Couples in long-term commitments often say that love is an ongoing choice. You decide every day how or if you cultivate love in your relationship.
You can experience great love in many ways — romantically, platonically, companionable — but it’s rarely a force out of your control. At some point, love is a choice — and a lot of work!
Love is a choice and a decision because your actions determine if it lives on or ends. You are in control of how you act in your relationships and how much you push past conflict and challenges.
When you decide to work on communication, trust, intimacy, or emotional security, you’re choosing love.
What about hormones? If love is driven in part by biology, it may seem like something beyond your control that will continue indefinitely.
But, while hormones can sweep you up in the early days of love, Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Philadelphia, explains that lasting love requires conscious decision-making.
Hormones may continue making you feel sexually attracted to your partner, for example, but that’s different than love.
“As your relationship grows, your hormones will no longer be the driver of the feelings,” she says. “This means you need to be the driver of the feelings. You do this by actively choosing to be a loving partner.”
It may feel easy to find love at first — your hormones are leading the way. Building love, which implies emotional intimacy, may take effort and action.
Love is a verb
Lasting love can’t rely on hormones to carry it forward. This means your actions — or lack thereof — directly contribute to the strength of love in a relationship.
These are features of love that require you to act. These are actions of compassion, appreciation, and reliability to build. They’re made from times of positive shared experiences, close proximity, and familiarity.
Love is a biological cascade of hormones and feedback pathways in your brain, but it’s also a deep psychological connection and bond that creates a sense of comfort, intimacy, and trust.
There are different theories about attachment styles and the stages of love. Not all of these are a choice but some may be.
Some experts focus on three biologically-defined phases of love, while others believe there are seven or more emotionally-based phases.
Biologically, the framework for love was laid down in the 1990s by Dr. Helen Fisher, who along with a team of researchers at Rutgers University, mapped the stages of love to unique hormone processes in the brain.
- Lust: The phase ruled by sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. This phase promotes the need for sexual gratification and reproduction.
- Attraction: Similar to the phase of lust in purpose, attraction is defined by the dominant role of dopamine and norepinephrine, which contribute to feelings of elation, energy, and euphoria.
- Attachment: Ruled by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, this phase encourages emotional bonding in long-term relationships.
Not all types of love include all three stages in Fisher’s model. Companionable love or friendship, for example, doesn’t usually involve lust.
The emotional phases of love tend to be less easily defined, as love is a unique experience for everyone.
One of the most popular theories involves four stages of love, including the initial “honeymoon” phase people associate with “falling in love.”
“Euphoria and obsession characterize this phase and thankfully it does not last or we wouldn’t be able to get our work done,” Marlena Del Hierro, a licensed counselor from Winston Salem, North Carolina, says of the honeymoon phase.
After the honeymoon, or falling in love stage, comes:
- early attachment: You’re now aware of your partner’s quirks, but you’re still learning about one another, enjoying new experiences, and building memories.
- crisis and tension: During this phase, the relationship is strongly tested by a crisis, major life change, or personal growth that may cause drifting apart.
- deep attachment: Relationships that have come through hard times successfully enter deep attachment and have a sense of understanding, acceptance, and respect, as well as emotional safety.
When some talk about love being a choice, and not a feeling, they may be referring to the transition between the crisis phase and the deep attachment stage.
It’s OK if you don’t know how to choose love at first. There are simple strategies you can immediately apply to show love is a choice — your choice.
1. Finding ways to show gratitude
“The strongest tip to actively choose love is to choose to look at the gratitude in a relationship,” says Del Hierro.
She recommends asking yourself, “What did my loved one do that helped me today?”
Even small things, like making coffee, deserve a “thank you” or a hug, kiss, or reciprocating act. These could also be something simple like washing your mug so your partner doesn’t’ have to.
Sometimes, just acknowledging the other person and saying “I see you. Thank you!” is enough.
2. Showing affection
Del Hierro also recommends finding ways to express affection. Hugging, kissing, and touching are obvious go-tos, but they don’t come easily for everyone.
Affection doesn’t have to be only physical, though. It can also be shown through thoughtfulness.
Leaving out your partner’s favorite blanket on a cold day, or cleaning off their car before work in the winter, for example, can be expressions of affection.
You’re going out of your way to do something kind for your partner because you’re choosing them.
3. Showing appreciation for who your partner is
Loving the person, not the action can be an important aspect of love. This means you love your partner for who they are, not what they do for you or what they offer you in the moment.
You can show appreciation for who your partner is through the simple act of complimenting or reaffirming what makes them special. If you notice they have a great work ethic, for example, you can tell them.
4. Taking care of yourself
Earnshaw points out that taking care of yourself is also a way of actively choosing love.
Taking care of yourself can show that you want to be the best version of yourself for yourself and your partner.
Eating right, exercising, and focusing on health can be ways to show you’re looking forward to growing old together.
Because love is a choice, doing things that go against the tenets of love may damage your relationship.
These love-damaging actions and attitudes may include things that challenge attraction, deep connection, trust, or respect.
These are some signs that love isn’t a choice for you or your partner:
- ignoring or dismissing your partner’s needs and concerns
- not communicating
- emotionally abandoning your partner
- taking your partner for granted
- being critical and judgmental
- keeping secrets
- revealing things your partner has confided in you
- pushing someone to change the way they are to please your preferences
- belittling your partner in private or in front of others
- no longer demonstrating affection
Falling in love can be a hormone-driven whirlwind of excitement and happiness, but enduring love is a choice made through everyday actions.
This doesn’t mean love has to be a tiresome sprint, but it does mean you have to consciously decide on actions that constantly build and protect intimacy, trust, and affection.
Small gestures of appreciation and consideration go a long way toward forming unbreakable bonds.