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10 things we learned in nine months of conversations about love

About a year ago, a comment from a single male friend sent Mariana on a research quest to find out if dating in Miami is as bad as we all say it is.

Only a few years before, Gaby had come out of an 11-year relationship. She was interested in understanding love from a new perspective.

We both wanted to dive into this elusive and universal concept of love further, so we decided to host Conversations about Love Jeffersonian dinners. Jeffersonian dinners are gatherings where guests commit to attending and engage openly about one particular topic. They all have one conversation together, with no interrupting, no phones, and with a promise of confidentiality for what is shared. We decided to dive right in and focus our dinners exclusively on the topic of love.

Over nine months, we hosted six dinners with Miamians from all walks of life: single, partnered, engaged, divorced, straight, gay. We didn’t want it to become a space to complain about “dating in Miami,” but rather a real, raw, multifaceted look at what love means to all of us.

They were friends, acquaintances, new friends, and even a couple of our own exes at those dinner tables. By the end of each dinner, we felt like we had formed a new bond with each other.

We hosted the last of these dinners at the Love Lost Miami exhibit at Art Basel in December.

As different as each person’s relationships are, we learned there are some pretty universal truths.

Gaby

1. Men and women can both get just as vulnerable about love

Stereotypes about men being uninterested in discussing emotions and connections could not be more wrong. I realized just how excited men at our dinners were to dive into the topic of love, share their stories, ideas, perspectives and even sometimes their tears with us. One man shared a gut wrenching story of having to break up with his first love because her family wasn’t on board with his religion. Most of the table was in tears.  It floored me.

2. Our pasts shape us, but they don’t have to define us

Our perspective on love and relationships evolves over time, and our experiences can really shape how we feel about love and what we learn. I’ve been married. I have a son. I became single at 30 for the first time in my life. My experiences since then have felt like a different life.

It’s tempting to make assumptions about relationships because of our past. Our pasts are part of us, but they don’t have to define the people we become and our experiences in the future.

3. Heartbreak can feel so isolating, but it doesn’t have to

There were dinners when we dove right into discussing deep heartbreaks. It was fascinating to me that  everyone feels so singularly destroyed by these experiences while they’re happening and like no one could ever understand their  pain, even though almost everyone has felt this way at least once. It was so moving to discuss this pain with friends and strangers and see that we had all felt it at one point or another – and that we were all OK.

4. Love and relationship norms are changing

We talked about our parents. We talked about our grandparents. We talked about what love and relationships are like now that women can also have fulfilling careers. Many of us want to see the world before settling down, and some of us may never want a traditional relationship. We talked about how we balance this new reality with pressure from family and society to settle down and deal with biological clocks. It’s a balancing act and there’s no consensus on any one way to do it.

5. No one has this all figured out

I remember being so intimidated when I became single at 30. I felt so “out of it.” For better or for worse, these dinners helped me see that love and relationships remain complex whether you’ve been single for six months or 20 years. It’s messy and vulnerable and every time you put yourself out there with a new relationship it feels new, fun, exciting and a bit scary. Coming out of these dinners I definitely felt less alone in my experience of feeling clueless about it all.

Mariana

6. Conversations about love always go beyond romantic love

And thank goodness that they do. I love to remind attendees that the Ancient Greeks had six definitions for the word love and that our language has but one. We’ve had conversations about love in corporations, love in society immediately after the election…And it’s all been very interesting and led us to remember that there is a lot more love in the world than we realize if we only focus on romantic love.

7. Opening up about love is not for everyone

A couple people rejected our dinner invites because they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about love. Some of these folks had recently experienced heartbreaks, some had no interest in the topic, and others were just bored by it. Everyone is different and our feelings weren’t hurt – these conversations aren’t for everybody, and we’re happy that the people who showed up were able to do so wholeheartedly. PS –  No friendships were ruined in this process.

8. Our parents are a big influence on how we love

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that parents came up often in our conversations. Their relationships help shape our views of romantic love, sometimes in ways we don’t even realize.

Many of us feel pressured – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly – by our parents to follow the path they’ve taken, usually one toward a traditional, heteronormative marriage because that’s the path they know.

9. Love and sexuality is unique to all of us

We see people and we project onto them a normalcy that we don’t experience in ourselves. Worse – many times when we see a single person of a certain age, we tend to try to partner them up, and if that doesn’t work, we try to figure out what’s wrong with them.

Doing research after one of these dinners, I found out that aromanticism is a thing and I now identify as being on the spectrum.

We’re all human, and we’re all complicated, and we can all be happy in whatever partnered or non-partnered configuration.

10. Talking about love is a great way to find common ground

Love – in the Greek, multiple definition sense – is all around us. Loving and being loved is something we share with our partners, family and friends, and with perfect strangers. In these divided times we live in, perhaps talking about love can help us find common ground and bridge divides.

One of the greatest things we learned from this experience was how willing and excited people were to participate in this incredibly intimate emotional exchange with acquaintances, friends, exes, or even strangers. People were so ready to put away their phones (gasp!), commit to this dinner for at least three hours and share some of their most personal experiences with one another.

Every single dinner hosted a group of people that normally wouldn’t find themselves together in other circumstances. Somehow the seeming randomness of the group worked to create a safe space for sharing. It feels like we’re all longing for a deeper sense of connection with ourselves and with one another, for an opportunity to see our humanity and experiences as universal.

The two of us may be done with the topic of love for now, but we’re both still incredibly fascinated with making space for conversations that go way deeper than the normal smartphone-checking small talk that we’ve become used to. If you feel like recreating this experience with your circle of friends and friends of friends, all it takes is one dinner table, some wine, yummy food and open hearts.