How Good Are You at Loving?

Sad woman embracing man

By Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. Of Psychology Today

It is often said that love is a feeling. Since feelings are subjective, this makes it very difficult to describe love let alone determine how much someone loves another person.  However, I want to take a different approach.  Love, I will show, is not merely a feeling.  Rather it is an activity.  Moreover, this activity involves skill-building.  Thus you can work at cultivating your love for another.  You can get better (or worse) at loving someone. It is also possible to rank how well you are doing at loving someone.  In fact, I will provide a “love inventory” that will help you to determine just how good you (or your significant others) really are at loving.

“To love,” said Stendhal, “is to derive pleasure from seeing, touching, and feeling through all one’s senses and as closely as possible, a lovable person who loves us.” This is the popular view of what love is–a deep, all-pervasive positive feeling toward another person.  Indeed, it is such a view of love that leads many of us to ask questions like these: “Is this feeling that I have really love?”  “Yes I feel comfortable with him (her), but is this love?”  “I thought falling in love would feel like fireworks going off, and this doesn’t.”  “We have great sex but I am just not sure if it’s love.”

But are these really the questions we should be asking when we ponder whether we are in love or whether others love us?  Are these instead red herrings that distract us from the questions we should be asking?

The answer I want to suggest is in the affirmative; for in my view, love is not a feeling in the first place.  While people in love do indeed experience tingles, titillations, or other warm and fuzzy churnings, these are not themselves what love is.  These positive feelings and sensations may be like the icing on the cake, but not the cake.  They make loving feel good; but they are not what makes love so valuable and coveted by all or most of us. When you’re in love you may get goose bumps but we would be hard pressed to say that being in love is getting goose bumps. So what then is love?

To be sure, love does take different forms depending on the type of relationship.  In romantic love, there is sexual attraction to the beloved.  In familial love the attraction is based on blood; in close friendship it can be a kindred soul, like-mindedness, or shared experiences.  In the love of a mother for a child it can be the bond established through birth; or in fatherly love a projection of self.  But the feelings to which these bonds and attractions give rise are not themselves what love is.  So what, then, is it?

Love, I submit, is a purposive activity undertaken by two (or more) people in a close, intimate relationship such as the aforementioned ones.  While it is often said that “love is blind,” this is, strictly speaking, only true of misguided love or love that has strayed from its essential purpose.

To see that love has such a purpose and what that purpose is, try saying something like “I love her but I don’t give a damn about her.”  Such a statement falsifies itself because to love someone you must care about them, and care about them a lot.  People who truly love others want them to be safe, secure, and happy.  They place their welfare and happiness at a premium.

Of course, I can be highly concerned about the welfare of certain others without loving them.  Thus, doctors, teachers, or other helping professionals could care about the welfare, happiness, and safety of their patients, students and clients but would be hard pressed to say that they love them.  This is because such individuals, if they follow their codes of ethics, will maintain professional distance and will not become intimate with their patients, students, and clients.

So loving is an intimate, personal activity that seeks the welfare, happiness, and safety of another.  Here intimacy may involve living with the other and sharing very personal aspects of one’s life.  It may involve being a parent, a close friend, a spouse, or a partner.  Here, friendship could sometimes include co-workers and confidents and others whom you have gotten to know on a close personal level.

However, we should tread carefully here because it may be easy sometimes to confuse infatuation with love.  Thus, people may imagine themselves being in an intimate relationship with people they barely know.  They may feel sexual attractions for and even be obsessed with others.  Some people may think they love others who may not even know they exist.  However, these relationships are not ones that support love, even if some of them may evolve into love.

Loving involves being in a relationship with another.  In a functional loving relationship there are mutual expectations.  If I love you and you don’t accept my love then the relationship is dysfunctional because the primary purpose of love is not easily accomplished.  If you don’t let me love you, then my love will be squandered on you.

As such, to be in love is to be engaged in an activity that can be done well or not so well.  One can be good at loving or poor at it depending on how good (or bad) one is at accomplishing the purpose or goal of loving someone.  The statement, “I love you very much” may sometimes be a deep expression of a feeling that comes with being in love; but it can also be uttered by people who do not know the first thing about how to love another.  This is because this statement, if it is meaningful, is not simply a report about a subjective feeling going on at the time that it is uttered.

To be meaningful, you must put your actions where your mouth is.  This means doing things that promote the other’s happiness, welfare, and safety.  Now, within intimate relationships there are certain human qualities that tend to promote these values and which, when absent, greatly lower the prospects for attaining them.  The qualities in question consist of cognitive-behavioral habits, that is, habits to act and think in certain ways that tend to promote the happiness, welfare, and safety of loved ones. The following are some of these key cognitive-behavioral qualities.

Being there

If you love someone, you will be there for this person in difficult times.  For example, if I am upset over life circumstances (for example, the death of a parent) and you love me, then you will be there for me, even if it’s a shoulder to cry on or an empathetic ear to listen and reflect.  If I am ill, then if you love me you will be there to care for me in my time of need.

So, “being there” may sometimes require some degree of self-sacrifice.  Suppose, for example, your spouse has a professional opportunity that requires that you move to another state, or even country. While this might involve self-sacrifice (say giving up your job and seeking employment in this new location), it would be an act of love to do this for your spouse.  Of course, if your spouse loves you, then he or she would not want to cause you unhappiness.  Thus there would invariably be mutual consideration among people who truly love each other.

In any event, lovers who are willing to make personal sacrifices for each other are better at loving than those who are not so willing.  It also seems fair to say that people tend to be poor at loving who are unwilling to make any personal sacrifices.  This is because promoting happiness of another with whom one is intimate tends to involve some measure of sacrifice, even if it is giving up an occasional preference or making reasonable compromises.

Being beneficent

It is not enough to be there in time of need.  If you love someone you should want to do things to advance this person’s happiness even when there are no crises or significant problems at hand. This may include anything from surprising loved ones with a special gift to encouraging and helping to advance their careers, education, or other positive goals conducive to their happiness.   Indeed, when parents send their children to a top notch college even when they cannot easily afford it this is a significant act of love because it is calculated to positively advance the child’s happiness and prosperity now and in later years