Philosophers and psychotherapists have often suggested that to love and be loved is what life is all about. In addition, all the great spiritual traditions vaunt love as their central teaching. Love is a noble ideal, but how to we actualize it?
Here are four practical suggestions for putting a foundation under our desire to love and be loved. Some of these thoughts are explicated in my book, The Authentic Heart.
Love involves seeing another person as they are, rather than how we’d like them to be. Attuning to a person’s feelings and needs requires deep listening. Few of us are skilled enough — or saintly enough — to express our emotions and desires in a perfect way. It is incumbent upon us to listen with the ear of our heart, so that even when communication comes out imperfectly, perhaps with some tone of irritability (as long as it doesn’t rise to the level of being abusive), we attune to the imperfectly expressed needs without getting so defensive.
Love is nurtured as we attune to the being before us. Such attunement means offering our caring, non-judgmental presence. Our capacity for this loving presence springs from cultivating a certain kind of inner quiet so that we can be present to another person without the reactivity or distraction that leaves a person feeling unheard.
John Gottman’s research into couples suggests that love is more likely to thrive when we allow ourselves to be affected by each other. Love involves the capacity to respond to another person rather than just react. Attuning to a person allows us to see what they need to be happy. Responding means offering what they need if we can do so without harming ourselves.
If our partner needs us to be a little neater, or help with the kids, or be more gentle or affectionate, can we let in what they’re requesting without judging them as being too picky, needy, or selfish? How does their request feel inside? Might we feel good to know that we have the power to make our loved one happy? Or does their need trigger a place inside us that feels inadequate — or perhaps bump up against a need of ours that is not being met, which makes it difficult to respond positively?
Needs and wants often conflict in a relationship. After all, you’re two unique individuals with different histories, wounds, and predilections. That’s why you need to cultivate communication skills. It’s easier to attune to each other and be responsive if we can communicate our feelings and needs in a kind, skillful way. Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers one helpful method for communicating effectively.
Communicating the deeper feelings of our heart and our tender longings requires awareness and courage. When we experience a real or imagined threat to our safety and well-being, we’re prey to the fight, flight, freeze response. We might attack or shut down when we’re not feeling heard and respected, which fuels destructive cycles that escalate conflict and unhappiness.
What we’re often up against in our important relationships are the hair trigger reactions of our reptilian and limbic brain, which try to ensure our survival and keep us safe. It takes a lot of mindfulness to notice our instinctual reactions and slow down enough to uncover our deeper, more vulnerable feelings and needs — and find the courage to express them.
When our needs for connection and being understood are not being met, we may become stressed, angry, or hurt. We might feel an impulse to attack our partner or friend or withdraw and disconnect. It’s so important and helpful to develop the capacity to soothe ourselves when things don’t go our way. As we cultivate inner resources, we’re able to stay in our body and stay connected to ourselves rather than lash out or stonewall, which escalates conflicts.
Each of us are challenged to find our way toward soothing ourselves. For some, meditation, yoga, or tai chi are helpful. For others, journaling, artwork, or being with animals is very soothing. Or just taking a deep breath. If we have a way of being with ourselves when our needs conflict or we’re not getting the mirroring we want, we’re more able to stay connected rather than defensive.
The more that two people can attune to each other, be responsive, have kind, skillful communication, and soothe themselves when things don’t go well, the more safety, trust, and connection get embedded into the relationship. By developing this kind of awareness and practicing these skills, we can move toward actualizing the love we long for.