In any new romantic relationship, there is an excitement in the new. Learning someone’s story, experiencing things fresh through their eyes, shared interests, exploration of the physical. But time and again I hear people asking “how do I know if it’s love?” And, most recently someone asked, “what does knowing actually feel like?”
Professor of Psychology, Barbara Fredrickson, has studied and written on the idea and feeling of “love.” Reading some of her work made me reflect on my own experiences with love as well as my clients’.
Many of us have experienced that young passionate form of love. You know, the one where you physically hurt when you’re apart. Where you hang on every word they say. When hours spent together feels like minutes. Where you can’t keep your hands off of each other. For many, this type of love is encountered when relatively young, before experience turns into baggage and walls. It’s when you love wholly, arms and heart wide open. For some, this love turns into their forever partner. In my experience (both personal and clinical), this is rare, but for a lucky few they are able to fan those flames for a lifetime.
For the rest of us, we are left chasing that feeling or forever comparing all other feelings to that experience. That all encompassing all-consuming feeling of “love.” But, is that really love? What does “love” really mean? How do we know when we love someone? What does knowing really feel like?
Most of us are in love with the idea of being in love. We chase this illusive feeling, feeling the spark of the new and intensity of the passion and then as soon as it dwindles we are disappointed, and we set off trying to find that feeling again. We have been led to believe that if it’s real love, that feeling will last forever. None of the Disney fairy tales ever show us what life looks like post “happily ever after.” Our imaginations are left to believe that that passionate kiss in the final scene (usually involving the princess dressed in a virginal white wedding dress) is it, that’s what it feels like forever.
After much long-term research of couples, American Psychologist Dr. Dorothy Tennov determined that the average lifespan of the “romantic obsession” is about two-years. Many of us have heard something like this. We know, at least logically, that the obsessive lust phase is fleeting, but yet we still thirst for it. All the while potentially minimizing other feelings and connections that don’t measure up.
After a recent conversation about the confusion around this idea of “knowing,” I was forced to look at my own barometer of knowing someone or something was worthy of committing to, of knowing that my feelings were nudging me in their direction, of knowing that this was a person who could potentially be a long term partner. If I had been asked to explain my version of “knowing” 8 to 10 years ago, it would have been mostly based in that memory of infatuation and lust. It would have been tinted by my rose colored young love experience. Now, after many years of mindfulness practice and much internal work and therapy, I base my knowing entirely on my felt sense or bodily experience. Right now. In this moment. Not in 5 minutes from now, not in 5 minutes ago, but in this second. Here are some basic internal check-in questions that I ask myself frequently:
-When I think about my partner in this moment, do I feel a sense of positive regard, or warmth? Do they make me smile?
-If something exciting happened in this moment, are they the first person I would want to tell?
-Do I feel able to be my true self in this moment? Able to express myself? No mask…
-Do I genuinely want them to be happy and feel cared for?
“…at its core, love is a pleasant and momentary experience of connection with another person (or persons). In this framework, other constructs that are commonly taken as synonyms of “love” — such as desire, bonds, intimacy, and commitments — are cast as products of the accumulation of fleeting emotional states of love.” -Barbara Fredrickson
It’s also important to note that there is ample empirical evidence that shows that the frequency of these small moments of feeling love for someone (and feeling loved by someone) is far more consequential than the intensity of those feelings or moments.
Perhaps this article makes too much science and psychology claims about something that is supposed to be romantic and magical. I get that. By looking at love through this lens it can feel like some of the magic is being stripped. Maybe it’s because I tend to be more left brained and like logic and data, but I actually see this information as freeing. It removes this enormous load of pressure off of my shoulders that I will or should “just KNOW” when it’s right. It relieves me of the burdening fantasy that there is a “soulmate” out there just waiting to be discovered (nbd as long as I make sure I’m in the right place at the right time in this whole expansive world and its billions of people). And actually, it takes me OUT of my head, my left brain, my thinking function and puts me into my body and my felt sense. Because for me, it’s about being aware of my feelings of loving and being loved in a given moment. It’s about being tuned into my emotional sense enough to notice when I’m watching my partner as they are deep in their work and I feel the corners of my mouth turned up slightly. It’s about feeling the ever so slight warmth when I hear them talk passionately about something. It’s about noticing what it feels like in my chest when they touch my face or stroke my hair. This, to me, is love. I don’t find myself unable to breath when they aren’t around, but I do catch myself thinking about them unprovoked and noticing that it feels soft and tender.
These “micro-moments,” as Fredrickson calls them are actually tiny moments of mindfulness. And, each of these micro-moments is a drop into a bucket. Eventually, they add up.
Another important component to the feeling of love or of feeling loved, is to feel as though your well-being is being invested in and you are being considered and cared for in a way that is entirely for your sake. It is not being done because the other person feels it is the right thing to do or is what should be done, but they are doing it purely out of care and love for you. This relates to our very basic human desire to be seen and loved for who we are (the good and the ugly), and not who we “should be.” To know that you are worthy of love and that your partner sees this in you.
“Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” –Gary Chapman
A professor of mine once said that because love comes in moments, and is not a consistent state, he tells his son and wife, “I am loving you,” rather than constantly saying “I love you.” It is an active place that he is aware of being in in a given moment. At first I bristled at the idea of love as an active verb, but I think I might adopt this. It feels genuine to me (especially as a true believer in the power of mindfulness to transform our relationship to the self and to others) to acknowledge those micro-moments, rather than say something that can sometimes become as routine as “hello” or “goodbye.”
Trust me, I was raised in the same Disney fairy tale culture you were, so that engrained tendency to long for and compare is there. I am also a romantic. I believe in twin flames and soulmates (although not always in the romantic sense). I just do my best to actively choose in each loving moment to be aware of the feelings in my body; in my chest, in my stomach. To take stock every day of where I am in my loving of this person. To be conscious of the ebb and flow, the expansion and contraction of love. And to decide if loving them is right for me that moment, or that day. That’s how I know.