Do You Love or Are You IN Love with Each Other?

Show me a couple who love -- are attached to -- each other, but aren't in love and I'll show you two people who haven't liked or felt liked by each other for a long time

Read what follows at your own risk. It could be very painful and upsetting.  My hope is that if it speaks to you, you might use it as a catalyst for a long overdue, helpful and maybe even healing conversation.

After nearly forty years of observing couples in couples therapy and couples outside among friends and family and in public, it has become clearer and clearer to me when a couple loves each other and when they are in love.

There are distinctions.  Nearly all couples who are in love with each other love each other, but sadly there are many – and far too many – couples that love but aren’t in love with each other.  Most of the latter were in love with each other at one time, but it went away.  Some were never in love, but said, “I do,” because either or both were too afraid to say, “I don’t.” 

It’s not difficult to recognize the difference.  That’s what makes it even more painful, because to live with someone you love but are not in love with seems like settling for so little.  The good news is that if you and your partner start to act as if you are in love, it can actually happen.

Couples who are in love:

  • speak lovingly of, to and with each other
  • not only feel loved by each other, but also feel enjoyed and liked by each other
  • put a smile on each other’s face that they see in each other’s eyes that has nothing to do with what the other person does or doesn’t do 
  • realize that love is a verb and they feel it much more that way than as something either receives
  • see acceptance and adoration when they look into each other’s eyes, rather than judgment or even worse, contempt and disgust
  • have a long memory for what they appreciate in each other and a short memory for whatever disappointment they feel in or from each other
  • hear each other out
  • give each other the benefit of the doubt
  • feel proud to be seen with their partner
  • feel and show compassion when their partner is disappointed, frustrated or hurt
  • spontaneously and frequently hold hands and accept the other’s hand when extended
  • trust each other enough to tell them when they feel hurt by their partner
  • do not become defensive when their partner is telling them that they feel hurt by something they did or failed to do
  • spontaneously say “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “I was wrong” when they feel it
  • hug before they leave each other for the day and when they see each other after they come home
  • say “I love you” because they feel it
  • don’t go to bed angry
  • often go to bed at the same time even when one partner falls asleep and the other continues to read or even get up and do something else
  • feel safe, secure and supported
  • have their guards down
  • each day feel they “won the lottery” to be with their partner

Couples who may love but are not in love with each other:

  • infrequently do and feel the above
  • rarely look deeply into each other’s eyes out of fear of seeing judgment vs. acceptance
  • do not feel emotionally close
  • frequently don’t like or feel liked by the other person
  • will often slide into: “Well you did x” debates
  • try to keep busy doing things together to keep from realizing that there is something missing in their relationship
  • will more often say, “I love you” when away or going into surgery or a half felt “throwaway” phrase after an argument or a rough patch and attempting to tip toe back into a truce
  • keep their guards up
  • feel more like they have an arrangement than a relationship

Now many of you may say that the latter list doesn't even sound like love. I understand that you could feel that way.  However my evidence to the contrary is that when that partner dies who you loved but weren't in love with, instead of feeling relief... you feel lost.

In essence, loving means loving (or not loving) someone for how they make you feel (conditional); being in love means having love in you for them regardless of how they make you feel (unconditional). Conditional love is not real love; only unconditional love is true love.

If any of these hit close to home, my intent is not to cause further pain, but to bring that pain into the open where you can talk about and through it. 

It will be very difficult to have such a conversation, but if you do, don’t be surprised if you go from loving back to being in love with each other. And if you're fortunate enough to have that happen, please take better care to be more caring going forward.

P.S. My late mentor, Warren Bennis, gave me one of the best compliments ever when he told me that I sometimes had a clarity that was painful, but was nearly always helpful. If this has been hurtful, I hope it has helped, too.

Dr. Mark Goulston is a #1 best selling author of seven books, former hostage negotiation trainer, speaker, trainer, coach and renowned psychiatrist. He is regarded as an internationally renowned expert in the field of empathy and listening. As a result of his rich and diverse background and experiences, Dr. Goulston increases people’s ability to get through to anyone.