Look up the word love in any dictionary and you'll find two separate definitions. The first: an abstract noun encapsulating a feeling of tenderness, passion and warmth. The second: a verb defined by concrete actions such as giving affection or expressing tenderness and care. The trouble with these parallel definitions of love is that too often people are satisfied with (and even preoccupied by) the primary definition and never get around to the secondary one.
Treating love as an "entity" or "idea" often leads to a fantasy of love. This fantasy connection, which binds people together in an imaginary fusion even as they continue to mistreat each other, makes practical and personal adjustments to improve the relationship difficult. We often first experienced the discrepancy between a fantasy of love and the experience of love as children, at times when our parents, who claimed to love us, acted in ways that were not always loving and, even destructive. The more we see love as an ethereal concept, the more we lose sight of the specific behaviors that make love an active expression of our feelings for others. When we see love as a product of action, however, we can look into ourselves and our relationships with fresh eyes and examine how loving we truly are.
If everyone you know was to make a list of the actions they find loving, these lists would most likely include similar qualities. Expressing affection, sexuality and caring are universally considered loving behaviors. Similarly, there are specific actions that are recognized as going against loving feelings. By approaching ourselves and our relationships with this proactive, pro-action perspective, we can change the course of our relationships and develop into more loving individuals.
How to Be More Loving
1) Look at What You Do, Not What You Say
Take a step back and ask yourself: How do I actually treat my partner? Do my actions match my words? One helpful way to examine this question is to make a list of the behaviors and actions you would define as loving, then ask yourself if these behaviors and actions match your own. What specific things can you do to be more loving? For example, if you say it is important to you to support your partner's independence, but act upset every time they want to hang out with their friends, you should alter your behavior to fit your beliefs.
2) Stop Withholding
Withholding is one of the biggest obstacles to becoming a more loving individual.Early on, children learn to withhold positive qualities either as an indirect expression of anger or as a self-protective defense against being hurt. In either case, withholding often persists into adulthood leaving us guarded and less vulnerable to love. Sadly, it results in hurting both people involved. These patterns of withholding often include feeling victimized or consumed by others.
Holding back positive qualities, especially ones that your partner values, disrupts the loving feelings and intimacy in a relationship. For example, if you know it makes your partner happy to be affectionate, but you refuse to be affectionate in public, you hinder your partner's loving feeling toward you. Breaking your patterns of withholding is an immediate way to become a more loving individual.
3) Lay Down Your Arms
If you find yourself in a heated argument with your partner, the most loving thing you can do is unilaterally disarm. Drop your stake in winning the argument in the interest of improving your relationship. This does not mean that you should suddenly agree with everything your partner says and stop having an opinion. On the contrary, unilateral disarmament is a rational decision to take the high road, not overreact and lash out in the moment and choose to approach the problem with a cooler head. Even the most intense arguments can be diffused by saying something warm and understanding, expressing physical affection and stressing that being close to the other person is more important to you than being right.
4) Fire the Coach in Your Head
All of us are plagued by a critical inner voice, which provides an inner dialogue of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. These "voices" not only do damage to our confidence and self-esteem, they also wreak havoc on our intimate relationships. Through negative coaching, our critical inner voice encourages our defenses and diminishes our trust in others. Sometimes these thoughts come in the form of self-attacks (i.e. "You're such an idiot, no wonder she doesn't like you."), other times they attack the objects of our affection (i.e. "He is so pathetic, why do you even like this creep?"). Another way the voice operates is by providing bad advice (i.e. "You can't trust anyone. Don't be too vulnerable or you will look like a fool.")
Listening to these "voices" and acting on their bad advice, creates a greater fear of intimacy and puts distance between people in a relationship. Identifying specific things your critical inner voice says about you and your relationship is the first step toward breaking the pattern. Voice therapy, a process of verbalizing the the negative point of view of the critical inner voice and then answering back to it with your real point of view, is an effective way to insure that this negative coaching doesn't continue to interfere with your relationship.
5) Develop Yourself as an Individual
Recent studies show that individual happiness and self-confidence are key factors in determining a successful relationship. All the pressure you may put on yourself to find the "right" partner doesn't amount to much if you are not right with yourself. The more you develop yourself as a strong, confident, non-defensive individual, the more likely you are to find happiness with another.
Redefining love in terms of action can benefit an intimate relationship enormously. Following these suggestions will not only make you more loving, it will also make you more lovable. Sadly, many people are more comfortable with the idea of love than they are with real intimacy and relating. By seeing love as a product of action we can break free from our fantasy of love and truly experience loving and being loved. With February looming around the corner, I can't think of a greater gift for Valentine's Day.
Dr. Lisa Firestone is conducting the free webinar "How to Make Love Last: Overcoming the Fear of Intimacy" on Feb. 8 from 11am -12pm PST. Click here to learn more or to register
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships at PsychAlive - Alive to Intimacy