He sat in my office, hunched over with his arms resting on his knees.
?But I love her.?
As a Therapist, It was something I had heard before when someone is talking about a mistake they made followed by, ?but I love her/him.?
?Are you good at it?? I asked him.
He didn?t know how to respond; he just stared blankly at me and asked, ?What do you mean??
I have heard this response in my office for over nine years ago, but it is part of the age-old question.
What is love?
The two most common answers people hear about or read about are that love is a feeling or that love is a choice, and this bothers me. Not because love as a feeling or a choice is wrong or even a bad thing, it?s because it?s not the whole thing.
Perception 1: Love Is A Feeling
A lot of people accept love as a feeling and think nothing more of it. They can feel it in their hearts, and they know when they know. Love isn?t complicated; it?s simple. Look no further than any Disney movie. Just follow your heart.
The Problem With A Feeling
Viewing love as a feeling can be detrimental to relationships that depend on that feeling. The honeymoon effect is a thing, and it is real. When it fades, it leaves a lot of people reeling and questioning their relationship.
Counting on the feeling of love to carry the relationship is like relying on your passion for writing to inspire you to write every day. Ask any established author and they will tell you that is not the case, and ask any couple that has been together for 50 years and they will tell you the same.
Viewing love as a feeling also keeps people stuck in toxic relationships. They trust their feelings over their situation and circumstance and stay in damaging relationships because of their intense feelings of love.
Luckily not everyone views love as only a feeling. In fact, over the years, there has been a resurgence in what love means.
Perception 2: Love Is A Choice
The internet is full of articles praising the idea that love is a choice. Love is a decision you choose daily to show your partner you love them. It?s not about having a feeling it?s about recognizing you love your partner regardless of how you feel and showing your partner that you love them.
Which is nice, except with some descriptions, it can come across as a whole self-sacrificing ideal. For others, it sounds like Nike trying to sell sneakers. Just do it.
The Problem With Choice
Love as a choice can be harmful when people hold their partner to this standard. ?They didn?t choose to do this, so they don?t love me or care for me.?
When people view love as a choice, it can lead to people questioning others feelings, when they don?t respond the way they would like them too.
If someone loves painting, singing, or writing, but isn?t very good at it people don?t question if they love it or not, they accept that they love it and that they happen not to be necessarily good at it.
However, if someone doesn?t respond to their emotional needs, they believe they don?t care, which isn?t true. People don?t tell others to choose to be a better painter, writer, or singer, but calling love a choice creates a mindset that their partner should choose to be good at it, and that mindset will disappoint.
The choice mindset is a terrible simplification of a complex emotional need and action. Telling someone that love is a choice rings of ?just choose to be happy? and ?stop being anxious.? As a therapist that is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
Love Is A Skill
When my client asked, ?What do you mean?? I leaned forward and told him, ?Love is a skill.?
Like all skills, people can be good at, and unfortunately, people can be bad at it.
Being patient, kind, understanding, supporting, empathetic, reliable, secure, and a host of other qualities associated with love are not something people can choose to be. Like any skill, it takes time, and it takes work.
When you incorporate love as a skill, it takes into account the complications of love and people. It challenges oneself to evaluate their love and relationships and to find the areas they need to improve and focus on to better love their partner.
It also recognizes that people are at different stages, have different experiences and world views ? parenting, personalities, attachment styles, and backgrounds all impact what someone brings into a relationship.
The reason why some relationships don?t succeed isn?t because of an absence of love. Multitudes of relationships have ended not because they didn?t love each other enough, but because they weren?t good at it.
Love isn?t complicated. People are.
The Bigger Picture
Love is, of course, a feeling people have towards someone. A feeling that changes and evolves. It is also a choice that has to be made to keep the relationship a priority.
Feeling, choice, and skill work hand in hand. The feeling inspires the choice to work on the skill that you need to improve. In return, that strengthens the relationship which gives you the feeling of love, which in return continues the cycle.
How we talk about things matters, and when we talk about love, we should remember it is not just a feeling or a choice, but also a skill everyone is still developing.
Be patient with your partner.
Love, as a skill, recognizes that your partner can?t improve everything at once. Skills take work. No one would expect their partner to learn Japanese and Spanish at the same time while being conversational at both. Some expect their partner to improve everything about them at the same time. To flip a switch and be more mindful of their feelings and non-verbal cues while being more empathetic and change how they communicate and manage their anger, anxiety, and depression. That is not how it works, and for a lot of people, they can only focus on improving and being mindful of a few things at a time, and that is okay.
?Are you good at it??
Choose to work on changing your perspective to see the bigger picture of love. Don?t limit love to a feeling, or a choice, but understand how feelings, choices, and skills work together to form relationships. Challenge yourself to identify the areas of love you need to enhance. Like a painter working on shading or a writer focusing on sentence structure, dedicate the time to improve the areas of love in your life that will strengthen your relationship. So if your therapist ever asks you.
?Are you good at it??
You won?t stare at them blankly. You?ll know.