What Is Love?

 The only way of full knowledge lies in the act of love;
This act transcends thought, it transcends words.
It is the daring plunge into the experience of union.
To love somebody is not just a strong feeling-
It is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise.

Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

By Stacy Bremner, MA, RP

Answering this question is no simple task. Society portrays love as that romantic “feeling” we experience in the beginning stages of a new relationship. But when we delve deeper it becomes clear that there is a lot more to know about love. Theorists, researchers, and even some poets, portray love as an “action” or a commitment towards helping each other. When we approach our relationships with this understanding of love, it can contribute to our growth in awareness of our self and others. When that growth happens, our relationships can be more satisfying, even after the initial romance fades. I offer this article to educate, provoke thought and give hope because when the initial romance ends, we naturally become disillusioned and wonder where we went wrong.

“Romantic attraction” is about hope

The first important point is that the intense feelings we connect to love or to the feeling of “being in love”, are actually caused by the anticipation of need fulfillment. What this means is that we feel we love someone when we believe, feel hopeful, or sense, that this person is going to meet our needs. For example, we unconsciously say to ourselves, “He/she is going to nurture me, listen to me, take care of me, etc, in ways that my parents did not/could not.” Because we have this unconscious belief or expectation, we feel hopeful, energized and “in love”. This is the psychological aspect of romantic love. If you really pay attention, you will notice that loving feelings such as this ebb and flow according to the situation. For example, when we feel let down by our partner it is difficult to feel “in love“, but it’s easy when things are going well.

Our romantic euphoria is “chemically induced”

The second point to know is that scientists have also discovered a biochemical/physiological component to the initial feelings of love. During the attraction and romance stages of a new relationship, our brains release neurotransmitters or chemicals that cause us to feel good. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD describes this as a “violent emotional disturbance” that may begin with the brain’s release of PEA (phenyl ethylamine). PEA is a natural amphetamine that causes feelings of elation, exhilaration, and euphoria. Research has shown high levels of PEA in the brains of humans that are in the initial stages of love, what Fisher calls “infatuation“. Thus in part, the experience of falling in love feels so grand because we are actually “high” on our own body’s chemicals. This lasts for approximately 3 months to 3 years depending on how much contact the couple has with each other.

But what happens when these wonderful feelings fade?

Harville Hendrix, PhD believes that the romantic stage of a relationship is not supposed to last forever, and that the purpose of this stage is to bond two very different people together for what lies ahead; the Power Struggle.

According to Hendrix and others, the Romance Stage is all about celebrating our similarities while the Power Struggle is all about discovering our differences. He says the Power Struggle is an unavoidable stage of relationship, and is actually “growth trying to happen”. The growth is learning about ourselves in relationship, and learning about and getting to know our partner, both invaluable areas of knowledge if we are to help one another get our needs met. Unfortunately many of us are unable to keep a loving, empathic connection going with a partner through the Power Struggle. In our society, we are not taught very well how to stay connected in the face of opposition or perceived threat, or diappointment. We tend to behave as we have learned throughout our lives, to blame, shame, cry, criticize, complain, ignore, or withdraw. We do this in the futile attempt to be heard, get our needs met, get our partner to change, or to get him/her to see our side, etc.

“I love you, but I am not in love with you anymore.”

When our needs are not met time and time again, we become disillusioned, which leads to the eventual statement, “I love you, but I am not in love with you anymore.”  This statement means that we are tired of trying to get along, of trying to get our needs met; the connection and hope we once felt is gone. In author Willard Harley’s words, “The Love Bank has been depleted“. This is the difficult reality of the Power Struggle, and is often when a couple breaks up.

Our relationship satisfaction is influenced by a number of things in addition to our partner’s behaviors. Our parents’ marriages influence us, and other role models we encounter throughout our lives, as well as cultural mores and attitudes. Currently, we live in a society that sees marriages as disposable or replaceable so it is easy to find more faults than appreciations for a partner and become disillusioned.

