Curiously we speak of love as one thing rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath a single word: being loved and loving. It appears that we can only make a relationship work properly when we are finally ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.
We start knowing only about being loved. It comes to seem very wrongly like the norm. To the child it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up while remaining almost always warm and cheerful. The parents don't reveal how often they've bitten their tongue, fought back the tears, and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare.
We learn of love in an entirely non-reciprocal context. The parent loves but they don't expect the favour to be returned in any significant way. The parent doesn't get upset when the child doesn't notice the new haircut or ask carefully calibrated questions about how the meeting at work went or suggest that the parent go upstairs and take a much needed nap. Parent and child may both love, but each party is on a very different end of the axis – unbeknownst to the child.
This is why in adulthood when we first say we long for love what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be administered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely sympathetic and patient towards us, act selflessly and make it all better.
This is – naturally – a disaster for our unions. For any relationship to work we need to move firmly out of the position of the child and into that of the parent. We need to become someone who can sometimes subordinate their own demands to the needs of another.
To be adults in love we have to learn – perhaps for the very first time – to do something truly remarkable: for a time at least to put someone else ahead of us. That's what true, mature love actually is, much to everyone's initial surprise.