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.