— Emily, New York
A: Can we use calculators for this question because, really, how do you measure love? On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being "I thank my lucky stars I found him," and 1 being "He's fine, but I'd rather have a cookie")? Can you then subtract your love amount from his love amount and multiply that love differential by your age to determine the size and seriousness of the love gap?
No, ladies, you can't. I know this because I've tried. In fact, I've heard that theory before—that it's better to be with a man who loves you more. I can't recall who was pushing it (maybe Mothers in Need of Grandchildren?), but I think the idea was that love comes more naturally to women, whereas men are the "special needs" gender, requiring emotional handicapping.
At least, that was my interpretation. Clearly, at the time, I was a smidge bitter. I might have dated a few too many men who seemed to love me less than I loved them. I might have felt that somebody owed me a love debt and it was time to pay up.
Then I dated a smart, handsome man who seemed to love me more than I loved him, and I realized that's no good, either. I remember being annoyed when he came home at lunch one day to bring me flowers. I was annoyed by the interruption (I was writing!), annoyed by the flowers (a perfectly nice supermarket bouquet), and annoyed with myself for not being able to appreciate this lovely gesture from this lovely man. I thought, "What's wrong with me?"
Of course, nothing was wrong with me. It's true they weren't great flowers, but with the right guy, I would love any flowers. That's part of the danger of being with someone you're not sure about. Everything the guy does, no matter how sweet, gets filtered through the "Why don't I love him more?" lens, which leads to guilt and resentment on both sides.
I understand the appeal of being the person who loves less. It seems safe. How could he ever hurt you if he feels lucky to have you? You've got the power.
You've also got the doubt, the guilt, and the fear that this might be as good as it gets. It's that kind of thinking that makes you start to wonder if it's okay to love less. But I'm here to tell you it's not. I'm here to tell you what my friend Marie told me when I was tempted to settle for the male equivalent of a supermarket bouquet. She said, "A good relationship is one where both people think they got a great deal."
That simple idea made a lot of sense to me. Why shouldn't the person who loves less love fully, and why shouldn't the person who loves more have that love returned?
Then again, maybe your love will grow, Emily. You owe it to yourself to stay in the relationship as long as it takes to clarify your feelings. But at a certain point, when it comes to love, my experience is that you're in or you're out. And if you're out, you need to ask yourself, "Why am I still in?"
Cindy Chupack is the author of The Between Boyfriends Book (St. Martin's Griffin).