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March 9, 2016

The Meaning of I Love You, But I'm Not in Love With You

I received a wonderful comment this weekend from Duane on my 2012 post, One Last Stand Before Divorce.

After 24 years of marriage, his wife left for her mother's house. She said she loved Duane but was no longer in love with him. He found this blog, Assumed Love, made a bunch of changes, and three months later, he says, "We spent the whole day together and at the end of the day she didn't go back to her mothers. She stayed, It has been 9 months since that day. My Marriage is BETTER than ever. It has been wonderful. I believe we can have one of those truly special marriages now."

I LOVE reports like this! They bring me to tears. This is why I write this blog.

Duane added, "I have a question though to ask you Patty....I have one foot stuck in the past though. I'm still very hurt by what happened. I don't want to bring up the past but I'm still not sure what happened....How does a woman go from 'not in love' to 'I'm madly in love'?"

What a great question. The answer is that it's the reverse of how she goes from "I love you" to "I'm no longer in love with you." So let's take a look at that first.

Love is an Emotion

Love is an emotion, like anger or embarrassment or fear or joy. Like the others, it may seem to stick around. You might continue to be angry for years at the friend who betrayed you. But you're not angry at that friend every single minute. The anger comes and goes. It might show up for a few seconds, maybe even for 15 minutes, but then it subsides again.

While it's around, anger and all the other emotions have a particular physical effect on us, a life-preserving effect. Fear is one of the easiest to notice. Adrenalin gets released into your bloodstream. Your brain becomes a lot more alert and a lot more focused. Your muscles tense, ready to fight, flee, or avoid detection.

These effects all come from what's called your "lizard brain," but why? Well, sometimes it's because your amygdala recognizes a threat: a sound or movement or shape that signals danger, like a snake or a tiger or a human shriek. At other times, it results from a belief you hold about something less primitive and pre-programmed that's happening. For example, your new boss starts to say something in the same tone of voice your fifth grade teacher used to shame you, and fear strikes even before you know what your boss is saying.

In the book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson reports on recent research (in her own lab and by others) that show love is an emotion, too, and a rather special one. It causes our pituitary gland to release oxytocin, a hormone known as the cuddle hormone because it lets down our defenses. Love also tones the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to our heart, lungs, digestive system, and other organs, controlling the functions that occur automatically to keep us alive. Most especially, it controls the heart, and stimulating it causes a warm sensation in the chest.

If nerve tone means nothing to you, it means the nerve becomes more effective at what it does. In your heart, what it does is slow your resting heart rate and tie your heart rate to your breathing. It undoes a lot of the effects of the stress of fear, anger, and other negative emotions

Love is in a Class of Its Own as an Emotion

Frederickson tells us, based on watching brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while experiencing the emotion of love, that this emotion stands out. It's different, because it happens only while experiencing another positive emotion in sync with someone else. It lasts only as long as this synchrony between minds lasts. And it happens only when there's some other positive emotion going on, some form of happiness: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, even relief.

She also says we experience love with lots of people. Obviously, many of us experience love not just with our mates, but also with our infants and children, our siblings, our parents, our friends, and even sometimes with someone we just met in a checkout line or on a plane and share our stories.

Lust is not part of this emotion of love. We're not talking about feeling turned on. We're talking about feeling in sync with someone because you're both experiencing the same emotion, the same physical sensations, for this short while, and it feels good. We can feel the emotion of love during sex, but it's not about sex. It's about sharing a positive emotion with another human being.

"I Love You" - Not the Same Thing

We can experience this emotion of love with someone many times before we feel moved to say "I love you." They are not the same.

"I love you" is an expression of caring and longing. We say it to our children, our siblings, our parents, and our close friends as well as our intimate partners.

Love, the emotion, is over and done in a matter of seconds or minutes. "I love you" persists. It can even persist after we decide we'd rather not spend a lot of time with someone like a parent who belittles us, an irresponsible grown child, or a spouse who keeps pushing our buttons.

I believe "I love you" means "I wish you lots of the emotion of love and I long to share that emotion with you."

