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10/13/2012 11:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

What Is Love Like? Marriage Counselors Give Their Take

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By Dawn Raffel

If you're doing love right, it can last through joy and heartache, chronic lateness and noisy chewing.

Ask anyone about love and they'll give you an opinion: It's written in the stars. It's succulent, a rose. It's delightful, de-lovely... unless it's a battlefield. In any event, it's one hell of a feeling, right?

We might want to rethink that, says Harville Hendrix, PhD, a groundbreaking marital therapist. Not only isn't love a feeling -- love isn't even an it. "Real love," says Hendrix, looking slightly professorial in a plum-colored sweater, "is a verb. It's a behavior in which the welfare of another person is the primary intention and goal."

While he speaks, his wife, Helen Hunt (not that Helen Hunt -- this one helps run their seminars and has coauthored several books with him), listens intently (she and Hendrix were "the living laboratory" for their theories, she interjects) and occasionally touches his arm. "Love as a feeling is ephemeral and goes away when circumstances change," Hendrix says. "Love as a verb isn't dependent on how you feel or even what you think. Instead you make an unconditional commitment to the other person."

As for those who believe you have to merit love (they include no lesser minds than William Butler Yeats, as well as enrollees in the School of Tit for Tat: You know who you are), Hendrix begs to differ. "You can't earn real love," he says. "It's not subject to how good you are or whether you're pleasing to your partner all the time. So there's a kind of detachment -- you simply hold your partner's experience when they're going through changing emotions. You can ask, 'Is the experience you're having right now somehow triggered by me?' Sometimes it's not. People can have stresses you don't know about. But if it is, then you can follow up with, 'What relational transactions are stirring up your discomfort with me?' The point is, you're committed to what is real. Namely, your partner. But most of us 'love' an image rather than the real person." He pauses, then looks at his wife. "What would you add to that, Helen?"

"Well, I would say real love is about going to a different destination," she says, giving the conversation a quarter turn with a certain exuberant sweetness. "You become conscious that there is a space between the two of you, and that's where the relationship resides."

"That really needs to be amplified," he says, "The between-ness is the locale of love. It's outside us." That's why the proverbial urge to merge is, according to Hendrix, an itch best left unscratched. "In 'romantic' love, you think, My lover and I are one. Technically, we call this symbiotic fusion, which means: You live in my world; therefore, if I like chocolate, you like chocolate. In real love, your partner is clearly differentiated from you. It's an altered state of consciousness to know that you live with another person—that other people exist who do not match your inner image of them."

With this deep level of acknowledgment—this ticket to what Hunt calls the new country -- comes an end to judgment. That's not to say you wake up delighted by all of your beloved's previously irksome habits. But rather than blame, Hendrix says, you can state directly and kindly what you want ("I would like to meet you at 7"), protect yourself (by, say, deciding to hook up indoors rather than on a corner in subzero weather), and try to understand what's going on inside your partner's head.

Even when there's a breach of trust -- infidelity, for instance -- Hendrix and Hunt caution against a quick split. Instead, says Hunt, "you have to get curious with your partner about why they're doing whatever they're doing. Ask -- then stop talking and stop judging, and become a safe person to confide in. The sense of judgment and criticism is what can make our partners feel like such a failure that they seek another avenue to express their passion."

Hendrix believes most unions are salvageable and divorce can be "an abortion of the growth process." That's because we're invariably drawn to a partner who in some way resembles one of our primary childhood caretakers, and it's only in the adult relationship that we can complete unfinished business and heal our oldest wounds. To break off a marriage without resolving the underlying conflicts and power struggles -- and understanding your role in them -- is, he feels, to set yourself up to repeat the same pattern in your next love affair. He concedes almost reluctantly that, in some cases, a couple can decide that they're moving in different directions, with different values. "It might no longer make sense for two people to spend their lives together," he says, "but that doesn't necessarily end the love they have for each other. It just ends the relationship."

No matter what the circumstances, the one thing you should never do, Hendrix and Hunt say, is find fault. Raise the notion of constructive criticism and they laugh ruefully. "That's very dangerous," Hunt says. "It's an invitation for self-righteousness."

"Criticism is abuse," Hendrix says. "There's no way around it. Because it means, 'You're not good, you're not right, something's wrong with you, and I'm trying to fix it.'" What your partner needs more than anything is simply to feel validated, in large part because most of us grew up feeling that love was conditional on meeting someone else's expectations.

Having weathered a crisis in their own marriage (they've been together for 26 years but got to real love only in the past five or six, they agree), Hendrix and Hunt know how much work -- even pain -- is involved. "My empathy and patience for the people I counsel have changed," Hendrix says.

"Something I've learned is that real love is counterinstinctual. We're designed as creatures to protect ourselves and to survive, and therefore we go after what we need. But with real love, you commit to the survival of the other person. And that has a paradoxical effect: Your survival is secured because when you surrender your focus on getting your own needs met, your relationship with your partner will change. It's not manipulative -- you're genuinely caring for your partner, who knows it. Helen and I still have our differences, but they're like a ripple on the surface of an ocean. It touches me even to think about it, that I feel so safe and valued.

"In courtship," he says, "you're trying to win the partner, keep the partner, stir up passion. With real love, the behaviors look the same but they arise out of the depth of the relationship and are expressed as a sense of gratitude. They come from within to reflect a state of being rather than to generate emotions."

Hunt weighs in: "You have both learned to create the sacred space between two people."

"When you read, 'Here's what to do to get your man to stay,' or to love you, there's an outcome you want," Hendrix says. "In real love, you're already in the outcome."

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