Love is a verb. This is one of the great truths about love that our culture fails to teach, one that, even when we understand the principle, we need to remember it and practice it over and over again. I think of marriage or any long-term, committed relationship with a willing, open partner as an opportunity to practice loving – the active form of the verb – day after day and year after year until it becomes second nature. The culture teaches us that we’re supposed to know how to love from the day one. What that really means is that we think we’re supposed to feel in love early on. This isn’t possible. Like any skill, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at loving. From the practice the feelings arise – a nice frosting on the cake of love – but we don’t practice loving so that we feel in love. We practice loving because we know in our hearts and blood and bones that the task of learning how to love well is one of the greatest gifts of being human.
This principle was beautifully elucidated in the comments on this blog post several weeks ago where “Mr. North” shared his struggle, well known by anyone struggling with relationship anxiety: the lack of feeling in love, the daily anxiety, going through the course and doing the work but still struggling with the intrusive thoughts. You know the drill. You can feel the pain in his comment, and the desperate need for an answer, a way out, an escape hatch. Someone, please, make this pain go away. He ended his comment with this:
I remember reading the book 7 habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey where he has conversation with a man and he writes:
“My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
Is it really that “simple”? I have been showing so much love. Because I truly want to. And yes, I feel more loving towards her. But I still feel very uneasy. Not much changes in my heart.
“Leslie” then responded with magnificent wisdom and truth:
Dear Mr. North,
Ah, butterflies. It is a drug, isn’t it Mr. North? That feeling of time and space collapsing to a pinpoint until nothing exists but you and your lover, your souls becoming one in a rapturous explosion of light and feeling? Everything suspended, like a film on pause?
Have you had that experience? The heart palpitations? The intense longing? The feeling that every moment in her presence bristles with energy? If you’ve had that feeling, count yourself lucky, I guess. You know what the poets are making a big whoopdy-do about.
From the vantage of 25 years married… I look back on the last time I had butterflies—over 30 years ago—and it was over a man who was a serial cheater. What did I have in the end? Dead butterflies.
Think of the great love stories, Mr. North. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Lots of passion and yearning and cortisol spikes and oh, crap, look, tragedy, too! Shakespeare, the greatest psychologist of them all (no offense, Sheryl), he knew the drill, big love means big trouble. That’s always how it was for me, anyway, flat on my face in dog poo…every time!
In my experience, it doesn’t feel quite so perilous when someone really loves you back. That vertiginous sensation of being completely out of control in free fall without a parachute, never existed when I felt loved. Because I felt safe, well, or “safer.” Let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be reading Sheryl’s wise words if I felt completely safe.
I never felt like 10,000 volts went through me when I met my husband, but I sensed something so much bigger, the night we met—28 years ago almost to the day—I thought to myself as we talked, “This man has a soul.”
And given our temperaments—we are both passionate, noisy people—the relationship has never lacked for all the things that come with passion. Relationship anxiety for me. Career anxiety for him. Fights. Deep affection. And profound love, the profoundest I have ever known. Like breathing it is, that vital.
We’ve grown up quite a bit, Mr. North, and endured the many mistakes of our humanness and the triumphs, too. Do I feel “love” every day? No, not really. Sometimes, I hate him like crazy. And sometimes, I must to admit, he’s a bit like the furnishings. Kinda there.
It’s during those fallow times that it’s important for me to feel in love with my own life and my own creative projects while also finding ways to lean into him. Years ago after he had been gone for a week backpacking, I made him a peach pie for his return. I had missed him, but not desperately. But in the act of making that pie, something I knew he would enjoy, I felt so warm and connected, well, it was then that I learned, love is action.
Go make your girl a pie, Mr. North. Whatever that looks like for her and for you. And hopefully in 25 years you will still be riding those undulating currents of love. Up and down, and around, like a dance.
You have my very best wishes.
How do we get from where Mr. North is to where Leslie is? We make a commitment to learn the Love Laws and Loving Actions so that we can practice them daily. Mr. North shared that he had been showing his partner love but “not much” changed in his heart. If I were working with him personally, I would question that statement, as part of what keeps us stuck is the failure to see and record the micro-changes, the small cracks of light that indicate an opening in the heart.
I would also share with him that nothing will change when we’re practicing loving in order to feel in love. We must practice loving for the sake of growing our capacity to give, not with attachment to the outcome. This isn’t easy. We’re so addicted to the feeling of love and, like Mr. North, have used this feeling as a barometer of a great relationship: “I have always believed that love is a feeling, and I have used my feelings as a compass when it comes to love. I keep failing.” In order to feel genuine love and attraction for our partner, we have to let the old and unhealthy paradigm of romantic love shatter and wither so that the new paradigm can grow in its place. When you learn and practice the Love Laws and Loving Actions, the feelings do arise and genuine attraction emerges, but it’s not what you think it’s supposed to feel like. It’s not butterflies. It’s not fireworks. It’s something so much more calm, healthy, and sustainable. It’s oatmeal.
If you would like to learn these Love Laws and Loving Actions and practice them daily alongside a group of learners, please join me for the 13th round of Open Your Heart: A 30-day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner, which will begin on August 18th, 2018. I launched this course in May 2013 and it remains one of my favorite courses to run, not only because it’s deeply inspiring to witness people opening their hearts but also because every time I run it and review the daily practices myself, my heart opens wider and my love for my husband shines more brightly. We’re always learning, always growing, always expanding our capacity for love. I look forward to seeing you there.