Women more often than men fall prey to this. In fact, two thirds of divorces are initiated by women. Michelle Weiner Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy, calls this “The Walkaway-Wife Syndrome”. She explains that women are the ones responsible for monitoring the relationship, and that after years of asking for household help or physical closeness or any other number of things that she feels she is not receiving, and her requests repeatedly fall on deaf ears, a wife eventually gives up and puts up a protective wall. The husband may enjoy the change and feel “off the hook” without realizing that she is silently planning the end of the marriage.  Sadly, men often don’t wake up and take their wives’ unhappiness seriously until there is no turning back for her.

Getting relationship help can be a difficult thing for men, because of cultural norms, pride, etc. Men are socialized and genetically wired to be “providers and protectors”. According to authors Stosny and Love, and Terrance Real, in our patriarchal society men are not raised to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. In fact they are taught that it is not okay to have feelings at all (I.e. “big boys don’t cry”, “suck it up”, etc)  and so to avoid a difficult feeling such as the shame that a wife’s complaint may bring, a man will use his natural defenses and is likely to defend, attack or withdraw. He may disagree with her, say nothing’s wrong, blame her for the problems, or say, “We can fix this ourselves.” Sadly, that resistance can eventually cost him his marriage. Sometimes a man might refuse help and stay in a very unhappy situation long-term because he cannot bear the thought of another man making his wife happy when he cannot make her happy himself. He may refuse to give up even though what he is doing is not working, and both he and his wife are miserable.

But men also have expectations of their partners and become disillusioned in relationship. A man may add fuel to the power struggle fire when he feels unappreciated for what he does for the family as a provider, when he feels disrespected as a parent, feels his ideas are ignored, when he doesn’t feel he has enough time and attention from his wife, or when his need for sex is not met. Depending on his style of communicating those needs, he may get an angry response from a busy, resentful and unsympathetic wife.

Over time as the power struggle rages on, both men and women can fall prey to the belief that someone “better” is out there. Depending on the situation, that may or may not be true. But regardless, when they meet someone new and experience the exhilaration of romance again, they think, “This is the one! This is what was missing from my marriage!”  They mistakenly think that the “in love” feeling of a new relationship is the answer, and what they are supposed to feel long term. But in truth, Real Love takes work.

Researcher, John Gottman says that men need to become “emotionally intelligent” in order to feel safe enough to take their wives’ complaints seriously and co-create a healthy rewarding relationship for both parties. I would agree with that, and I also think that women can improve here as well. Both men and women get blinded by their defenses and fail to keep their partner safe with their words or actions. It is very easy to point the finger and blame the other, but the real challenge of discovery is looking at your own role in the power struggle and what you can do to co-create a loving relationship.

 Love as a Verb

Since the romance is not meant to last, it is important to know that our feelings for our partner can deepen to another level when we experience “Love as a Verb”. Our relationships can be more satisfying when we have made the decision to love an imperfect person; and we act in loving ways with the welfare of our partner at the forefront. Therefore, Real Love is a decision that actually goes against our natural survival instincts that set up the power struggle. Our survival instincts are all about fighting to get what we need. After the romance is over we tend to sit back and expect our partner to give us what we need to feel loved.

We typically believe we need to receive to feel love. The truth is actually the opposite. After a period of time acting loving towards a partner, we actually experience more loving feelings. This happens because when we give, our hearts are open. When we have an open heart, we feel love.

To illustrate this, think of a newborn baby or a new puppy. These little helpless creatures are not able to give to us, in fact when under our care, these little ones require endless amounts of time and energy. However through our acts of love and care towards them, we experience deep feelings of love and compassion; our hearts are wide open. Oxytocin, “the cuddle drug”, contributes to our good feelings that motivate us to stay in connection, whether it is with a child or a spouse.

