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About Love #2: What is Love?

As I pointed out in my previous article, the word ‘love’ is used in a confusing number of different and sometimes contradictory ways.

Looking at ancient Greek words for love and modern descriptions of love, I believe that you can break the way people tend to use the word ‘love’ into two fundamental subdivisions:

  1. In-the-moment feeling(s) inspired by someone
  2. An ongoing commitment to a particular kind of relationship with someone

This is a potential problem to begin with, because those subdivisions represent two completely different categories. A feeling and a commitment are not remotely the same kind of thing. You may maintain a commitment to something throughout your whole life, but feelings are fleeting and constantly changing. A commitment involves a decision, but feelings are not chosen.

Unfortunately, I think that an awful lot of people fuse the two and define love as:

  • A long-term commitment to have a particular feeling, or to share that feeling

People who hold this latter view often believe that they are committed to the relationship because of their feelings for the other person, and/or that their feelings are the evidence of their commitment. They may go to great lengths, either consciously or unconsciously to hold on to their “good” feelings toward their partner, or to repress or ignore “bad” feelings like anger or disappointment.

In this belief system, your ‘relational duties’ are to be loving and lovable at all times. The relationship contract says that my duty is to always feel loving toward you and always act in a way that makes it easy for you to feel loving towards me, and your duty is to always feel loving toward me and always act in a way that makes it easy for me to feel loving towards you.

This definition of love is a complete set-up for failure. No one has control over their feelings, and no one’s feelings stay consistent for years on end. If you believe that you must consistently have positive feelings toward your partner in order to maintain the kind of love relationship you want, you will perceive it as a crisis if you have feelings that are not ‘loving’. Likewise your partner’s feelings. When ‘not loving’ feelings appear — and they will, if you are human — you are likely to respond by blaming either yourself or your partner for failing in your relational duties.

The problem here is not in putting importance on feelings. Feelings are very important in an intimate relationship. It is a problem to expect feelings to work in a way that is contrary to the way feelings actually work.

Likewise, the problem is not in wanting commitment from yourself and your partner. Commitment is very important in a long-term relationship. It is a problem to expect commitment to work in a way that is contrary to the way commitment actually works.

Let’s return to my original subdivisions of the ways ‘love’ is used. A somewhat more scientific description of the division might be:

  1. Bodily felt experience regarding another person (affection, attraction, etc.)
  2. Conclusions or decisions you make regarding another person and your relationship with him or her

#1 is essentially a physical and emotional category, while #2 is a thinking and evaluative category. It is useful to note that what we think of as love often involves coming to conclusions and making decisions regarding another person (#2) on the basis of the bodily felt experiences we have regarding that person (#1).

This at least potentially makes love a process that joins head and heart, but ideally not in the fused manner of committing to maintain a ‘loving’ feeling. By recognizing the two separate aspects of the process we can be more fully aware of what is happening, more accepting of it, and better prepared to respond to it in healthy, sustainable ways.

The nature of bodily felt experience is that it changes. Attraction ebbs and flows, as does affection, excitement, and lust. Felt experience also tends to lessen in intensity over time, as the excitement of the new and novel is replaced by the comfort of the familiar.

Armed with this knowledge, you don’t have to panic when initial infatuation fades and you notice that you no longer desire to be with your beloved 24 hours a day, or find everything s/he does delightful. You don’t have to be alarmed when interest in things other than cocooning in the apartment all weekend reasserts itself. Infatuation has an expiration date, whether weeks, months, or years in the future.

You can also anticipate that your conclusions and assessments about your partner and your suitability for each other will be affected by these changes in felt experience. This is a normal process. When it happens, it is reasonable and healthy to take a new look at your partner and relationship. At this point you will likely need to discover and develop new bases for the relationship in the absence of effortless adulation. Your focus on the relationship is likely to shift to more sustainable qualities such as respect, shared goals and values, and commitment to building something of worth together.

This is how sustainable commitment works: it is not derived from ceaselessly positive feelings but from an honest assessment of how the relationship supports the values of each of you and a willingness to change it when necessary to better support your values and goals. If your only relationship-focused values are ‘feeling good’ and ‘not feeling bad’, then you will be forced to grow and mature if you are going to sustain a healthy, happy long-term relationship.

The process I have just described is going to repel some people. In the Disney-fied, “happily ever after” version of love that many of us grew up with, consciously assessing your relationship and your partner may seem cold and calculating. Unfortunately, if you don’t do it consciously you are still likely to do it unconsciously, and if you only do it unconsciously you may very well not discover or develop new bases on which to build your long-term relationship. The future of your relationship will be entirely a matter of blind chance.

Perhaps you think this all sounds incredibly un-romantic. I would propose, however, that this perspective can allow you to enjoy as much of the “high” of intimate relationship as possible without setting yourself up for failure at maintaining a viable long-term relationship. You can recognize that it probably doesn’t make sense to make long-term life decisions in the thrall of initial infatuation, and you don’t have to try to force the infatuation to continue beyond its natural lifespan. Instead, you can focus on appreciating what you have as it happens and take appropriate steps at the appropriate time to set yourself up for long-term relationship success.

For more on romance and relationship, read my next article.

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