In working with many couples over the years, I have found certain themes to emerge again and again. Three of the most frequent themes are really myths about the nature of loving. As myths, they can be very destructive to intimacy. They lead to a misguided effort to create the illusion of love while ignoring the experience of love.
The first of these myths is that loving is giving. This is really just one step up from “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The truth is that loving is a feeling and nothing more. When we turn it into a transaction, we set the stage for us to lose contact with how we feel. Think of it this way. If loving is giving, then if we give more do we necessarily love more? Of course not. How many people reading this article are resentful because their sacrifices have not been appreciated? In reality, mature loving involves more receiving than giving. To love in a mature way we must learn to be attentive and to listen. We receive information from what the other person is telling us about themselves, their experience, and their feelings. Based on that information, we create a feeling within ourselves that is love. This is an especially alien concept to adult children from dysfunctional families because experience was such a devalued commodity within their original families. Many people, especially adult children from dysfunctional families, are taught that somehow they’re supposed to earn love from their parents. Now that they’re adults, it’s an easy extension to earn love from their partner by giving the “gift” of love. Which brings us to our second myth.
It seems a correct and common sense view that we give love. If so, how does that happen? Do we really give away a feeling? This common sense view does not hold up well to close scrutiny. It’s a particularly dangerous myth because it’s easy to use as a manipulation. For example: “Since I feel unimportant, then he’s obviously not giving me enough love.” With this distortion, people with low self-esteem can project their dissatisfaction with themselves onto their partner. From the opposite side, the partner may conclude “Because she seems so unhappy, I’m obviously not giving her enough love.” (No bias intended with the gender here. Turn it around if you like.) This commodity view of love depersonalizes it and removes it from the realm of experience. In reality, what we give to others is information about how we feel when we love. That information may be received or ignored, interpreted correctly or distorted, believed or discounted, appreciated or devalued. There’s no certainty as to how one partner will feel in response to the information that the other partner feels love. Very possibly, a partner may create their own feelings of being valuable but it’s not a certainty. It’s more accurate to say that love is something that we keep. We keep our feelings within us. They don’t jump outside of our skin. We may give off information but the feelings stay.
A third myth is that we “should” love our partner all the time. This myth ignores the fact that feelings are transitory. It’s also an especially dangerous myth because it sets the stage for turning the feeling of love into a responsibility and that doesn’t work. Many couples have sexual dysfunction around just this issue. If a partner buys the notion that he/she “should” always be interested in sex, then interest will usually atrophy. If you buy the obligation for feeling love, then that too will usually atrophy as a hollow-feeling role takes its place. The reality is that some moments you feel love for your partner, other moments you don’t. There may also be fairly long spans of time when a partner is incapable of love because of stress. That’s natural, it’s real, and it can also be temporary especially if both partners understand the episodic nature of love.
There are other myths about the nature of love but they will be saved for another discussion. What’s most important is that we understand that love is a feeling. As a feeling, it’s something we experience within ourselves in an episodic manner. When we depersonalize it into a commodity or a role, we set the stage for losing its power in our lives.