Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

Can Acting In Love Help You Stay In Love?

Why lasting passion might be a matter of practice.

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In her deeply fascinating, often moving TEDtalk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, Amy Cuddy offers up a thesis with startling implications: even the simplest act, repeated over time, can profoundly shape our destiny.

After citing evidence from her own research that two minutes of standing in a more powerful position alters our brain and body chemistry, helping us become more assertive, confident, and passionate, Dr. Cuddy goes on to describe how she, herself, overcame the debilitating neurological effects of a devastating auto accident by faking confidence until she actually became confident. She stands before us, transformed from the diffident, traumatized young woman she once was, into a vibrant, compelling leader in her field—living proof that how we behave shapes not just our feelings, but who we are. 

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For many, this research may come as a surprise, but Dr. Cuddy’s findings are actually part of a rapidly growing body of evidence that, across a range of important human experiences, feeling often follows action.  We tend to assume it’s our personality—the sum total of our attitudes, motivations and emotions— that prompts us to either ascend a stage and address a potential audience of millions or, alternatively, stay at home with a bag of potato chips, yelling at the TV during Sunday Night Football.  But the lesson of Dr. Cuddy’s work, and that of many others, is that very often, it’s the other way around: first we act; then we feel. And some of the earliest studies that arrived at this conclusion concerned not feelings of confidence, but those of attraction and love.

 Over forty years ago, University of Stony Brook psychologist, Arthur Aron, asked pairs of men and women to sit down with one another and take turns answering a series of ever more revealing questions (e.g., “When did you last cry with someone? and “Share an embarrassing moment in your life.”) Then he instructed them to gaze silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Amazingly, when they described their experience, many reported feeling “deeply attracted.” So powerful were the effects that one couple reportedly fell in love and married. Years later, psychologist Joan Kellerman of the Agoraphobia Treatment and Research Center in Boston ran another version of the study, this time including a popular measure for passionate love, with items like (“when I see __ I feel excited.”). Once again, simple eye gazing sparked feelings of excitement and attraction with pairs of strangers.  Remarkably, acting in love led to feeling in love.

 In fairness, if all this work had been limited to undergraduates—as many love and attraction studies used to be—the findings wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. But over the years, Aron and others have accumulated a vast body of evidence that our actions profoundly influence feelings of love and attraction across the life span.  And many are as simple as one of Dr. Cuddy’s power poses. Engaging in new activities together, like physically-challenging sports, sharing important, emotional experiences, such as embarrassing, joyful, or sad childhood memories, taking opportunities to touch one another—all seem to inspire loving, passionate feelings.

You might notice that many of these actions mirror our behaviors when we’re falling in love. We search for exciting, new adventures when dating (maybe not bungee jumping, but at the very least, the new Tarantino movie). We can’t keep our hands off one another. We freely—and happily—share deeply personal experiences. In fact, when we’re first falling for someone, we take it for granted these things will happen. But why do we engage in them? Is it simply because we can’t help it? Are we compelled, from deep inside our bodies and brains, to act in passionate and loving ways?

Modern research on love and attraction suggests that we’re not passive creatures, at the mercy of dwindling hormones or fading looks. Our great gift as humans is that we can take action, reaching out to the world, and to our partners, to stir passion inside ourselves. In the same way that assuming a “power pose” builds our confidence, intentionally engaging in loving, passionate behaviors appears to spark romantic excitement. Novel, exciting experiences, for example, cause dopamine, a brain chemical associated with motivation, to begin flooding the reward centers of our brain. So, by the way, does sex. In a similar manner, a simple caress of the hand releases the hormone, oxytocin, which relaxes us and deepens feelings of trust—and that makes us seek even more physical contact.  And with each such exciting, rewarding experience, all that dopamine makes us come back for more. In short, we begin to crave our partners.  Recent studies on long-term love reveal that partners who feel “very intensely in love” enjoy an active, exciting sex life after 10 years of marriage. Their secret? They touch. They share. They explore.

One of the first things I ask couples who haven’t had sex in a while is jarringly simple: “Have you tried having sex?” Initiating sex is often an easy way for a couple to kick-start their sex life. That’s because it gets all those neurotransmitters and hormones flowing again. It creates a craving.

 I do the same, by the way, with touch and eye contact. “Start looking at each other again,” I say. “Start touching. And don’t wait until you feel like doing it. The feelings will follow.”

 Simple, low tech, love hacks.

 Because in love, the simplest act, repeated over time, can profoundly change how you feel.

If you like my posts, let me know! Subscribe to receive new articles via Email or RSS, and connect with me on facebook and twitter. I frequently respond to comments and questions there. And feel free to check out www.drcraigmalkin.com for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book in progress. 

Article originally featured by The Huffington Post

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Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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