Understanding what love is and how it grows in a marriage
Many of us have grown up dreaming of the wonderful feelings of romantic love and wait expectantly to fall in love. Movies and love songs have a way of stirring up that longing in us. People in love seem so joyful and alive and we yearn for that in our lives too.
Those of us who are in relationships or marriages for a couple of years now, do have partners or spouses in our lives that we love and care for deeply. So where are those magical heady feelings of love?
That’s the first shocker – contrary to all the stories we’ve seen – love is not just a feeling.
What is love?
Many of us mistake love to be only a feeling. Let’s take a moment to think about our own experience of feelings. We’ve all experienced feelings of attraction – these feelings go up and down – here one moment, gone the next! Which can be confusing and painful. If we confuse love with a feeling, we may find ourselves asking questions such as:
- “How could I love someone I didn’t really know so well?”
- “I love and care about my partner so much, how come I don’t feel that kind of excitement around him / her anymore?”
- “Is this love?”
- “Have we fallen out of love?”
The questions are many and the answers can be scary so at times we attempt to shut out these thoughts. But even if we do that, there could remain a sense of lingering sadness – of something missing. What is missing perhaps is an accurate understanding of what love is.
Clearly, feelings are transient and so love would have to be more than a feeling. Love has been described by psychologists and writers as a decision, a choice or actions. According to social psychology, love is a combination of emotions, cognitions and behaviours.
To understand what love is better, let’s look at real life as opposed to the fairy tale.
Understanding the difference between passionate and companionate love
We often get together with our partners when we ‘feel love’ or ‘fall in love’. The experience of ‘falling in love’ involves an intense and unrealistic emotional reaction to another person, also referred to as passionate love. At such times, we may see our loved one inaccurately, i.e. we may see them as “perfect” in every way, emphasizing their virtues and dismissing their faults as unimportant. However, passionate love is too intense and unrealistic to be maintained as a permanent emotional state.
There are other kinds of love that can be long lasting. Companionate love is described as love that is based on friendship, mutual attraction, shared interests, respect and concern for one another’s welfare. It may not seem as exciting as passionate love but it is a crucial aspect of a satisfying and lasting relationship.
Since many of us mistakenly equate only romantic feelings or passionate love with love; in long-term relationships like marriage we may begin to wonder what happened to our heady feelings of love. Living together involves doing numerous house-hold chores, paying bills, finishing to do lists, going to work. None of these are particularly known to inspire feelings of romance or passionate love between people!
Yet it is these very activities done together that forge strong bonds of deep caring and attachment, also known as companionate or mature love. Companionate love is based on a better understanding of ourselves and our partner.
How does love grow in a marriage?
That’s the magic potion in long-term relationships: Love grows from knowing and sharing with our partners. For example, if a husband and wife go out for a cup of coffee, they may not necessarily feel an intense emotional reaction as they experienced in the ‘in love’ or passionate love stage. Instead, they may enjoy the time spent in togetherness and develop deeper emotional or intellectual intimacy by getting to know more about their partner through their conversation.
Thus, our efforts every day to know and share with our partners could lead us to greater and greater levels of physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, recreational and spiritual intimacy.
To enjoy companionate love in marriage, we may need to get over our hurt and disappointment often brought about by unrealistic or inaccurate beliefs about love. Building intimacy in marriage may require planning our time and efforts. If you would like to explore your own beliefs about love and how these maybe impacting you and your relationships or if you would like to understand and identify ways in which you could build intimacy in your marriage, you could talk it over with a counsellor.
Baron, R. A. and Byrne, D. (1997). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.