"I Am in Love With You" - The Measure of Shared Love Emotion

I believe we feel more or less "in love" with someone when we share the emotion of love with them more or less often. Each of us has our own bottom on how often we need this emotion to feel "in love." Less than this is painful.

It's likely we also need to feel it more often in a relationship with more risk: more fighting, less commitment to "for better or for worse," a greater chance of dying due to illness or occupation.

How often? I don't believe anyone knows yet, but I'd guess daily, or nearly so, and several times a day.

So now I can give Duane his answer. What made his wife feel in love again? And how can her make sure it won't happen again?

Things Likely to Lead to a Spouse Who Loves You Feeling More In Love With You

  • Create circumstances likely to produce positive emotions you can share: pull out the photo albums of happy times together, go look at nature or puppies or babies together, put on a movie you'll both laugh at, create a more serene home or lifestyle.

  • Do new things: interest is a positive emotion, and you can create it by sharing something new you're learning or doing on your own or by learning something new or going somewhere new together.

  • Play more.

  • Express your gratitude more, not just for your spouse but also about the good things in your life together.

  • Make plans together. Hope is an emotion you can easily share when you have shared goals.

  • Take pride in your children together. Share the work, enjoy the rewards together.

  • Do what you can to help reduce your spouse's resentment. Any negative emotion makes it much harder to experience love.

  • Make time throughout your day for experiencing this emotion.

Things Likely to Lead to a Spouse Who Loves You Feeling Less In Love With You

  • Avoid each other. You can't get in sync when you're not in touch.

  • Avoid looking at each other when something pleasant is happening. The eyes are important to the emotion of love.

  • Fail to Assume Love. Go with your first, fearful reaction to any unexpected behavior from your spouse, instead of looking for explanations that fit better if you assume you are still loved. The fear will make it harder to feel the emotion of love, and the emotion almost always stops well before the love does.

  • Harbor resentment. It makes the emotion of love much harder to happen.

  • Fail to Expect Love. Expect not just love, but some particular sign of love. You'll grow resentment and kill off gratitude.

  • Ignore a disagreement your spouse feels resentment about. Whether you're right or wrong, you're reducing the chances of love happening, when you could almost always Find Third Alternatives to end the disagreement.

  • Fall into a rut. It kills off opportunities for the shared emotion of interest.

  • Avoid having sex together. This builds resentment and cuts off lots of opportunities for a shared positive emotion.

  • Avoid getting help with depression or anxiety or addiction. All of them reduce your chances of a positive emotion you could share with your spouse.

  • Threaten or frighten your spouse. Fear minimizes the chances of a shared positive emotion.

  • Distrust or disrespect your spouse. It will frighten or anger the person you long to share love with.

Once you know what you're looking for (that warmth in the chest from stimulating your vagus nerve, that reduction in separateness and distrust that marks the release of oxytocin, that sense of shared pleasure), you can more easily pay attention to what's making your marriage so wonderful when it's wonderful. You might also notice which sorts of things bring on this emotion for the two of you and what times of day it comes most easily, so you can bring back wonderful quickly.

I don't believe I've ever heard of a husband or wife or life partner saying, "I'm in love with you, but I don't love you." It's always, "I love you but I'm not in love with you." This is important.

Knowing your spouse is no longer in love with you is a horribly uncomfortable place to be. It's likely you'll consider calling it quits many times over the first month, especially if your spouse moves out or has an affair. It's not unusual for it to take as long as it did for Duane -- three months of creating opportunities to share a positive emotion together -- before your spouse will come around.

But the love in "I love you" lasts even after the emotion's showing up so seldom that it's become horribly painful for your spouse. And now you know how to create the emotion more often.

Even after your spouse says that awful "I'm not in love with you," if you want your marriage back, continue to Assume Love (and take a second stab at explaining behavior that upsets you), Expect Love (and avoid missing out on lots of it while you wait for some particular way of showing it), and Find Third Alternatives (because disagreements and compromises both lead to anger that blocks the love emotion) while you create opportunities for shared positive emotions.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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