As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day with roses and chocolates, Melita Cameron-Wood speaks to experts in love and relationships to ask the age-old question: What is love?

“Love: what a big word and such a misunderstood emotion. It’s a word that’s used to reassure one’s life partner, yet also to justify one’s abuse,” says Matthew Bartolo, a counsellor and psychotherapist who specialises in sex and relationships.

Within the context of his work Matthew has helped countless people on their life journey.

“Over the past 11 years, I have had the privilege of sitting with hundreds of individuals. I’ve tried to help people understand if they loved their lover or their spouse. I’ve had clients who wanted to understand if their love was enough to forgive a partner who had betrayed their trust. I’ve met people who devoted their life to taking care of their ill partner, and I’ve met others who loved their partner, but were unable to do that. Then I’ve seen individuals who promised to remain faithful despite the visible struggle caused by a mismatch of sexual appetite, and others who loved their partner so much that they accepted an open relationship,” says Matthew who, in 2011, founded Willingness, a multi-disciplinary centre in Żebbuġ that offers services related to sex, family and health.

Our definition of love is something that we are taught as we observe our main caregivers relating to each other

Before that Matthew had a varied career, with previous work ranging from hairdressing to primary school teaching. His life path changed while on a counselling course in London. It led him to quit both his teaching job and his role as an addiction counsellor in Malta. He then temporarily relocated to the UK, where he worked in an NHS sexual health clinic and a specialised unit for young sex offenders, while pursuing his MSc in Sex and Relationship Psychotherapy.

He now dedicates much of his professional life to helping people with issues connected to sex and relationships.

The spectrum of these examples alone demonstrates the extent to which love can manifest itself in different ways, but it also highlights the fact that, as humans, we often struggle to determine what “love” means to us.

“If someone had to ask me what love is, I would say, ‘I genuinely do not know!’” Matthew says. “But what I can say is that our definition of love is something that we are taught as we observe our main caregivers relating to each other. Society, religious beliefs, and media are also great influencers of how individuals show love and expect to be loved.”

Love begins with self-love

For Rita Briffa, a reiki master teacher, well-being consultant and the author of My Way to Success: Through Healing Self-Love, love starts with yourself.

“Self-love is very vital,” Rita comments. “When I was growing up, if you said you loved yourself, people would call you egocentric, but life has taught me that you cannot find love outside you. It’s an illusion. Nobody can give you love if you do not love yourself. If you love yourself unconditionally, by accepting your good points, your dark side, your shadows, your grey areas, then in doing so and by putting yourself first, out of all the love that you give to yourself, you can give it to anyone. Then I can love anyone as I love myself.”

Like Matthew, Rita used to work in another field before changing her career path. Following almost 30 years in the civil service, Rita decided to leave her office job behind her, and in 2011, she founded her wellbeing consultancy and the Healing Hands School of Reiki in Żurrieq.

Now, she helps people to get back in touch with their inner essence through reiki and coaching. “When you calm the mind and the heart and get them to follow the essence, then you are able to love yourself unconditionally,” she explains.

The more grateful you are for the little things in your life, the more they expand

According to Rita, certain people are guided by the body’s lower three chakras (the root, sacral and solar plexus chakras), which make them sexually more active and more likely to make decisions based upon their instincts. Others operate by primarily using the body’s upper three chakras (the crown, third eye and throat chakras). These people are more preoccupied with their thoughts and live more in their heads than in reality.

“The heart chakra is the balancer,” Rita remarks. Through her therapy, she encourages her clients to allow the mind and the heart to communicate with one another. Rather than seeing them as opposing forces, the two can be seen as a support system that can help clients to make better decisions.

Decluttering is also one of Rita’s ways of helping her clients to shed negative energy and focus on the present and the promise of the future instead of the past. “The more I remove, the more I will rise,” she says. “Even a simple top that someone used to wear at a bad time in their life carries that energy – so just get rid of it. I don’t work on the past. It takes so much energy to work over all that past. We work from now onwards. My role is to inspire and empower my clients. I am like a lamppost. It is their journey. It’s okay for them to lean on me for a while. My coaching helps people to appreciate the simple things in their lives. For me, gratitude is the healer. The more grateful you are for the little things in your life, the more they expand. The more you focus on what is not working properly, the more you get of that. We are a mirror. What we say, we attract. This has a lot of power. It heals us and it can make us sick.”

Love is… spending time, not money 

For many, however, being kind to oneself doesn’t always feel like an easy task. Matthew encounters a high number of people through his work who are convinced that they are not good enough.

These feelings of inadequacy can impact people on a mental, physical and financial level, which in turn affects both intimacy and sexual appetite. “Some people feel that they will be judged because their body is not sex-ready, in the same way that some people refuse to go to the beach in summer because their body is not beach-ready.”

In February, the month in which Valentine’s Day is celebrated, these feelings of uneasiness can be exacerbated, as many singles reflect on why they haven’t found a suitable partner, and those in relationships consider whether they are truly satisfied with the life they have built with their partner.

Rita notes: “As human beings, we are always seeking love, and there is love outside, but with experience and wisdom, there is always another entity out there willing to meet you, but you have to build your own agenda. You have to know get to know yourself and understand what you want from that relationship and what you are ready to give to it. Then you do not accept anything and anyone.”

For those in a relationship this Valentine’s Day, Matthew stresses the importance of spending time rather than excessive amounts of money on each other. “How many hours away from each other did Valentine’s Day cost you?” he asks. “Buying gifts and going out for romantic dinners can strengthen a relationship. But is it worth spending five hours away from each other doing overtime work to afford a weekend break together?”

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