Do you (still) love your partner?
The question of whether you love your partner is one that is often explored in therapy sessions. You may be in the early stage of a relationship and wonder whether you have made the right partner choice. Or, you may be in a more established relationship where cracks are beginning to show, you are getting into more conflict scenarios and you have a sense of unease about the relationship.
There is no one definition of what love is. We can discuss love from a biological, sociological or psychological perspective, however, in the end none of these disciplines is likely to provide you with the answer to your question: do I love this person? The ancient Greeks defined seven different types of love; these definitions are still helpful when considering what you may be feeling in relation to your partner:
- Eros (passionate love)
- Philia (friendship or goodwill)
- Storge (love borne out of familiarity)
- Agape (universal love for humankind)
- Ludus (playful love)
- Pragma (love based on duty)
- Philautia (self-love)
Love in a more mature relationship has elements of passion and playfulness, of course, but there is also a deep sense of goodwill, interdependence, a sense of responsibility and mutual trust and the capacity for you to grow and develop in this relationship.
In many societies we are presented with the notion of romantic love as an ideal: we are travelling on an arduous journey of wooing our partner. Once we have won them over the job is done and we live happily ever after. On TV, in films or novels, the emphasis is often on the notion of falling in love rather than staying in love and loving another person.
There is often a confusion between falling in love and loving. In the early stages of the relationship partners may ask themselves whether they love their partner when the initial, temporary state of falling in love wears off. Falling in love gets you together with your partner and therefore is an important aspect of a relationship. However, loving and falling in love are two distinct systems.
Falling in love is akin to a temporary madness. It is often argued that falling in love is not dissimilar from being in a psychotic state where you experience highly irrational thoughts, a loss of control and possibly an element of delusion. The state of falling in love is invariably temporary. Falling in love is an extraordinary addictive process: we are flush and high with hormones and can go through a process of intoxicating, ephemeral madness. For some people the enjoyment of falling in love is so addictive that they need to repeat the process over and over again.
Loving, however, is focused on mutuality, intimacy, and on long term commitment. The primary aim is to get to know your partner. Loving is a reciprocal process; it engenders a deep connection. The limbic regions of our brain allow two people who love each other to modulate each other’s physiological as well as psychological and emotional wellbeing. You know this well when you experience a sense of tuning in to your partner or when your partner knows exactly what to do or say to soothe you when in distress.
In established relationships some couples do not love anymore because they don’t allow enough time or presence for love to grow and to nurture it. The focus in society is often on achievement over attachment. Other areas of life such as work are prioritised over the focus on building connection with a partner. At work you may get rewarded with a promotion, at home you don’t get a medal for loving.
Loving is an active choice. It does not just happen; it happens because you want to actively engage with the process of loving this particular person. You opt in to your commitment to your partner. This includes tolerating or accepting behaviour that you find less than optimal. Of course, acceptance does not mean that you need to put up with any form of behaviour that is harmful to you. Relationships require continuous dialogue and clarification. It just means that no one partner is going to give you everything that you ever wanted. It also means being able to share your life with someone who thinks, feels and behaves differently from you.
Signs that you love your partner may include a continuing openness towards and curiosity about your partner, an acceptance of the less favourable as well as the wonderful parts of your partner, a desire to understand and respond empathically even if you struggle to understand, an occasional sense of fun and playfulness, seeking your partner’s proximity without needing them all of the time, a mutual ability and desire to soothe each other when in distress, caring deeply about your partner’s wellbeing and an appreciation that your partner is different from you.
Ask yourself what the indicators are that you are loved by your partner? For example, you may feel safe, secure, desired, understood, seen and heard, liked and encouraged. Often, when you don’t feel loved anymore by your partner, your own love may shrink and shrivel too. As mature love is mutual love, there is often a shared experience by both partners of not being wanted anymore.
In individual therapy you can explore where you are in relation to your partner and what the obstacles are that get in the way of you loving your partner. You can also explore your decision making: do you want to stay or leave the relationship? In couples therapy you additionally have the opportunity to look at your mutual interaction in a systemic way, e.g. you don’t feel the love anymore because you don’t feel loved. We look at how partner A impacts on partner B who then in turn impacts on partner A and so on. Both partners can explore helpful and unhelpful behaviour in the relationship that contributes to the current emotional experience for both.