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Is it love, or a mutual strangulation society?

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By Martha Beck
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Oprah

(Oprah.com) -- In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare's "King Lear"), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only "I love you as meat loves salt."

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Believing the fantasies described in love songs can be unhealthy.

The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie.

He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. "All along," he cries, "it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!"

The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in "King Lear," where pretty much everybody dies).

Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are "meat loves salt" commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive.

Want an honest and long lasting relationship? Make sure you and your partner can recite these five statements.

I can live without you, no problem

"I can't live," wails the singer, "if living is without you." The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn't love; it's desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner's needs.

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If this is how you feel, don't start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. "I can live without you" is an assurance that sets the stage for real love.

My love for you will definitely change

Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we've established some measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there's no possibility of loss. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a relationship than shore it up.

The reason is that everything -- and everyone -- is constantly changing. We age, grow, learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests and drop old ones. Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true. A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible.

You're not everything I need

I'm a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I'm puzzled by lovers who claim that their romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills.

Trying to get all this input from one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a couple believes "We must fulfill all of each other's needs, each becomes exhausted by the effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.

Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn't strengthen a relationship. Mutually supporting each other's personal growth does.

I won't always hold you close

There's a thin line between a romantic statement like "I love you so much, I want to share my life with you until death do us part" and the lunatic-fringe anthem "I love you so much that if you try to leave me, I'll kill you."

People who say such things love others the way spiders love flies; they love to capture them, wrap them in immobilizing fetters, and drain nourishment out of them at peckish moments. This is not the kind of love you want.

The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the beloved free to make his or her own choices.

You and I aren't one

Perhaps you are neither a spider nor a fly, but a chameleon who morphs to match the one you love. Or you may date chameleons, choosing partners who conform to your personality. Either way, you're not in a healthy relationship. In fact, you're not in a relationship at all.

If you're living by the "We are one" ideal, it's high time you found out how terrific love for two can be. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn't go. Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you're accustomed to disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you tend to dominate, you'll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person rather than a human mirror.

By Martha Beck from "O, The Oprah Magazine," March 2002 E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Martha Beck is the author of "Finding Your Own North Star" and "Expecting Adam."

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