It would be a stupid cliché, except it happens too often. We’re on the giving end of it, or the receiving end of it, and no matter which end we’re on, it always ends badly. You’ve seen it a two dozen times in the movies and on TV…and probably a more than once in real life:
INT. ROMANTIC RESTAURANT – DAY
John has brought Jane here because he thinks that she’s too polite to make a scene over what he’s about to say. But he doesn’t want to spend any more money than he has to, so he drops the bomb after the waiter had brought their appetizers.
JANE: I love this place. It’s so special you brought me here.
JOHN: I’m glad. But you might not like what I’m about to say.
JANE: (sudden concern) What is it, John?
JOHN: I still love you. But I’m not in love with you.
You know what comes next. Usually tears. The good news is that in the movies, the guy turns out to be a jerk whom the heroine never should have been with. Meanwhile, the heroine always ends up with a great guy in the end.
In real life, it’s not so clean and easy.
Why does this happen? Why do we hear “I love you, but I’m not in love with you?”
The answer is simple. In neither case, despite the words spoken, is the person actually speaking about love. Not love as we know it, anyway. The “I still love you” part simply means that the speaker cares about you. But the fact is, we can care about a lot of things. The homeless. The environment. The Salvation Army person who rings his bell over the Christmas season, and those misbegotten souls our donations can help. All good, worthwhile things to care about.
But don’t call it love.
On the flip side, neither is the speaker talking about love when s/he says, “I’m not in love with you.” All this means is that for the person talking, there’s some sort of visceral spark that’s missing; some emotional response that the speaker wants but isn’t there.
According to neuroscience, scans of the brain reveal that passionate romantic love fires neurons in a couple of zones known as the striatum and the insula. That’s right. When they put people who profess to passionate love under a PET scan for an fMRI test, those areas of the brain “fire” when they see pictures of their “loved” ones. Or even think about them.
The problem is, in both cases – and the neuroscience too! – the person talking is mistaking an emotion for the act of love. Real love – the kind of love that lasts and can flex with the crazy changes of the lives we all live – isn’t based on emotion. It’s based on action.
That’s right. Love is a verb. Just like our elementary school teachers taught us, verbs are words of action. To run. To breathe. To eat. To breathe. To pray. To decide.
Love requires action. Love requires things that you do for another person. Those actions can be in the present and in the future, with an immediate payoff or with the best parts of them still to come. Love can be spoken, for sure. But even feelings spoken are best supported by things that we do. (We don’t have to be religious to understand that at the heart of Christianity is an astonishing act of sacrifice on behalf of others. Actually, it’s an act of love).
Just as there are physical laws of the universe like gravity, there are laws for relationships that make them work and flourish. Love as a verb is one of them.
I’m betting you know just what to do, too. Because if you don’t, whoever you’re in love with is eventually going to hear, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
And you know what? You deserve better than that. Whether you’re the one saying it, or the one to whom it’s being said.
Get out there and love like a verb. If you’re not quite sure how to do that? Call me.