Today’s topic is like a coin: one object with two sides. In this episode one side of the coin is increasing the love and the other side of the coin is increasing (or becoming more aware of) “the feel” of love. It’s not only deepening our love but become more aware of how and when we actually are aware of that feeling in our bodies.
Who doesn’t want to feel more love in their life? In many marriages love becomes a fact, rather than a feeling: you know you love your spouse but you don’t feel it especially often. And that’s good: love should definitely be more than just a gooey feeling. But wouldn’t it be nice to have more of the feeling too?
Learning to Label Love
Let’s look at what happens when we experience emotions. Feeling emotions such as love happens in two steps. These are usually subconscious steps:
- Experiencing the sensations and bodily experiences. Don’t forget that a feeling is called that because you feel it. Sometimes it’s helpful to say it like this: love is an emotion. When you experience that emotion, you know you are experiencing it because you feel it in your body. Otherwise how would you know you are experiencing that emotion? It has to register in the body as a feeling. That then is your felt emotion.
- Next, you have to interpret and label that bodily sensation as a specific emotion. Usually, you do that based on the context and also based on starting to build a history of when you have experienced that bodily sensation before.
So when I first meet with clients who are not very aware of their own emotions I often will ask, “What are you feeling in your body?” They’ll describe it very physically: tightness in my chest; tension in my neck; warm spot right here. Then I’ll ask, “And when have you felt that in the past?” The gears will start to turn and pretty soon we’ve started to catalog our feelings and become aware of them.
This happens for both positive and negative emotions. So someone who starts to shake or experiences a rise in their heart rate when seeing a spider would interpret this as fear. Or someone who feels happiness and a warm glow when in the presence of their spouse will experience this as love for that person.
So in order to increase feelings of love for your spouse you need to both experience the sensations, and then label them as love for your spouse. Let’s look at each step.
Experiencing positive emotions in the company of your spouse will cause you to feel more in love with them. Makes sense! This can include pretty much any kind of positive experience, such as[i]:
- Shared leisure activities
- New and exciting experiences
- Romantic gestures
- Acts of kindness
- Having your emotional needs met
It is good to pause and consider a list like that: notice those are behaviors. Feelings like love are often triggered by what we do, rather than what we think. How many of those do you extend to your spouse as part of your regular interactions?
Those are positive experiences towards love. Note that you can also have negative experiences or emotions related to love too. Feelings of jealousy or rejection or frustration can also lead to feelings of love towards someone[ii]. If a clerk in a store brushes you off you may not be rattled, but if your spouse does this, a strong negative response on your part will likely (to some degree) indicate something of the fact that you care for your spouse.
I have said to husbands in counseling: do you hear her getting louder? She is raising her voice because you really matter to her. If she truly did not care, she would not even bother with the effort.
Putting Words to Love
So if you are able to label love and to identify when you are experiencing it then the next important piece is to put words to it.
Often, we say “I love you” reflexively or contextually rather than experientially. Meaning I say it because you just said it to me, or did something obvious to generate it. That’s not wrong. But it’s not a truly felt expression. It’s still really good — I’m not saying you’re faking it but just want us to notice how nuanced this can be.
Sometimes we also say it contextually: it is the right thing to say in that moment. Again, I’m not finding fault.
But we also want to learn to say it experientially: that is a beautiful thing too. Saying “I love you” as an acknowledgment of the felt experience of that moment.
Being able to express that love is important in feeling it and believing it to be true. And you can bet your spouse will be able to tell when you say “I love you” and really feel it. Let’s be real: labeling emotions properly can sometimes be hard, especially for complex, sometimes turbulent emotions like love[iii]. Men often struggle with this more than women: I know it took me a long time to figure this out.
But simply noticing when you feel positively about your spouse and verbally expressing this as love can help you get better at recognizing the feeling and help you experience it more strongly[iv].
Loving and Being Loved
This is really neat stuff. And what if you could have a discussion with your spouse where you really dive into how love was expressed in your family of origin, your own feelings about receiving love, and your attitudes and beliefs, and how you guys as a couple can take this to the next level. This discussion guide is something we just created for this episode and you can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Your Ability to Feel Love
Everyone has the capacity to feel love. But it does come more easily to some of us. Some personal characteristics or traits can affect your ability to feel love. These include[v]:
- Self-perception: not thinking of yourself as a romantic or loving person reduces your capacity to feel love: both because you DO less romantic things and partly because your mind will feel love less strongly. You might consider thinking about that as a limiting belief you hold and if you want to retain that self-imposed constraint.
