Written by Mike Graziano, Director of the Family First Program

“Love without action is meaningless and action without love is irrelevant.”
                        - Deepak Chopra

One of the secrets of being a relationally oriented therapist is that I am interested in not only how my clients feel, but in what they actually do. I pay strict attention to interactions between family members and couples to determine not just what they do and say but how they do and say it.

As I observe the couple or the family members in an initial session, I’m noticing the elements of what I think of as “atmosphere”. Is there affection in their interaction? Even if there is conflict, is there also respect? Does this couple or do these family members communicate somehow that they care about one another, or are they simply seeking control of one another? In other words, how is love expressed here?

We are all familiar with many culturally common expressions of this thing called love (Mercury: 1979).  “Love doesn’t judge”.
“Love is full acceptance of another.”
And,  “Love is a feeling….”

As sentiments go these are beautiful and perhaps inspiring thoughts. However they don’t inform us very much on the primary question that we, as therapists., and our clients, are asking in one way or another when relationships are troubled: how is love expressed, regenerated and sustained?

The title of this blog is “Love is An Action.” It’s kind of a toolbox for some different exercises everyone can do within their own relationships. It’s also a certain way of thinking that can apply to other aspects of life and choices we get to make once we recognize that there are choices.

Here are some “basic assumptions” to unpack the theme a bit:

  • Love can be generated by loving acts.
  • One does not need to “feel” love in order to act in a loving way.
  • The more we know about another’s personal conception of love, the better we are at rejuvenating it.
  • Rejuvenating and sustaining love requires not only commitment but skills!
  • These skills become the lifeblood of a relationship, of a family and even a community. They are self-reinforcing.

Following are some of the “skills” mentioned that, by the way, are enacted by relationship therapists in all kinds of different ways depending on their modality and the type of problems they see most frequently in their practice. (Disclosure: most of the language here is derived from the PAIRS Relationship Skill-Building Handbook.)

First, the small things: pay attention to the things that the other person cares about, whether it’s a partner, a child or teenager, or parent, anyone you love. These are acts of kindness and sensitivity and, importantly, they are things you know that the other person personally values. Call them “Caring Behaviors." Oh, and don’t guess: find out what they are. As an example, here’s a few lines from an actual couples session:

THERAPIST TO HUSBAND: Do you think you know two or three things that your wife likes for you to do on a regular basis that help her feel cared for?
THERAPIST: Can you name a couple?
HUSBAND: (stares back at therapist).
THERAPIST: Find out from your wife right now the two or three things she likes for you to do that help her feel cared for.

In other words, don’t assume that what you are doing, even though you may think of it as a kindness, is landing in exactly that way with the other. Caring Behaviors are transactional and clearly communicated. Both parties get to name theirs, and they may be different and change over time. The skill needed here is identifying the need for this kind of conversation from time to time, planning it and having it!

If Caring Behaviors are small expressions conducted throughout the day, “Love Languages” are deeper wells of both self-knowledge and desired attention from another. The categories of Love Languages (The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman) are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch

An exercise to try. Invites participants to list specific behaviors that they like within each category, then ask them to rank them in order of importance. Of course this results in two important things: self-knowledge and knowledge of another.

This brings us to perhaps the fullest experience of love that  human beings can achieve; the full knowledge and acceptance, of another.

Which brings us to vulnerability.

Relationships are supposed to reveal ourselves to another, yet that revelation can be thwarted by our own fears of being unmasked.  In order for us to be vulnerable enough to be fully known by another, we need to strive to be fully known to ourselves. For many of us, we must put away old narratives that may have convinced us that we are not in fact worthy of full membership in any club that we may apply to, and that the club itself may be suspect!  (G. Marx, 1935)

One of the things that often happens in therapy is that once a personal narrative of unworthiness or self-diminishment is revealed, it can then be disarmed and diminished by another’s light. I have often noticed when hearing about a therapy case in supervision that, whatever the therapist may be describing to me, what I am envisioning through the nature of the therapist’s voice is this: this client feels the joy and friendship that this therapist feels by simply being in their presence. By this definition we could say that any relationship that brings another into a greater possession of their worthiness is a loving relationship, whatever its category.

I’ll end this with two quotes from sources that mean a lot to me:
“One joy dispels a hundred cares.” - Lao Tsu

“From small things, mama, big things one day come.” - B. Springsteen

Remember what they taught us in physics class: a body at rest stays at rest; a body in motion stays in motion. Love is an action. It’s brought to life and grows through the things that people do for one another.

So commit to learning, and performing, caring behaviors and love languages every day for whomever you care the most about. It’s guaranteed these things will flow back to you.