11/28/2016 12:59 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2017

The Only Way to Stay in Love

Most of us have experienced this scenario. Someone, perhaps a friend or relative, is venting to us about their partner. They're registering an endless list of complaints and qualities their partner has that drive them crazy. They tell stories of shouting, insulting, accusing, and stonewalling. Yet, if you're brave enough to ask, "So, why do you stay in the relationship?" the person looks confused and says, "because I love them."

The truth is, we all have ways of treating the people closest to us of which we are not proud. We all harbor certain defenses that can make us resist our loving feelings or avoid intimacy. Love makes us feel vulnerable, even fearful, as it opens us up to the great possibility of being hurt. As human beings, our struggles with love are many, but perhaps the most serious obstacle in our quest to find and sustain genuinely loving relationships is our basic misconception about what love is and our resulting difficulty achieving it.

Many people believe that love is automatic. It's something that happens to us. We think of ourselves as "falling" in love, as if we have no control or choice in the matter. Granted, this is often how it feels, for instance, when a small gesture makes us realize how crazy we are for the person we're dating or when our baby flashes his first smile. I'm certainly not denying that people do experience their feelings of love as an almost outside force that suddenly overtakes them. However, I believe that many people also fail to understand or acknowledge their own, often limited, capacity for accepting and giving real love, as well as the power they have to influence and develop it.

Almost every one of us struggles, to some degree, to stay connected to our loving feelings. From the day we're born, our earliest environment informs our ability to love. If we felt loved and nurtured as a child, we grow up feeling more compassion and empathy. The more loving people we had in our early lives, the more we're able to accept and offer love. If our parents or early caretakers had trouble feeling or expressing love toward us, we'll likely have difficulty loving ourselves and may then struggle in our relationships. We may be distracted by self-hatred and self-doubt and, therefore, are not fully available or receptive to those close to us and the love they offer. We may be afraid of opening up and taking a chance on love, so we keep those who love us at a distance and keep our loving feelings to ourselves rather than expressing them.

Early experiences of feeling hurt or rejected can injure our ability to connect with and sustain our loving feelings. As a result, we start to defend ourselves and substitute or mistake other things for love. We may look for validation or security. We may pair up with people who reject, hurt, or mistreat us in ways that feels old, familiar, and therefore, comfortable. Without realizing it, we'll often choose partners whose defenses match with ours, so that we can never achieve the closeness we think we want, but in truth, have trouble tolerating, because it is so far from what we're used to.

Giving and receiving love actually challenges our core defenses, early adaptations we formed to protect ourselves against the ways we were hurt. For example, if we were neglected by a parent and relied only on ourselves for care, we may struggle to feel open, vulnerable, or reliant on another person. Love also challenges our negative self-image, which can create a sort of identity crisis and cause us to feel anxiety around closeness and relationships. For this reason, many of us have the unconscious tendency to replace our real feelings of love with a fantasy. We sacrifice real connection for an illusion of connection that allows us to maintain the idea that we're in love without taking the actions that are truly associated with being in love.

In what my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, termed a "fantasy bond," a couple chooses form over substance. They relate as a unit instead of as two separate individuals. They start to control or limit each other's worlds, rather than expanding them. They fall into routine and stop treating each other with the respect you'd give an independent, autonomous individual. They swap out the uncertainty and adventure of being in love for a more subdued sense of security.

Erich Fromm has wisely written, "There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized." True love exists when both people feel nurtured by the other and thrive as a result. If both people aren't thriving, is it really love? Can we call ourselves "loving" when we are consistently ignoring, eye-rolling, talking over, avoiding, or insulting the person we supposedly care for?

As Fromm said of love, "It isn't a feeling, it is a practice." As much as that initial spark, desire or longing may feel like it, these feelings are not necessarily love. Love involves behaviors. It is a skill. To be truly loving, we have to take actual actions toward our partner that he or she would experience as loving. Real love comes from attunement, sensitivity, and generosity. It comes from supporting the other person and whatever uniquely lights them up. When we choose each day to treat another person with gentleness, affection, kindness, and respect, we cultivate and grow our own ability to love. As much as we can be touched by the love we feel from others, we can only fully feel our own feelings of love, and in order to feel them, we have to act.

If we think of love as a verb, a way of being as opposed to a state of being, we can recognize that we hold a lot of power when it comes to our relationships. We can learn to be more loving and actually get better at love. Studies have shown that real love can last a lifetime, but that depends largely on us and who we choose to show up as in our relationships. As researcher Bianca P. Acevedo put it, "Couples should strive for love with all the trimmings... Couples who've been together a long time and wish to get back their romantic edge should know it is an attainable goal that, like most good things in life, requires energy and devotion." With energy and devotion, we can achieve the love we say we want.

Learn about Dr. Lisa Firestone's online course, "The Fantasy Bond: The Key to Understanding Ourselves and Our Relationships."