When I began writing this blog on Valentine’s Day, 2006, I was afraid. Afraid to admit to my contributions to the terrible problems of my first marriage. Afraid no one would read what I had to write. Afraid I would run out of things to say. Afraid I’d get to the same point in my second marriage and discover I’d been kidding myself about what I learned from my first husband’s sudden death.
Break out the champagne! I’ve kept writing about marriage for a decade, I’ve now been married to Ed longer than I was married to Rod, and I can tell you this stuff works.
More than 300,000 people visited Assume Love last year, many of them more than once. More than 15% of all visits to the site lasted 15 minutes or longer. Several people a day post comments reporting success or requesting advice, and I answer as many of them as I can.
There’s also been a great weight off my shoulders for the ten years since I publicly owned my mistakes.
The three most popular posts of 2015 (after the RSS feed) were from 2012 and 2014, and even the titles tell a story:
How to Get Your Wife or Husband to Love You Again
If Your Husband is Oblivious to How Unhappy You Are
One Last Stand Before Divorce
And that brings us to today’s topic, staying in love.
Would you say you’re basically happy, sad, angry, or anxious? All four of these are basic emotions. They come in a variety of flavors and intensities (amusement, joy, disappointment, depression, annoyance, rage, fear for your life, fear of appearing inept, etc.), and they don’t hang around forever. Emotions are brief and fleeting, lasting just seconds or minutes. All of them come and go, but at any given point in your live, one affects you more than the others. It sets the tone. It’s who you are.
You know you’re experiencing an emotion because of the signals and chemicals your autonomic nervous system sends to the rest of your body: your blood flow increases thanks to a pounding heart, your jaw and fists clench, you lose your appetite and crave sleep, tears fall, your face turns red, your heart rate or blood pressure drop, you sweat, you sigh.
Love is also an emotion. When it occurs, there are measurable bodily changes as oxytocin is released and the vagus nerve lowers your heart rate.
Feeling “in love” is no different from feeling happy, anxious, sad, or angry even when you’re not currently experiencing that emotion. You feel it because it’s the most frequent emotion or the one with the most noticeable effect on your body. It’s a specific type of feeling happy.
If you want to feel “in love,” you need to feel the emotion of love pretty often. And like all the other emotions, what anyone else does has a lot less influence on whether you feel it than what’s going on in your head does.
That’s because your brain is what triggers those bodily feelings that you interpret as emotions. And it’s mostly comparing what happens to what you believe.
Sure, if there’s a speeding car coming your way, your amygdala knows you’re in danger and you need the boost of fear to prepare your body to prevent bodily harm.
But if you read that someone’s manuscript got rejected, your brain’s going to check further, to see if you know this person and, if so, how likely this is to affect him or her. Maybe you’ll feel sad. Maybe not.
If your spouse kisses you on the way out the door, your brain’s going to check whether this is expected or not. If not, does it fit with other hints of infidelity or with recently hearing a friend’s regret over so casually saying goodbye the day his wife died? It might induce love, a special form of happiness. Or it might induce suspicion, a mild form of fear. And for all you know, your spouse actually did it for good luck before asking for a raise.
As long as what happens isn’t obviously unloving, what you believe, what you expect, determines the emotion you’ll feel.
And this takes us right back to the core of what I have been sharing wth you on Assume Love for the last ten years:
- When you’re upset by your spouse, Assume Love. Ask yourself how a good person who loves you fiercely might do the thing that upset you. Our human default assumption is that others can hurt us, and it affects what we think about unpleasant surprises. But when someone has promised to love us until death do us part and done us no harm, “might hurt me” is not a valid assumption. And this invalid assumption is leading us to false conclusions that drive our emotions.
- When you’re disappointed by your spouse, Expect Love. There is an infinite variety of loving acts, marvelous in their diversity. But when we decide all humans must show love by purchasing gifts on Valentine’s Day, we set ourselves up for the emotion of anger (“how dare you treat me so shabbily!”) or fear (“am I living with someone who has no love for me?”).
- When you disagree with your spouse, Find Third Alternatives. Disagreeing sometimes about which option to choose is perfectly normal, even for identical twins. The mistake lies in thinking any two options are the only ones available or even the ones we’ll like best. It feels great to find the one that gives you what you need while doing the same for the most important person in your world.
Wishing you a fantastic Valentine’s Day. Try to treat it like Easter, not Christmas. Hunt for the Easter eggs: look hard for all the signs of love on this special day. Don’t expect a mind-reading Santa to put the exact love sign you long for under your tree.