By Risa Alfieri, Psy.D.
What is your definition of love? As a behavioral couples therapist, I ask couples this question. I hear a range of answers, and one of the most problematic is that love is a feeling. It is described as a warm fuzzy feeling, butterflies in your stomach, or a sense of caring for another. These feelings can motivate us to engage in certain behaviors; we give our partner the benefit of the doubt, do little acts to show we care or are thinking about them, and spend time together, just to name a few. The danger in viewing love as simply a feeling is that feelings come and go, ebb and flow, change and shift. The “honeymoon phase” typically lasts 18 months (if you are lucky), then the real work of a relationship begins. The first argument, disappointment, unintended hurt that is part of any relationship, can leave us feeling a range of emotions, and perhaps love for our partner isn’t at the forefront of our minds.
What happens when the honeymoon phase is over? Our definition of love needs to shift from just a feeling, to an action. Defining love as a verb, rather than a feeling, means that even when we aren’t feeling loving feelings towards our partner, we can still demonstrate loving acts. Consider this common situation, partners have a disagreement and feel hurt by one another; acting on the feeling of hurt may mean they don’t speak to each other for the rest of the night, say hurtful words to one another, sleep separately, etc. In this situation, upholding love as an action does not mean they dismiss the hurt, rather they keep in mind what a loving action would be in this situation; perhaps that means sitting down to talk it out and problem solve, remain present, and compromise. Keeping the definition of love as an action does not free a relationship from problems, rather it keeps us free and flexible to work through problems effectively with the good of the relationship, our partner, and ourselves in mind.
Mindfulness of present moment is an abstract concept that is often difficult to initially grasp and practice daily. A metaphor I often use with my clients to explain the importance of mindfulness of present moment is one of driving a car.Where is your gaze and attention when you are driving your car effectively?
We all know we have a rear view mirror in a car to monitor immediate traffic behind us and bring attention to how that traffic might impact our car or safety. Rear view mirrors clearly serve an important purpose. However, driving while consistently checking our rear view mirrors would not be safe or advantageous. Driving in this manner would inevitably result in us hitting another car, veering out of our lane, missing our exit, and a variety of other aversive consequences.
Similarly, we have the ability when driving to look far ahead toward where our exit might be or what traffic might be in the far distance. People often do this as a way to prepare, feel in control, and lower anxiety. However, driving your car while shifting your gaze to miles down the highway is also not efficient. This viewpoint serves to increase anxiety, as the future of traffic miles down the road is uncertain. Similar to over-use of rear view mirrors, always keeping our gaze a mile down the road will result in aversive consequences like rear-ending the car in front of us because we can not appropriately respond to in the moment traffic patterns.
Therefore, the concept of mindfulness of present moment comes into play. It’s not effective to live in our rear view mirror or attempt to predict what will occur miles down the road in our lives. These strategies influence anxiety, depressed mood and decrease fulfillment and engagement our lives. It’s most effective to be mindful of your current driving, a few car lengths ahead, and be cognizant of how your past impacts your present. When you observe your gaze has drifted to the far past or future, practice re-directing your attention back to the present.