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."
Next: Why there's no such thing as "constructive criticism" when it comes to love