How Relying on Feelings Can Destabilize Relationships

For the last several weeks we’ve been presenting views and definitions from a variety of researchers and psychotherapists on the consuming and powerful force commonly referred to as love. We’re just about ready to move on to other subjects (we promise we’ll return to love again, eventually), but need to add one final point.

One of the greatest problems with relying on a feeling of “being in love” as a guide to the health or vitality of a romantic relationship is that feelings may change. For many people, it is quite easy to fall in love, and it may be just as easy to fall out of love—perhaps when another, more attractive person comes along. The unreliable nature of feelings is the very reason that for most of human history, love was considered a poor justification for marriage (Coontz, 2005). Even if people care deeply for their partner, this doesn’t mean that they will always be in touch with positive feelings; they will often have aversive feelings, such as doubt, irritation, hurt, and anger. When aversive feelings predominate, it can feel like “falling out of love.” One might take this as an indication that he or she should no longer be with a particular partner, even though loving feelings can be rekindled.

This is not to say that people should stay in unhappy relationships, but rather that, perhaps, there should be a focus on something other than positive feelings in romantic relationships.

While many would agree that it can feel very good to be in love, it is also good to recognize that the endless search for pleasure and “feeling good” can lead, ultimately and ironically, to unhappiness, particularly when it comes to intimate relationships. People often speak of “needs” when they refer to loving relationships—whether with partners or friends—and there may also be a paradox in that seeking to have a need met as a primary motivator for action may actually result in less happiness overall. There is even research to suggest that pursuing happiness as a goal actually results in increased feelings of loneliness (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011; Mauss et al., 2012).

While there is no clear definition of what it means to be “in love,” it appears to mean, at some level, enjoying the feeling generated by being with another person. To some extent, one loves how one feels in regard to another, but the feeling is self-centered. In this instance, when love is primarily experienced as a feeling state unconnected with actions taken according to personal or shared values, relationships may be more tenuous.

See also: 5 Ways to Enhance Your Relationship–Online

Because feelings change over time, it may be relatively easy to “fall out of love,” as it can be to “fall in love.” On the other hand, if couples act in a loving way, based on what they value about the relationship or according to values they share with their partner, they may find it easier to negotiate difficult times and disappointments.

In their book, ACT and RFT in Relationships, authors Joanne Dahl, PhD, Ian Stewart, PhD, Christopher Martell, PhD, Jonathan Kaplan, PhD, and Robyn Walser, PhD, describe the processes involved in romantic love in a way that may provide a better understanding and a guide to what is important in love and how people might have a more fulfilling type of love relationship. The alternatives they propose in come from the field of behavior analysis.

Behavior analysis approaches human experience from a scientific perspective. It investigates factors that influence behavior through systematic study of the relationships between environmental conditions and the resultant behaviors (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). The authors assert the importance of conceptualizing romantic relationships, just like other areas of life, in terms of behavior-environment interactions. This facilitates an understanding of these interactions from a natural science point of view.

Over the past two decades in particular, a promising new behavior analytic conceptualization of human language and cognition has been gaining empirical support. This approach, called relational frame theory (RFT; Dymond & Roche, 2013; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001), represents a significant advance from traditional behavior analytic models of these phenomena (e.g., Skinner, 1957), including with respect to such critically important phenomena as thinking and feeling. This understanding of human behavior has had an impact with regard to practical application as well as theory. Perhaps the foremost example of this is that a new model of psychotherapy—acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999)—has been developed in accordance with the same basic insights provided by RFT. This model offers a particular perspective on psychological fulfillment that is as relevant in the area of romantic relationships as it is in other areas of psychological importance in life. Thus, the authors’ peculations about the functions of love are founded on a modern scientific understanding of human thought and emotion. By building on this foundation, the hope is to provide a guide to robust and fulfilling romantic relationships that go beyond a reliance on feeling good.

For Dahl, Stewart, Martell, Kaplan and Walser, a definition of love as valued action makes more sense than love as a feeling state. As behavioral psychologists, they believe that behavior analytic science has much to offer in the examination of how love as valued action can lead to better relationships in all their diversity. From a behavior analytic or functional contextual perspective, all actions are “events” that occur in a particular context. Thus, in order to understand loving behavior, it must be evaluated as an “action in context” (a kind of “event in context”). The context in question includes sociocultural factors, the individual’s learning history, events that have shaped his or her current behaviors and emotional responses, and the present contexts that maintain the behavior.

Feeling love, passion, and excitement about someone because that person provides reasons to feel good is a powerful source of reinforcement that is commonly seen as paramount in intimate relationships. Falling out of love often occurs when feelings of love have not been reinforced by a partner’s reciprocation. At such times, it might seem common sense that the timing is right to either seek therapy—typically to change aspects of the partner—or leave the relationship. However, there are other important sources of reinforcement for relationship behavior besides reciprocation. For example, it can be reinforcing to behave in ways that are consistent with one’s values.

According to ACT, people have hierarchies of values. The value of intimacy with another person might be high on anyone’s hierarchy. Embodiment of this value might involve physical intimacy, open and honest communication, pursuit of shared activities, and many other possibilities available in day-to-day interactions. Enhanced engagement in these valued actions—rather than searching for happiness or fulfillment directly—may increase the likelihood that people ultimately will be happy and fulfilled in their relationships.

For more about the ACT and RFT approach to well-being in relationships, check out ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory. (LINK)


Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York: Viking.

Dymond, S., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2013). Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807–815.

Mauss, I. B., Savino, N. S., Anderson, C. L., Weisbuch, M., Tamir, M., & Laudenslager, M. L. (2012). The pursuit of happiness can be lonely. Emotion, 12(5), 908–912.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Mayer, G. R. (1991). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.



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