have good romantic relationships is a steep learning curve. Once you get past the first flush of endorphins and really set about getting to know someone, you’re kind of on your own together. You can’t prepare for it, no matter how allegedly stable your parents’ marriage is. People don’t get good at this stuff by sitting alone at the top of a mountain, licking rainwater off boulders. People get better by making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and hopefully making wiser mistakes the next time around.

It’s great that you didn’t want to replicate the fucked up dynamics of your parent’s marriage, and sought help to address that. Congratulations. You’re already like three tiers of enlightenment higher than everyone else. But it can be harder than ever to tell when you’re in an unhealthy relationship, because everyone’s so fluent in the language of self-actualisation. These days everyone’s read bell hooks, even the sociopaths. But has it helped us to improve our relationships, or simply given us a more sophisticated vocabulary to express our collective interpersonal derangement?

It’s easy to look back over your long list of romantic failures, and conclude your judgement is inherently flawed. But most relationships which end, end badly. And with every catastrophic interpersonal failure, at least you’re getting closer to figuring out what you don’t want.

But that’s not very actionable advice, so here are some questions to consider:

Do you feel safe and accepted by your partner? Can you communicate issues without one or both of you having some kind of meltdown?

Do you genuinely like, respect and enjoy each other’s company?

Are you constantly miserable, or on edge? Is your relationship a source of stress, or a place of refuge?

Is your partner, in general, on your side? Do they support your goals and aspirations? Do you trust they have your back, and want the best for you?

If someone treated your friend the way your partner treats you, would you be shopping for a flattering pantsuit to wear at their wedding, or telling them to run?

If the answer to any of these questions give you pause for thought, you might have some swift reconsidering to do.

We’re all familiar with the old corporate adage, love is work. But that doesn’t mean the work should be gruelling. Romantic relationships should, for the most part, make your life better. If you’re consistently miserable, something isn’t right. 

Nobody can tell you exactly what a good relationship looks like. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself. After all, one person’s Academy Award-winning romance is another person’s codependent nightmare. Getting to know and be known deeply by someone is a long, slow and at times, excruciating process, which requires a vast amount of patience and humility. You can’t always get there faster or smarter. Sometimes you’ve just got to give in and submit to the humiliating ordeal of being known. But the best part of a healthy relationship is you don’t have to figure it out alone. 

Don’t let a few bad cacti erode your sense of optimism. A great love is always worth seeking out, even if your heart gets dragged through the mud in the process. Finding someone who gives you heart palpitations and treats you well isn’t always easy. But you don’t have to hit the jackpot every time. Sometimes just once is enough.


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