Love Is a Behavior

“Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you, ‘in love‘ with you.” —Uma Thurman

I saw an all too familiar, but deeply disturbing sight the other day. I watched a young man, stand in the light rain with his son, who seemed to be about six years old. The man was engrossed in texting on his phone, completely ignoring his son who was crying gently, plaintively telling his father that he was cold and wet and asking his dad to please pick him up and take him home. His father, without ever losing a moment’s focus on his texting, reassured his son that “It’s OK buddy, daddy loves you, just give me a minute to finish this and we can go home.”  

It reminded me of all of the times I have sat in my office as a psychotherapist and listened to people describe the stunningly bad behavior they’ve tolerated at the hands of other people. When they see the spontaneous horrified look on my face, they often rush in to reassure me and, perhaps themselves, that “It’s OK, because I know they love me.” At this point I am often speechless because they have just made it very clear that they are not interested in my questioning their conclusion that abuse they are experiencing is an expression of love. It’s as if they are reciting a mantra “I know they love me,” and the purpose of that mantra is to reinforce the dissociation that allows them to stay in place and tolerate harmful relationships.

Love is a strange word, certainly one of the most confusing and complicated words in the English language. We say with great feeling that we “love” our local football team, and then use the same word with a lot less feeling to say that we “love” a great hamburger, and then even more confusingly use the exact same word to refer to the feeling we have for our children. Maybe we should be like the Eskimos who have 50 different words for snow, and come up with a variety of words for the different kinds of love. 

Since that seems unlikely, I have a simpler solution to propose. What if we considered love as a behavior rather than as a feeling. If love is a feeling, then it’s hard to know when love is real because you have no way to know how someone is feeling. You can only infer how someone is feeling by how they act. Why not be more direct and just use the word love to refer to the behavior itself. Very simply, when someone is behaving lovingly towards you, that means they love you. If they are behaving badly towards you, then they don’t love you. 

The counter argument is that someone may be behaving badly towards you in the moment, but you know he loves you because he has behaved lovingly towards you other times. First of all, I would ask you to think back as honestly as you can about the ratio of the times he has behaved lovingly towards you vs. the times he has behaved badly before you characterize his overall behavior as loving. Even if you come up with a positive ratio, and he is not treating you well now, then we can conclude that he is not being loving towards you right now. 

The advantage of thinking of love as a behavior, rather than a feeling, is that you will be fooled less often. When I played basketball, the coach always told us that on defense you should focus on the other guy’s middle and not get distracted by what he does with the ball. The wisdom of this is that your opponent can fake one way with the ball and then go in another direction, but you can’t fake with your middle. Whichever way your middle goes, the rest of you is sure to follow. In this case, our words are the potential ball fake, and our middle is our behavior. If we don’t follow the ball we are less susceptible to ball fakes and more likely to see how someone’s behavior is the clearest reflection of where their middle is headed.

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