Updated: Sep 21, 2020
What is True Love?
Dr. Lisa Firestone, co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, often says that the best way to think of love is as a verb. Love is dynamic and requires action to thrive. As Dr. Firestone wrote, “Often, we spend our time worrying about what our partner feels toward us or how the relationship looks from the outside. Even though it feels good to be loved by someone else, each one of us can only really feel our loving feelings for another person and not that person’s feelings for us. In order to connect with and sustain those loving feelings within us, we have to take actions that are loving. Otherwise, we may be living in fantasy.”
At times it may feel frustrating, but it’s actually pretty empowering to accept the fact that the only person we have any true control over in a relationship is ourselves. We are in charge of our half of the dynamic. Therefore, we can choose whether to engage in behaviors that are destructive to intimacy or whether to take actions that express feelings of love, compassion, affection, respect, and kindness. In order to consciously and consistently choose the latter, it’s valuable to look at the characteristics that in more than 30 years of studying couples, Dr. Robert and Lisa Firestone found to be vital to maintaining truly loving.
The father and daughter research team created what they call the “Couples Interactions Chart,” which compares the characteristics of an ideal relationship to those of what Dr. Robert Firestone termed a “fantasy bond.” The fantasy bond is an “illusion of connection and closeness [that allows couples] to maintain an imagination of love and loving while preserving emotional distance.” A fantasy bond forms when couples substitute real love and closeness for the form of being in a relationship. This bond diminishes the feelings of liveliness and attraction between individuals.
Characteristics of True Love vs. a Fantasy Bond
1. Non-defensiveness and openness vs. angry reactions to feedback
be open with each other, which means being willing to hear feedback from each other without being defensive or discouraging. Dr. Lisa Firestone advises couples to look for the kernel of truth in what they’re partner is saying. That truth can offer an important clue into ways we may be pushing our partner away without realizing it. Even if we don’t agree with everything, listening to our partner naturally makes them feel seen, heard, and cared about. On the other hand, punishing our partner for being honest and direct with us shuts down communication.
2. Open to trying something new vs. closed to new experiences
A relationship thrives when both people are in touch with a lively, open, and vulnerable side to themselves that welcomes new experiences. We don’t have to love and participate in everything our partner enjoys, but sharing new activities, visiting new places, and breaking routines often breathes new life into a relationship that feels invigorating to both people.
3. Honesty and integrity vs. deception and duplicity
To tell the truth is one of the first lessons most of us are taught as kids. Yet, as adults, there can be a lot of deception in our closest relationships. When we are dishonest with our partner, we do them, the relationship, and ourselves a great disservice. In order to feel vulnerable with our partner, we must trust them, and this can only be achieved through honesty.
4. Respect for the other’s boundaries, priorities and goals vs. overstepping boundaries
To avoid a fantasy bond, we have to see the other person as separate from us. That means respecting them as a unique, autonomous individual. Often, couples tend to take on roles or play into power dynamics. We may tell each other what to do or how to act. Or we may speak for and about each other in ways that are limiting or defining. Essentially, we treat them as extensions of ourselves rather than separate human beings. As a result, we actually limit our own attraction to them. As Dr. Lisa Firestone says, “We treat the other person like our right arm. Then we are no more attracted to them than we are to our right arm.”
5. Physical affection and personal sexuality vs. lack of affection and inadequate, impersonal, or routine sexuality
of how we express love. When we cut ourselves off to our feelings of affection, we tend to deaden the relationship. This weakens the spark between ourselves and our partner. Sexuality can become routine or impersonal, and as a result, both partners feel more distant and less satisfied. Keeping love alive means staying in touch with a part of ourselves that wants physical contact and is willing to give and receive affection.
6. Understanding vs. misunderstanding
It’s easy to project onto our partner or to misunderstand things they’re saying, either using them to feel hurt or attacked in old, familiar ways that resonate with us. It’s also easy to get stuck in our own point of view without seeing things from the other person’s perspective. We are always going to be two different people with two sovereign minds, so we won’t always see eye to eye. However, it’s important to really try to understand our partner from a clear point of view. When our partner feels seen and understood, they are much more likely to soften and see our perspective as well.
7. Noncontrolling, nonmanipulative and nonthreatening behaviors vs. manipulations of dominance and submission
Many couples find themselves wrapped up in dynamics where one acts like a parent and the other like a to the other for guidance then resents that person for telling them what to do. Or one person tries to control the situation, then complains that the other person is irresponsible, immature, or passive. In order for a relationship to be truly loving, it must be equal. When one person tries to control or manipulate the other, be it by yelling and screaming or stonewalling and playing the victim, neither person is experiencing an adult, equal, and loving relationship. Do the Course: Ideal Relationships