Source: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
One of the most confusing things about love is the difference between the feeling of being “in love” and the feelings of loving and being loved.
Our feelings – our emotional reactions – are a rich source of information. Research shows that people who pay attention to their emotional responses make better decisions.1
Yet, it’s also true that sometimes interpreting these feelings can be tricky – especially the feelings of love.
We often choose each other, whether for a second date or a lifetime, based on a feeling of attraction. When this is very strong, we are “in love.”
For most people, the feeling of being in love is absolutely wonderful. Our heart sings. Our feet have wings. All of the confusing complexity of life vanishes as we develop a single-pointed focus on the beloved.
The Two Big Questions About Being In Love
What does it mean in terms of long-term happiness?
Excellent, fulfilling, long-term relationships often do start with being in love. And also, not all potential mates who inspire this feeling will make good long-term partners. Think of this feeling as an initial sorting aid; it helps you discover people you want to know better.
This feeling, provided by a powerful neurochemical cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine, propels us forward. It gives us the energy and interest to find ways to be together, for those long conversations until two am, for some initial moments of vulnerability that are the beginning of intimacy. We are inspired. This is a good way to start a relationship that has the potential to grow.
One of the first things we must learn about love is that this “in-love” feeling is only the beginning. It is not sustainable. The cocktail is not the meal. A cocktail before dinner can be wonderful — a lovely beginning to a long evening and a beautiful dinner. And then we need to have the meal.
What comes next is learning to create long-lasting love that is not only sustainable but grows and becomes more fulfilling with time and nurture. The “meal” is a life-long process of learning to love each other well. And the feelings you will experience during this process are quite different than the ecstasy of the being-in-love cocktail.
Mistaking the “in-love” feeling for love can lead to endlessly pursuing that feeling. It can cause you to leave a relationship that might have the potential for lasting love, or if you stay, to go through roller coaster cycles of feeling in love, then disappointment and resentment. Chasing the “high” of being in love is like forgetting to go to dinner and having cocktail after cocktail. Eventually, you wake up with a bad hangover and very hungry.
What does it mean when the feeling goes away?
If you hang out long enough with the person you are in love with, you will eventually get to other, very different feelings. The blissful feeling of merger and perfect fit dissolves as you discover unexpected and troublesome differences. What, just minutes before, looked like endless blue skies, suddenly looks like a storm. The usual reaction to a moment like this is to feel stunned and dismayed. The internal dialogue might go something like, “Oh no! Just when I thought I’d found the one. How could I be so wrong? ”
But if what you are looking for is a long-term relationship, loving and being loved, then the correct interpretation of this moment is that it is the call to dinner. This could, in fact, be the beginning of something deeper and more satisfying. You have arrived at the transition from finding love to building love.
Love is not something we simply find. Learning to love and to be loved is a life-long practice. And the feelings you experience as you learn to love are many and various, some delightful and others uncomfortable and challenging.
Your partner fails to remember it’s date night. Love at that moment may feel like a struggle with yourself to remain calm and patient. Or your partner’s mother gets sick just before that fabulous vacation you’ve been looking forward to. Love then feels like sadness, maybe anger, at having to give up something you really wanted. It feels like the difficulty of reopening your heart to generosity for your partner and her mother.
Loving relationships are full of hard conversations, painful differences, and misunderstandings. In order to love well, we must practice the internal acrobatics of dealing with uncomfortable and compelling feelings of hurt, anger, fear, and abandonment. These are a natural part of all-important relationships.
They nudge us, sometimes shove us, toward aggression, isolation, defensiveness – any number of reactions that take us in the opposite direction of love. Learning to love well means that we figure out, over and over again, how to pause before reacting. This is how we turn bad moments into moments of learning to love.
Mindfulness and Love
Mindfulness is the ability to observe what is happening in the present moment. The cultivation of mindfulness creates a space between our internal reactions – like fear and anger – and our responses, giving us what Dan Siegel calls “response flexibility.”2
Instead of reacting to protect ourselves, often aggressively, we pause to find a response that protects and defends the loving connection. We learn to re-open our hearts and minds when something our partner has done has caused us to close. Love feels like a complicated mix of anxiety, determination, fear, and hopefulness in these moments. Love feels like the tension of wanting to close and defend ourselves and wanting, at the same time, to open and be connected.
Love Feels Like Compassion
In difficult moments, we can stay open to connection by finding the feeling of compassion for ourselves and our partners. Compassion does not mean that everything is okay or that you ignore the difficulties. Compassion means that you recognize that love inevitably includes these moments of tension and hurt. You feel loving acceptance of your own and your partner’s limitations.
Love Feels Like Discipline and Commitment
Reaching for compassion when you really want retaliation requires discipline and commitment. Discipline has many meanings. Learning to love means behaving consistently with the commitment both to loving a particular person and also the commitment to becoming a more loving person.
Over time you learn that the effort pays off. The feeling of love becomes the experience of finding the ground under your feet when your emotional world is pitching and heaving. You learn to steady yourself, and you are able to move forward. Louisa May Alcott said, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
The Joy of Learning to Love
So, does loving and learning to love always feel hard? Not at all. Sometimes it feels like a great relief when you have successfully navigated a difficult set of emotional rapids without capsizing the boat. It can feel triumphant, deeply satisfying, comforting, and secure. It can feel like being on solid ground. It feels like the joy of learning. It feels like the security and trust of finding yourself with a teammate for this adventure of learning to love.