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Relationships

Feeling Love in Loving Relationships

You won’t feel more love until you behave in more loving ways.

Key points

  • Feeling love, like feeling happy, is a momentary experience.
  • The sense of a loving relationship, like the sense of a happy life, emerges from reflection on memories.
  • If your relationship seems less than loving, you can improve it by practicing “future memories.”

We all know that love is a wonderful feeling—so wonderful that stories, poems, and songs have celebrated it throughout recorded history. We also know that feeling love had little to do with marriage for most of human history; marrying for love is a recent tradition. And we know too well that feelings of love decline in frequency (not importance) as they compete with other feelings in the routines and stresses of modern living.

Daniel Kahneman’s famous distinction between feeling happy and a happy life holds for love as well. Feeling love, like feeling happy, is a momentary experience. The sense of a loving relationship, like the sense of a happy life, emerges from reflection on memories.

More important, feelings of love run on autopilot, while judging your relationship to be loving requires reflection and effort. Because feelings of love occur without effort, we’re apt to misjudge that our relationships are not loving because they require effort. If we regard them as not loving, they certainly will become so.

If you judge that your relationship is unloving because it requires effort, test the judgment by reflecting on the history of your relationship—thinking in terms of years, not moments or days. In addition to feelings of love, try to recall instances of support, reliability, appreciation, compassion, and kindness.

Future Memories

The sense of a loving relationship eludes us when memories fall below a ratio of several positives for each negative and when the most recent memories are negative. A way to correct this impression is to imagine future memories.

If your relationship seems less than loving, your future memories must derive from your values more than your feelings. This is important because feelings are habits; acting on them repeats patterns of responses from the past.

We all occasionally say, “It feels right" but there’s a fundamental error in this.

A more accurate statement is: “It feels familiar.”

For your relationship to become more loving, it must feature behaviors that are compassionate, kind, appreciative, affectionate, and respectful. Until practice of these behaviors forms habits, you must enact them when you don’t feel like it. Your feelings will change with loving relationship habits. But avoid the trap of “When I feel more love, I’ll behave in more loving ways.” You won’t feel more love until you behave in more loving ways.

How to Change the Future

Start by listing behaviors that show compassion, kindness, appreciation, affection, and respect.

  • Compassion is sympathy for your partner's hurt, hardship, and burdens, with a motivation to help or support. Note: Compassion is giving what will help your partner, not what will help you. For instance, you might get better by talking about your hurt, while your partner gets better by engaging in enjoyable or meaningful activities.
  • Kind behavior supports the well-being and happiness of your partner.
  • Appreciative behavior shows that your partner's presence in your life makes it better.
  • Affectionate behavior is more than expressing feelings; it carries a message that your partner is important to you. It needn’t take much time or expense. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson has data suggesting that brief acts of connection—what she calls micro-moments of love—characterize loving relationships.
  • The best guide for respectful behavior is that which promotes self-respect—that is, behavior consistent with your deeper values. Behavior that feels right (familiar) but violates your deeper values will not be respectful to yourself or your partner.

If you practice the above in future interactions with your partner, your relationship will become more loving. Not incidentally, it will feature more feelings of love.

Caveat: If practice of the above behaviors produces pain, your relationship may be abusive. Before focusing on making your relationship more loving, abuse must cease, and the healing process must begin.

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