Love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision. — Judith Butler, Doubting Love

Much like reading Judith Butler, doubting love can be dangerous. It begins innocently enough with the acknowledgment of love’s complexities, and then without even knowing it you say something stupid like “love is transcendent, it’s not actually real.” Before you know it, you’re stammering your way through a staunch defense of the unknowable nature of love, and all you’re really saying is I doubt myself, I’m making this all up as I go along, and it terrifies me.

And that’s okay, but this approach is probably going to satisfy you just as little as it does the unfortunate person who has to listen to you. One of my favorite quotes about love is by Toni Morrison, “Love is never any better than the lover.” But I’d change it a tiny bit: Love is never any better than the lovers. And that’s because love is an exchange.

Take note of the difference between asserting “love is confounding” and admitting “sometimes I confound myself.” By offering a fragment of yourself that’s not just unknown to them, but also partially hidden from you, you invite that person to an uneven exchange that beckons, by virtue of its incompleteness, for something in return. There, in between words, love manifests, not as a feeling to be handed back and forth, but as a force that starts pulling you together.

Freud once said that a man who doubts his own love may, or rather, must doubt every lesser thing. In a very real way, perhaps that’s because when we’re doubting love, we’re often doubting ourselves.