What is true love? It’s a question that’s been contemplated by everyone from authors to artists to philosophers to clinicians.
And it’s one that naturally brings up another key query: How do we make love last?
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we asked relationship experts to share their definitions of true love and provide practical tips for prolonging it.
What True Love Isn’t
Many think of love as a feeling. And in some ways it is. According to Mark E. Sharp, Ph.D, a psychologist in private practice who specializes in relationship issues, “the experience of being ‘in love’ is primarily a feeling,” which begins with a powerful attraction and sexual desire.
But these initial intense feelings fade over time, he said. What’s left are “feelings of connection and affection,” if the couple works to sustain them.
Yana Dubinsky, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical training at Primary Care Psychology Associates, also noted that true love goes beyond feelings. “When a couple stands in front of friends and family on their wedding day, they promise to love each other ‘til death do us part.’ If love were a feeling, how can we make a promise about how we will feel in 20, 30, 50 years?”
What True Love Is
“There are many kinds of love,” said Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arlington Heights, Ill. “Passionate, romantic love is very important, but long-term couples also engage in deliberate acts of love that nurture their partner and their overall couple relationship.”
She described love as a process that includes how you love your partner and how your partner wants to be loved. “For some people it may mean saying, ‘I love you.’ For other people it may involve changing the oil in the car.”
Love also means being empathic, meeting each other’s needs and supporting your partner when they need you, she said.
Psychologist Erich Fromm inspired Dubinsky’s definition of true love: “an act of will and judgment, intention and promise.” Sharp also focused on commitment, and added that true love involves choices and behaviors shared by partners.
“Healthy adult love exists when both partners are emotionally interdependent; meaning that both partners love one another, care for one another, desire physical closeness with one another, but respect each other enough to have their own identities as well,” said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples, premarital and newlywed counseling. Partners feel safe being themselves and being vulnerable with each other.
Making Love Last
Loving relationships take effort. The experts suggested these tips for making love last.
- Manage conflict. In her clinical work and research on happy couples, Dubinsky has found that all couples have conflict. But it’s how they deal with conflict that counts. When a compromise doesn’t seem possible, the key is to manage conflict and fight fair. This includes not hitting below the belt, listening to your partner and speaking clearly and directly, she said. “Resist the urge to bring up prior events that may help you prove your point.” Staying on track prevents an argument from escalating. Consider your partner’s point of view, and how they might interpret yours, she said. ““We don’t have to agree, but we must work to understand.”
- Have a strong foundation. “Your interests, opinions and experiences can change as you grow. But if you share the same core belief systems, you will have a platform from which to build a strong relationship,” Rastogi said.
- Have fun. “Whether it is gardening, deep sea diving, or taking French cooking lessons, all couples should have some activities that they enjoy doing with each other,” Rastogi said.
- Ask about your partner’s day, and actually listen. “Offering a solution is not always necessary. Listening always is,” Dubinsky said.
- Be clear about your needs. The best way to get your needs met is to communicate them clearly. As Dubinsky said, none of us is a mind reader.
- Share your feelings with each other. Vulnerability is sharing your feelings – not your thoughts. And this ultimately helps you connect emotionally, Hansen said. “When you argue with your partner, the facts do not matter. Rather it is important for couples to share how the incident made them feel or how it affected them emotionally.”
- Carve out quality time. “This does not have to be an elaborate date or a vacation; sometimes just going to bed a little early, turning off the television, and connecting can go a long way,” Hansen said.
- Have your own passions. “We are all multifaceted, complex creatures. Your partner will never be able to match all your needs and interests. It is OK to pursue some separate activities, either individually, or with friends, apart from your partner,” Rastogi said.
- Perform nice acts daily. “Show your partner that you care with small gestures,” such as a compliment, Dubinsky said. These seemingly small acts make a big difference. Similarly, when your partner does something kind, let them know, she said.
- Dream together. “Knowing what you both want out of life and working together to make those dreams a reality will strengthen the bond in your marriage,” Hansen said. Discuss your relationship goals and how you’ll accomplish them at least once a year.
- Respect your differences. Partners will always have differences. “The strongest couples manage their differences without becoming over-reactive, and without disengaging from each other,” Rastogi said.
- Embrace your partner’s individuality. The idiosyncrasies we once fell in love with can frustrate us today, Hansen said. But it’s important to let your partner be themselves. “To help with this, make a list of all your partner’s positive qualities, characteristics and behaviors,” and keep it on your phone for regular reminders, she said.
- Consider counseling. According to Dubinsky, “Too many couples wait until it’s too late or view therapy as sign of failure. Couples therapy can take a strength-based approach to help you identify the strengths in your relationship and help you translate those strengths into areas that are more difficult.”
There’s no fairy tale formula for true love. It begins and blossoms with partners committing and recommitting to each other, both in vow and in action. As Sharp said, “[Long lasting true love] is when two people make a commitment to each other and choose to act in ways that sustain their feelings for each other and their connection to each other over time.”