By John S. Tamerin, M.D. – February 14, 1995
Admit it. Wouldn’t you like to be in love again, especially on Valentine’s Day? Remember how you felt – excited, powerful, fulfilled, at peace, larger than life and more connected than ever to the world, which was never brighter or more beautiful. What happened? Where did it all go? Why did that magnificent feeling disappear?
Most people experience love like the little girl with the curl: “When it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid.: Though exhilarating and magnificent, love tends to be fickle. Its ultimate consequence is often painful and frequently devastating – or it just fizzles out. As a result, many people settle for far less than love or else constantly search for the fleeting high of a new relationship, which soon enough ends in still another disappointment.
Is there any solution to this sad, ubiquitous dilemma? The answer lies in correcting the prevailing misconception of love.
Most people, usually one per couple, define love as a wonderful feeling, something that happens to them. They are partly right. Love is, indeed, a magnificent emotion. However, if it is merely a state of mind, its days are inevitably numbered. This is because when love is understood only as a feeling, it is invariably out of our control, which must leave us feeling helpless.
To make matters worse, this out-of-control feeling has become the hallmark of our current conception of love. People are led to believe that love is most authentic and most delicious when it is out of our control – an ecstatic turbulent emotion brought about by helpless, overwhelming attraction, described often as magic or witchcraft in which the enchanted, moonstruck victims, having lost their senses and certainly their minds, have fallen head over heels under the spell of love.
There is another view of love that has been around for at least a few thousand years, but it seems to have fallen into disfavor. This traditional view places emphasis not on the feelings but on the acts and ultimately on the act of love. This may seem more prosaic and less exciting than sailing the stormy seas of romantic love, but there is a silver lining to this behavioral view.
When love is defined by behavior and not merely by emotions, we have some control over it. We are no longer the helpless victims of little Cupid’s arrow. Suddenly we can do something about love. If love is an art, instead of waiting anxiously or fatalistically for it to end, we can commit ourselves, if we care enough, to the study and practice of this art form. Indeed, we can work to improve our capacity as lovers. Best of all, if love is an art that can be mastered with sufficient effort, maybe it is possible for all of us to become accomplished in the art of love!
I would like to propose four basic principles that should help anyone get started on that course this Valentine’s Day:
Love must be active, not passive. The essential feature of love is that it must be actively given. While feelings just happen, true love does not. Love must be seen as a living, organic process, vital and alive, not an arbitrary act of nature like an earthquake or a thunderbolt. Love will not stand still. Like a child or a plant, nurture it and it will grow. Neglect it and will wither and ultimately die. Furthermore, it is in the giving of love that we experience much of its wonder. In giving love, we regenerate not only the relationship, but ourselves as well. As we give love, we feel our own strength, vitality, and creativity. In fact, giving is so central to the concept of love that it has often been said the only love any of us has is the love that we have given away.
Acts of love must precede, not follow, feelings of love. Only when acts precede feelings will feelings of love persist. Think about it: Don’t we all love the gardens, animals, and children that we have nurtured? In contrast when actions follow feelings, as the feelings diminish, so will the actions. So, when we fall out of love, it is most likely that we have been putting less and less into the relationship. If you want to feel love, you have to act like a lover. It has been said that a successful long-term loving relationship requires that you fall in love many times with the same person.
Acts of love must be mandatory, not voluntary. This is the essence of civilization. No one in our culture in his right mind would say, “I don’t love my infant today, so I won’t feed him” or “I am angry at my plant, so I refuse to fertilize it.” To behave this way is to define oneself as mentally ill. Yet this goes on all the time in the area of love, where giving is so contingent on how we feel about the other person. In contrast, the traditional view made it clear that acts of love were obligatory. Wise men knew that to sustain love, giving could not be an emotional option but had to be as much a behavioral imperative between two adults as it must be between parent and child. These concepts are as old as recorded history. When we talk about honoring one’s parents or “thou shalt not kill,” these are not statements that depend on how one feels or whether one is “in the mood.” When these imperatives become elective, society finds itself in serious trouble. Perhaps this why so many relationships fail.
Love requires effort. One does not fall into genuine love, one grows into it, and growth takes effort. Love is neither easy nor careless. It doesn’t just happen. If not worked at, it deteriorates. Genuine love is different from the instant, effortless sensation of the feeling of love. Sadly, many people treat love as an effortless quick fix to lift their mood or self-esteem, rather like an intoxicant. When one treats love this way, it invariably disappears, leaving us disappointed and empty. In contrast, love that has been constructed with care and effort brings with it a lasting feeling of self-worth.
True love is never blind. It has been said that love sees more, not less, but because it sees more it is willing to see less. True love is based on a deep knowledge and understanding of the other person. Knowledge and understanding take effort.
Love based on feelings alone is rather like cut flowers: beautiful at first, but they cannot sustain themselves and will soon wither and die. True love, in contrast, when nurtured properly, will continue to grow and improve throughout the course of a long-term relationship.
The art of love, like any art, must be practiced and performed on a daily basis, not merely on Valentine’s Day. If you have the wisdom, courage, and flexibility to change your definition of love from passive to active, from feeling to being, you will open a new life for yourself and your mate. Then this Valentine’s Day will surely be the first day of the rest of your life.
Dr. John S. Tamerin is a psychiatrist in private practice in Greenwich. He is also attending psychiatrist at Greenwich Hospital and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Cornell University School of Medicine. He has served on the faculty of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.