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Joanne Davila Ph.D.
Joanne Davila Ph.D.

The Heart Wants What It Wants. But Do You Have to Follow It?

3 steps to take action when your head knows a relationship's not right for you.

“The heart wants what it wants…” —Emily Dickinson, 1862; Selena Gomez, 2016

The dates, and popularity, of the original Emily Dickinson quote and the recent Selena Gomez song title suggest that the idea that the heart wants what it wants is timeless and reflects a deep emotional experience that people can relate to.

But is it a healthy one?

This is a perfect time to ask this question. Valentine’s Day is all about love, romance, and passion. It’s about whispering sweet nothings to your beloved. It’s about hearts, kisses, roses, champagne, sexy underwear, chocolates, sentimental greeting cards—it’s about celebrating the wonderful thing that is your relationship.

Source: andrey_l/Shutterstock

But what if your relationship isn’t so wonderful? And what if the heart still wants what it wants—which is to be with that person and have that relationship despite the fact that it’s not a good one?

This is a time when listening to what the heart wants can actually hurt you.

The heart wants what it wants—the words themselves imply that the heart wants something that isn't good for it, and that the heart will pursue it, relentlessly, consequences be damned. And if you watch the Selena Gomez video, you can see for certain that her character wants a person she knows is not at all good for her—a recipe for heartbreak.

For many people in relationships that are not so wonderful, Valentine’s Day can be a time to indulge the heart—to allow oneself to get caught up in the romance of the day. These romantic fantasies can, temporarily, protect us from seeing the reality of what’s really going on in our relationship. Because after you have finished the champagne, eaten the chocolate, and put the sexy underwear to good use, the relationship still exists, exactly as it was the day before February 14.

We’re not trying to be killjoys. We’re not anti-romance, nor are we against Valentine’s Day celebrations. They’re wonderful when what your heart wants matches up to what you really have—when the sweet nothings you whisper reflect what already exists in your relationship rather than what you wish existed; when both partners share the love and passion and treat each other in a loving way every day, not just on Valentine’s Day; and really, when any day could be Valentine’s Day in your relationship.

When that’s not the case, we recommend that you take a less heart-driven approach to your relationship, and bring your head into the equation as well:

1. Think about not only what your heart wants, but what it is trying to avoid.

Your heart may want to be with a particular person, but it also wants to avoid disappointment, sadness, loneliness, and insecurity. Who wants to feel those things? No one. But the problem is, when facing the possibility of not being with your desired person, you may think you can’t handle those feelings. You may think that those feelings will overwhelm you or be so painful that you simply could not tolerate them. The fact is, this is just not true. The anticipation of how bad we’re going to feel is often worse than how we really do feel. Even if it’s not, there are ways to cope with loss that will definitely allow us to feel better and move on (and find a better relationship).

2. Think about what you really need and want in a relationship and whether you’re actually getting it.

The only way to not be disappointed in a relationship is to have a clear understanding of:

  • what you want;
  • whether the person you’re interested in or in a relationship with has it; and
  • whether you have what the other person wants, too.

You will not end up in a good relationship by trying to make yourself into what the other person wants (or what you think he or she wants). Nor will you do it by trying to make him or her into what you want, or pretending (i.e., kidding yourself) that they have what you want and meet your needs. If you’re finding yourself saying, “But the heart wants what it wants," then it's probably time to take a long, hard look at your relationship. It's time to figure out if you each have what the other wants and can meet each other’s needs, right now, just as you are. If not, perhaps it’s time to find a new Valentine, or...

3. Directly address the problems in your relationship.

To do so, you’ll need to:

  • Identify what the conflict is. If your relationship isn’t working it means that you and your partner have conflicting needs and want different things—and it’s critical to develop an understanding of this;
  • Communicate directly, clearly, and respectfully. Listen to one another and try to understand each other’s perspectives—so that you can increase the chances of coming to a mutually workable resolution of the problem; and
  • Calm your emotions and let them help you make good decisions—decisions based in reality, not in anger or heart-based fantasies.

The heart may want what it wants, but using your head in addition to it can help you see things more clearly and make better decisions, so that every day can feel like Valentine’s Day.


About the Author
Joanne Davila Ph.D.

Joanne Davila, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and the Director of Clinical Training at Stony Brook University. She is an expert in the study of romantic relationships.

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