- Self-esteem: similarly, thinking that you are not lovable or not worthy of love will reduce your willingness to feel love, out of a fear of rejection. It is a way of protecting your own sense of fragility.
- Upbringing and past experiences: being raised in a family where love was talked about a lot and seen as a good thing will make it easier for you to identify, and experience love. Being raised in a family with an absence of love, or negative past experiences such as being betrayed by someone you loved, will reduce your willingness and capacity to feel love.
Increasing Intimacy Creates More Passionate Love
So let’s turn to some specific ways of increasing the love that’s being felt in your marriage. A study in 1999[vi] found that feelings of passionate love are highest while intimacy is increasing. So when intimacy is stable (whether high or low), passionate love may be low. But while intimacy is increasing passion becomes higher. So making a real effort to increase intimacy will lead to higher feelings of love.
You’re probably wondering, well how do we increase intimacy? Common methods for increasing intimacy could include[vii]:
- Openness and disclosure
- Sex (please do not just focus on this alone!)
- Togetherness (thinking of yourselves as “we” rather than “I” and making choices for the benefit of both rather than one)
You’ll find plenty of tips for raising intimacy by going back through our episodes here on Only You Forever. Let’s unpack that first one (disclosure) a little more because that’s a super tool for increasing intimacy.
Individual and Joint Disclosure Increases Love
Sharing your honest thoughts and emotions with your spouse increases intimacy, which increases feelings of love, especially if your spouse is good at responding to and affirming the emotions you disclose[viii]. That last bit is important: if your spouse is sharing their heart with you, really make an effort to listen, understand and validate what they’re saying.
Here’s an interesting piece of research too. Think about a double date or think about those times when you’ve talked about your relationship with another couple.
A study in 2014[ix] found that asking couples to discuss their relationship with another couple increased the feelings of love the spouses felt for each other. This effect was mediated by how responsive the other couple is to your disclosures. So having other couple friends who are good at listening to and supporting you can actually increase the love you feel as a married couple.
How cool is that?
Spend Time Together to Foster Love
Spending time together increases intimacy and can increase feelings of love[x]. This is true of shared leisure and having exciting new experiences together, but is also true of sharing “quiet company[xi]” together. Simply being together and relaxing in each other’s company is a great way to increase intimacy, leading to higher feelings of love.
In fact simply making eye contact has been shown to increase feelings of passionate love. A study in 1989[xii] found that spending two minutes looking into each other’s eyes increased couples reported feelings of passionate love towards each other. But then again, looking into someone’s eyes like that is an act of intimacy in itself too.
Feeling Love and Being Loved
Finally, let’s look at how reciprocal this love thing really is. Research in 2005[xiii] interviewed 81 people about what causes them to fall in love or feel loved. The most commonly reported cause of increases to your own feelings of love was receiving love and positive feelings from your partner. So feelings of love are reciprocal, which means that working on being a loving spouse will cause your spouse to love you more, which causes you to love them more.
That’s pretty cool again that you can influence your spouse’s feelings of love just through your own initiative.
Once again, I know we have given you some hope for your marriage! Keep working on feeling that love! It’s a beautiful thing…
[i] Ted L. Huston, Foundations of Interpersonal Attraction (Elsevier, 2013).
[vi] Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky, “Passion, Intimacy, and Time: Passionate Love as a Function of Change in Intimacy,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3, no. 1 (February 1999): 49–67, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0301_3.
[vii] Peter J. Marston et al., “The Subjective Experience of Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment in Heterosexual Loving Relationships,” Personal Relationships 5, no. 1 (March 1, 1998): 15–30, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00157.x.
[viii] Baumeister and Bratslavsky, “Passion, Intimacy, and Time.”
[ix] Keith M. Welker et al., “Effects of Self-Disclosure and Responsiveness between Couples on Passionate Love within Couples,” Personal Relationships 21, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 692–708, https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12058.
[x] Marston et al., “The Subjective Experience of Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment in Heterosexual Loving Relationships.”
[xi] Marston et al.
[xii] Joan Kellerman, James Lewis, and James D. Laird, “Looking and Loving: The Effects of Mutual Gaze on Feelings of Romantic Love,” Journal of Research in Personality 23, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 145–61, https://doi.org/10.1016/0092-6566(89)90020-2.
[xiii] Helmut Lamm, Ulrich Wiesmann, and Karsten Keller, “Subjective Determinants of Attraction: Self-Perceived Causes of the Rise and Decline of Liking, Love, and Being in Love,” Personal Relationships 5, no. 1 (March 1, 1998): 91–104, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00161.x.