Updated: Aug 12
I was perusing the database that I use for stock photos for this very blogpost on the benefits of relationship counselling and came across a meme/photo/stock image that said, "Love is a Decision, Not an Emotion". To be fair to the person who wrote and designed that meme/image, I have decided not to research it and hunt it down. I think it likely came from a very important perspective and has been used in very constructive ways.
If I had written and designed that, it would be with the intention of focusing a person on the behaviours that can express love and the need to identify and decide on the doing of those behaviours. My husband's making-of-the-coffees is an absolute act of love. I can tell because he does it for us whether I am in the mood to socialize with him in the morning or not. (That man wakes up happy and joyful every day of his life). I receive that behaviour as an expression of love because I now know how to interpret it. I used to receive it poorly as I don't wake up well...so nothing felt very loving. But it is his behaviour...and so I now afford it his meaning.
It is a fantastic exercise in a relationship to audit all of the meanings of all of the things. It is one of the most significant things we do in the therapeutic space. We pick over the bones of conflicts together. And in doing that, we can autopsy and audit the distress, anger, sadness, resentment, heartache and whatever else occurs. We usually find at the core of all of it, discrepancy in the meaning we apply to our partner's behaviours. What they do often doesn't mean to us what it meant to them.
Vice versa. And rinse repeat.
So, love being a decision and not an emotion is a brilliant thought in that context. If I can do behaviours that are received as love by my partner...that makes me a loving partner, doesn't it? It means I am speaking his love language, doesn't it? My husband makes coffees because that is a loving act to him. However, he also ignores me when I get home from work for 15 minutes because that is a loving act to me. Not being his natural state, it takes effort and thought and discipline to actively ignore me. But it feels amazingly loving to me as I get myself settled and transitioned from the day. "Can you leave me alone, it lets me know you love me"...is an ask I had a long time ago and an example of the uniqueness of everyone's "love language".
But love is not just a language we speak, the decisions we make or the behaviours we do. Actually, that is like saying the paint is the picture or the speaker is the music. In fact, I think the statement "Love is a Decision...Not an Emotion", if left on its own, is a dangerous one. It insinuates we can create love from sets of behaviours. And we simply can't. In fact, that is often the definition of a loveless marriage; a set of behaviours and conditions that meet the definition of a marriage, but no love to be found. It happens all the time.
My husband's making-of-the-coffees and the leaving-me-alone are both decisions/behaviours/acts of love. A nice combo of attentive and independent loving behaviours. But that is not the totality or the source of his actual love at all. That is his communication of his love in the external world. They are a method of transmission of the love, not the love itself.
Love is an emotion...a physiologic state of being. Emotions are very real, and I like to stretch the verbiage to use the word state, or state of being. The neuroscience and neuroendocrinology are really clear on this one and therapists could use to brush up on their mammalian biology to account for what we know about the reality of love as a state-based emotion and physiologic experience. Emotions are measurable and identifiable in multiple connected parts of the brain and body. (The brain is in the body, so it is silly to the list the two as separate entities...but that is a whole other post). The complexity of emotional states requires an understanding of the connection between the physiologic, electrical and chemical aspects of brain and its regions. Furthermore, it requires an understanding of the hormonal and physiologic up and down connectivity of the brain and neurologic system to the body, its sensations and experiences. "The Feeling Brain" The Feeling Brain | Elizabeth Johnston, Leah Olson | W. W. Norton & Company (wwnorton.com), "Affective Neuroscience" Affective Neuroscience in Psychotherapy: A Clinician's Guide for Working with Emotions: Stevens, Francis L.: 9780367714406: Books - Amazon.ca, and "How Emotions are Made" How Emotions Are Made | Lisa Feldman Barrett, are just a few easy reads on the reality and nature of the physiology of emotion. Emotions are measurable and identifiable states of being...just as measurable as fear, hunger and cold.
Love (unlike hunger or cold) is a state that is elicited by another. People make us feel things. Guilt, shame, desire, anger, fidelity...there are all sorts of emotions that range from inspired to created by the other. The field of behavioural neuroendocrinology explores the mechanics of how that works, and it is important to accept this as fact even though it defies and deconstructs many elements of modern psychotherapy. In fact, it ruins a lot of clichés that pop-psychology seems to take for granted:
People can't make you feel anything, your feelings are your choice. Incorrect...just ask a mother who has just given birth or a man who has fallen in love. And while you are at it, measure their oxytocin and vasopressin.
Setting boundaries solves relationship problems. Usually wrong...telling someone to not do something is rarely successful and doesn't address the emotional and relational interplay of the impact they are having on you. Even if successful, it just stops a behavior, not an emotional state in the other. People stop doing their anger all the time...they don't necessarily stop being angry, though, and that is the true relational experience.
If my partner tells me what they need and expect, all I have to do is that and they should be happy. Wrong again...we don't all know what we need and expect in others. And the whole reality of love is that we are impacted by the actual other...not the version of them we created. Our perfect version of our partner, if we could change them enough to create it, will not invoke our love. I see marriages all of the time ruined by an individual trying to meet the other's expectations and needs to the exclusion of anything else, including themselves.
I worry for people who have lost the definition of love. Or maybe it is that they have over-thought it. We live in a society where we now believe that we can re-invent anything. I got a parking ticket the other day from a "Parking Ambassador". Terminology aside, it still cost me ninety-five dollars. Love is love...the same it has been since the dawn of time. It is a drive/state/emotion that we feel and experience elicited by another. Having done relationship counselling for years, I can tell you that it usually shows up in an unexpected and almost frustrating way.
"Wait...THIS is the guy I am in love with?!"
"As soon as I saw her, I knew I would marry her."
"We knew in the first few months there wouldn't be anyone else, ever."
"I can't imagine my life without him."
Those aren't decisions people make, they are states of being people find themselves in. When this is present in a couple, we find all of the things that predict stable, long-term, satisfying relationships. There are more bids for affection. There is more resiliency to stress. There is more trust, intimacy and ease of collaboration. There is more flexibility of thought, behaviour and belief. There are better mental and behavioural health outcomes. All of that stuff is there because the drive of love and the state of togetherness is substrate to the rest of it. When this isn't present, we are often struggling in therapy with what seems to be more of a contract or set of mutual decisions that two people are hoping will bring about a state of togetherness. "If we buy a cottage together, get a dog together, exercise together, fold the laundry together...it will create that togetherness we see in couples around us." But that is not my experience as relationship therapist. In fact, that amounts to the parallel play we would see on the playground at school...two kiddos driving their trucks around in the sandbox together. Fun, enjoyable, connected and collaborative...but not intimate or loving.
Beside each other, but not with each other.
Relationships are made of many things and each is unique. But as I monitor and absorb the current discourse and rhetoric about relationships and love, I see meaning being lost. The conversation is peppered with boundaries, expectations, rules, norms and behaviours in many cases that is reminiscent of a contract. I hear less and less the language of love, desire, attraction, connectedness, intimacy, pursuit and mutuality that has historically described love. I endeavour to speak that language with all the couples I work with. It makes magic happen.
Helping couples orient themselves to that shared and mutual state of being called "love" makes all of the other things fall into place. It is where we start, not where we end up.
Britta Regan West MA, RCC, TITC/CT-CFST Clinical Counsellor, Clinical Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist