When people talk about love, they often mean the intense kind of involuntary emotional states you “fall” into that go by that name. It’s a model of love you see in Disney movies, hear about in pop songs, and read about in corny romance novels. It’s the kind that gives you “butterflies” 24/7, makes your heart beat faster, and that fills your every thought. You could talk to your beloved for hours and hours on end and never notice the time.
This is the kind of love — “limerence” some psychologists call it — that we all learn to expect from life. We are told never to settle for anything less.
There is something sweet about this phase of “falling” in love, but it’s way over done as a full model for loving that grows and lasts. Most romance fictions fail to mention the fact that almost everyone knows or soon will learn — these intense feelings are not permanent. Good thing — they barely scratch the surface of what is important about loving.
When you first get to know your partner, everything is new and exciting. Both you and your partner make an effort to impress and charm the other one. But the novelty begins to wear off. More and more, you notice imperfections you hadn’t seen before, and more and more, you get to look underneath your partner’s mask, until you finally realize:
The knight in shining armor on that majestic steed is just the local village boy, and the beautiful princess on that high balcony is just the girl from the farmer’s market. That applies to you too, of course, which you may realize as you thump to the ground from your horse or pedestal.
People often feel disillusioned when this happens. The excitement and thrill has been replaced with a new normal. Your partner might still be the same person, but the feelings are different than they once were. As a result, people can begin to wonder if maybe something went wrong. Maybe the reason why they don’t feel the same as before is because the relationship is not working out. Eyes begin to wander; break ups begin to loom.
I am known for my work in experiential avoidance but the data on that process has broadened my view over the years (a shout out especially to my Australian colleague Joe Ciarrochi). Being attached to particular emotions — clinging to them — is as toxic as running from them. Emotions help inform us about what is going on, but to do that they need to change!
It’s like listening to an FM radio. The reason you can hear music or be told the news is because the frequency of the signal changes — it’s “modulated.” If you stopped that from happening all you would hear is a hiss. The same applies to emotions. For them to work they need to change in ways you notice. Emotions allow you to notice what is present and how your past echoes into the present. That in turn allows you to know more about how to act in the here and now that fosters the kind of life you want to live.
When love is defined entirely as an emotion, however, any “signal” inside our feelings is a threat — it seemingly means love is going away. We seemingly need to run or cling — but really life is asking for us to notice and learn.
Although romantic love often starts from passion, it can transform into something more authentic and intimate. Something that is more meaningful, and thus more fulfilling. However, this can only happen over time, after the initial “honeymoon phase”, when two partners start seeing each other for who they really are – together with all their faults, blemishes, and imperfections.
In order to get to this point, you have to rethink your definition of love. While we often think of love as a warm feeling, it’s more helpful to think of love as something that you do that is connected to what we choose to hold dear.
For instance, you may have an argument with your partner where you end up yelling and shouting, and even leave the house. It is probably fair to say that in this moment, the feelings of love are hard to find. The actions of love, however, are always accessible to you. You can always choose to act with love. In this particular instance, it may mean feeling angry and frustrated, while still reaching out in kindness to your partner. You can tell them that you are “upset, but that you still want to work together to overcome this issue.”
This is not easy, and sometimes it may seem straight out impossible. Crucial to this step is knowing what being loving means to you, and how you can show it with your behavior. It may mean opening a door for your partner. It may mean listening to them after a long and stressful day. And it may mean setting healthy limits, since if you are not loving to yourself, you cannot be truly loving to another.
Love comes in many shapes, and you can manifest it through your actions.
Inside the choice of love and the action of behaving lovingly, you can then afford to notice what helps you feel close and what does not; what lifts up life and what does not. Loving emotions then can do what they were designed to do — to help you learn how to be a better you, attached to another person in a healthy way.
You may be surprised at what you find when the choices and actions of love are an end in itself. It’s a bit of a paradox, but you may find that loving feelings are actually more likely to come when you choose to be loving to your partner, not because of what you can get but because of what you can give.