Is it really over?
Good news: You can rekindle love.
Researchers call it “love regulation.” A new study by psychologists at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and Erasmus University Rotterdam found that people can use thoughts to increase how much they love someone. People can also willfully decrease love, say after a breakup.
In the study, published in August in the journal PLOS One, 40 participants—half of whom were in a romantic relationship and half of whom had recently broken up with a partner—each brought 30 pictures of their beloved into a lab. First, they were instructed to look at the pictures while thinking positive thoughts about their partner, the relationship and their future together. Then, they were instructed to look at the pictures again and think negative thoughts about their partner, the relationship and their future.
Before they started and after each task, the participants were asked how attached to and infatuated with their partner they felt. Researchers also measured their brain waves, homing in on the Late Positive Potential Brainwave, which becomes stronger when people focus on something they find emotionally relevant.
When the participants had positive thoughts while looking at the pictures, they were able to “up regulate” their love—they reported feeling more attached to their partner, the researchers found. And their LPP Brainwave was stronger. When the participants had negative thoughts they “down regulated” their love, reporting less attachment and infatuation. The people in a relationship also had weaker LPP Brainwaves.
“People think they can’t control love so they might not even try,” says Sandra Langeslag, lead researcher on the study and assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. “But this study shows you that you can.”
Psychologists are mixed on whether love is an emotion. Like emotions, it is complex and produces physiological and psychological changes. But it isn’t fleeting and doesn’t have a clear trigger as do anger or joy. Love may be more like a mixture of other feelings, some say.
People often feel like love is something that happens to them rather than something they can influence. It is true we can’t control love, as “control implies suppressing it and being king or queen of it,” says Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of “Emotional Agility.” But we can, and do, shape and manage our emotions every day, and love is no different, Dr. David says.
Love in Control
To regulate love, we need to use cognitive and behavioral tactics early and often:
- Think positive thoughts.Focus on what you like about your partner and the relationship. Imagine happy future scenarios, such as dancing at your child’s wedding. And write these things down. Research shows that people who write about loving their partner improve their relationship.
- Make small tweaks.Hug goodbye in the morning; greet your partner warmly when you come home; listen when he or she talks. Engaging with your partner is an antidote to apathy and complacency, which kill love.
- Smile at your partner.Smiling produces neural messaging in your brain that makes you happier. Some studies have shown that when we smile our facial muscles contract, which slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. And when we smile at someone, that person tends to smile back. So we’ve created a feel-good loop.
- Have sex.Even if neither of you really feels like it, advises Nando Pelusi, a clinical psychologist in New York. It too releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, including oxytocin, the bonding hormone. You can actually be more attracted and attractive to your partner after sex.
- Broaden your perspective.You see your partner a certain way. But how do others see him or her? Psychologists employ an “empty chair” exercise to help clients imagine having a conversation with another person. Envision your partner’s best friend or mother sitting in a chair across from you. What would that person say your partner’s best qualities are? Why does he or she love your partner? “We get consumed by focusing on what someone didn’t do, by the qualities a person lacks,” says Dr. David. “This helps us flip the focus.”
- Let it go.We all have the proverbial sock on the floor—the seemingly small thing our partner does that comes to represent everything wrong in the relationship. Dr. David suggests reminding yourself it is just a sock. Try to pick it up without resentment. This applies to any pet peeve you have about your partner. Your spouse didn’t leave the sock on the floor because he doesn’t love you. He’s just messy. “If he ever weren’t alive, you’d do anything to have that sock back on the floor,” Dr. David says. Remember that.
- Try new things together. Research shows that when romantic partners try something new together they feel more attracted to each other. So explore a new part of town or take up a new hobby jointly. Bonus tip: The more exciting the new thing is—the more adrenaline producing—the more attracted you will be.
- Ask questions. When people first meet, they talk nonstop. And researchers have learned they can foster intimacy, and even love, between two strangers simply by having them answer a set of questions that gradually become more intimate. Start talking about your hopes and dreams again. Ask each other what you’d each eat for a last meal, where you want to go before you die, what time of life were you happiest.
Curated by Timothy