Yet in contrast, with our spouse, we often have an unconscious agenda where we expect him or her to meet our needs. When our spouse doesn’t meet our needs perfectly, it can cause us to shut down our hearts. We need to become aware of this automatic defense because hard as they try, it is impossible for a parent or a partner to meet all of our needs; wounding and disappointment are inevitable. We need to be more realistic!

Therefore, one way to maneuver through the power struggle with an intact connection is to learn to let go of our agenda and our survival instincts, and hold the care of the relationship as sacred. We need to invest time and energy in meeting the needs of our partner. This can initially feel very difficult and threatening. You may be thinking, “Well what about me?!” However, when both partners approach the relationship in this way, the relationship can evolve to a point where both partners get more of their needs met. It is a win-win situation! Yet it requires a conscious intention in order to get to that point.

In addition to learning to give love unconditionally, we need to communicate our own thoughts, feelings and needs. We need to communicate these in respectful ways and find balance between forcing an issue onto a partner and avoiding an issue altogether, as the former disrespects our partner and the latter disrespects us.

Love in action requires a new, more active, aware way of being in relationship where we have ownership (of our role), vulnerability (where we show our weaknesses to our partner), and compassion (for each other). This is a very different approach than the guardedness of the Power Struggle. Working towards this goal in a conscious manner generates good feelings between partners and helps couples move from power struggle to a deeper more satisfying love.

How do we get to that point?

We work to create safety in the relationship so that we can become completely honest and vulnerable with each other. In that safe place, we work to understand and accept the inner world of our partner, and become aware of our own hidden agendas (the issues from childhood that keep us stuck in our defense systems). It is our fear that we will not get what we need that keeps us stuck repeating the same ineffective behaviors over and over again.  (For more on the defenses read Getting the Love You Want or Receiving Love by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt or The Truth about Love by Pat Love.)

When we are in fear or anger it is difficult to feel compassion or empathy for our partner. According to authors Steven Stosny and Pat Love, compassion implies there is a desire to be cooperative, generous, and loving. (They recommend working on our attitudes where we can compete in a new way, and ask ourselves, “Who wants to be the most cooperative?”) Once we embrace this idea, feel safer, and become willing to truly understand our partner as they are, this approach becomes easier.

Stosny and Love recommend a Core Value Approach where we act according to our values as opposed to our feelings. Ask yourself what you value. If you value closeness for example, then behave in that manner, working towards closeness in a dedicated way, and the loving feelings will follow. Do not let feelings run the show. Feelings run hot and cold, but true love is constant.

In my own relationship, I watch as we evolve as a couple and gradually move towards loving each other in a deeper more conscious way. It is more active and more giving. Through my personal experience I understand that it is possible. Although it is not easy, it is very rewarding. It is exciting to experience myself becoming a more generous, accepting, and compassionate partner while reaping the benefits of feeling so loved by another.

The Imago Dialogue is one very important tool for this work, as it helps couples create safety, understanding, and empathy for each other. Over time, as we relax into the idea of feeling love because it’s conditional on what WE do, and less on the actions of others, love can be expansive, empowering and peaceful. Therefore, real love is not just a passing feeling; it is a way of being with another.

For ideas on how to make love a verb in your relationship, read my article
“Practices for Bringing the Positive into Your Relationship”


  • Anatomy of Love by Helen Fisher, PhD
  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, PhD
  • His Needs Her Needs, by Willard Harley
  • How Can I Get Through to You? by Terrance Real
  • How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking About It by Pat Love and Steven Stosny
  • “Love the Verb“, an interview with Harville Hendrix and Helen LeKelly Hunt in Feb 2004, O Magazine
  • “Intentional Dialogue and Shaping the Send” with Wendy and Bob Patterson from a lecture at the 2003 Imago Conference
  • Receiving Love by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
  • The Divorce Remedy, by Michelle Weiner Davis
  • The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work by John Gottman
  • The Truth about Love, by Pat Love