Whenever I write an article about love or relationships, I inevitably receive one or two spammy comments recommending a mystical cure for how to “win back your husband” or “make the woman of your dreams fall in love with you.” The comment usually recounts a detailed testimonial and describes a modern-day genie who, by way of a magic spell, will make your beloved miraculously fall at your feet. While it’s always a little off-putting to be the target of this tricky new wave of advertising, I admit there’s still something mildly compelling about the narrative itself. We all want to be loved, and we want that love to be effortless.
Perhaps, this is why people have long been romanced by the concept of a magic potion that perfectly patches people back together, igniting passion, liveliness, and love. When I was 12, I played in my school’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Shakespearean comedy that traces a collection of characters who are mistakenly placed under the spell of a passion-inducing flower. Comical conflict ensues as characters fall in and out of love, left and right. All ends well when the spell is reversed on everyone except for one man, who now conveniently loves a woman who desired him, but who he despised at the play’s start. Though I loved the play, I remember being slightly irked at this one outcome, that this particular love was inauthentic, that Shakespeare had cheated.
In reality, we all want to be loved, but in order to have the love we say we want, we have to throw fantasy out the window. Love isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something we cultivate, something we can ignite within us by being open, vulnerable, and ourselves. According to many experts, what causes us to fall out of love has a lot to do with our tendency to protect ourselves by pushing back, losing sight of who we are as individuals, and forgoing real intimacy for a fantasy of connection.
Staying in love has less to do with an unseen force pushing us toward or away from another and more to do with our own willingness to be open and vulnerable and to look at the behaviors that are steering us away from our closest feelings. This is good news, because it means we have a lot more power than we think when it comes to how we feel. As Dr. Lisa Firestone said, “Love involves behavior. It is a skill. To be truly loving, we have to take actual actions toward our partner that he or she experiences as loving.” So, while a potion would be nice, the answer to our woes is usually in our own actions.
According to Dr. Firestone, there are ways to stay truly connected to our love for someone else, to help them feel seen, loved, and, therefore, more open and affectionate toward us. Here are some essential tips adapted from the work of Dr. Firestone and her father Dr. Robert Firestone, author of The Fantasy Bond.
See the person for who he or she is. We can’t really feel loved unless we’re being seen. And we can’t express love unless we’re really seeing someone else. True love has to be true. To love someone, we have to know them. A famous study by Arthur Aron listed a series of personal questions that can produce intimacy and closeness between two otherwise strangers, leading some to say they make people fall in love. The 36 questions range from, “when did you last sing to yourself?” to “if you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”
The conclusion of the study was that a “key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” This was put a touch more romantically in the New York Times essay by Mandy Len Catron, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” in which she wrote about how her and her now partner tried Aron’s questions before they started dating. “What I like about [Aron’s] study is how it assumes that love is an action,” Catron wrote. “I see now that the story isn’t about us [her and her partner]; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.” In order to keep love alive, we have to remain curious about the person we’re sharing our lives with without trying to fit them into something (or someone) else.
Express affection. The more we express love physically and emotionally, the more we feel it. A Stonybrook University study concluded that intense love can last long-term, and that one of the main factors making this possible is the presence of physical affection like hugging and kissing. This is consistent with Bianca Acevedo’s research, which states that lasting romantic love is possible and is characterized by three main factors: intensity, engagement, and sexual liveliness. Part of not letting love fade means connecting to it physically through touch, contact, and intimacy.
Do things the other person will perceive as loving. As much as we may love another person, sometimes we become so wrapped up in our own feelings that we stop seeing the other person. We may do things that seem in the vein of being a “good husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend,” but we aren’t necessarily tuning in to what our partner really wants from us. Throwing a huge birthday party may feel generous, but maybe our partner would prefer if we just slowed down and caught up. We should always aim to offer tenderness, compassion, and sensitivity to the needs of the other person. What expressions of love would make him or her uniquely happy?
Support what lights the person up separately from yourself. When we first get together with someone, we typically appreciate and respect each other’s individuality. It’s what attracts us to each other, the unique qualities that make each of us who we are. At first, this expands our worlds, and we’re willing to go along for the ride, because we’re excited about this new person and what they’re adding to our lives. As we get closer, however, we sometimes start to limit each other, relating as a unit as opposed to two individuals. This can be a good thing in the sense of sharing more and feeling close, but when we start to control and restrict each other, the relationship tends to deaden and even create resentment.
We should never give up being ourselves in a relationship nor should we ask someone else to give up themselves. This means we may have to stop trying to control the situation. We should strive to continue to offer concern and support for the loved one’s aspirations separate from our own. Love thrives when two individuals make a choice to be together to enrich their lives, not to limit them. Encourage the other person to see their friends and to do the activities that make them come alive. This is the only way to maintain our feelings of freedom and attraction.
Share activities and pursuits both old and new. When we first get close to another person, we often share a bunch of new activities that make our lives feel fuller and more exciting. As we get more bogged down into routine, we may stop doing those things we once loved to share like cooking together, meeting up for coffee, or, as many couples report, having as much physical contact or sex. It’s important not to stop taking the time for the things that we once shared that connect us to our loving feelings. On the flip side of the same coin, it’s important not to just fall into habit and stop trying new things, both together and separately. Again, the idea is for our worlds to always be growing as a means of keeping ourselves feeling alive in the relationship.
Engage in an ongoing, honest exchange of personal feelings. When we are open with another person, we allow them to truly know us. By being vulnerable and saying what we want and how we feel, we give our partner an opportunity to get close to us, to feel for us, and understand who we are. This isn’t about blaming or complaining. It’s about being an honest and equal adult expressing what we feel and think directly, without manipulation. At the same time, we should be open to the other person’s feedback and to hearing how he or she feels and what bothers him or her. We can meet this communication with compassion, both for our partner and for ourselves, so that we don’t react defensively and both feel closer from the contact.
Be wary of your inner critic. We all have a “critical inner voice” that puts us and our partner down. It’s like an internal enemy we harbor that just doesn’t believe we’re lovable and sneakily works to push love away. This inner critic offers terrible relationship advice, encouraging us to engage in hurtful or dismissive behavior, telling us to hate, pity, or protect ourselves in ways that don’t allow other people to truly be close to us. Getting to know this inner critic is a key part of allowing ourselves to fall in love long-term, because if we listened to this “voice,” most of us would wind up alone.
While there is no single secret, no potion we can conjure up, to make love last, holding these practices as principle gives us the best chance of having real love in our lives for as long as possible. This kind of love is richer than fantasy and more rewarding than mere loyalty. It keeps us invigorated and excited about the possibilities of a given day. When taken to heart, these steps keep us more than just in love, but alive, and not just to our partner but within ourselves.