This article is part of Tools of the Trade, a weekly series in which a variety of experts share actionable tips for achieving fast and effective results on everything from forming good habits to raising money.
This week Sandra J.E. Langeslag, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in the neurocognition of romantic love, offers a look at whether feelings of love can be regulated.
There may be a lot of things you can’t control about love, but when it comes to the intensity with which you feel it, there’s some amount of fine-tuning that can be done.
At times, you may be more in love than you want to be. Maybe you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you back or who has broken up with you. Maybe you’re in love with the wrong person, such as your boss or someone who doesn’t treat you well. Maybe you’re happily married but have a crush on someone else. In instances like these, you may want to decrease your love feelings. That might reduce heartbreak, prevent you from pursuing someone when you shouldn’t, or help you end an unhappy relationship.
At other times, you may be less in love than you want to be. Maybe you’re in a long-term relationship and the passion has died. This is actually pretty common, and falling out of love is one of the primary reasons for divorce. If you’re in a happy relationship and the only problem is that your love feelings are declining, you may want to increase your love feelings. This could reduce the chance of a break-up or divorce due to dwindling passion.
That is where love regulation, or the use of behavioral and cognitive strategies to change the intensity of your current feelings of romantic love, comes in. Some people argue that love is a natural process that should not be changed. But emotions (such as fear, anger, joy, etc.) are natural processes too, and there is much research that shows that emotion regulation can be very beneficial. So even though love is a natural process, love regulation may be helpful as well. In addition, my own research has revealed that people often believe that it’s difficult or even impossible to control love feelings . However, my research has also shown that you can actually change how in love you are by thinking certain things.
How to decrease your love feelings
If you want to decrease your feelings of love for someone, think about that person’s negative qualities (he’s lazy, she’s always late) and the negative qualities of your relationship (we fight a lot). You could also imagine negative future scenarios (he’ll cheat on me). Negative thoughts like these will decrease infatuation (i.e., passionate love) and attachment (i.e., companionate love). Clearly, this isn’t the most fun exercise – in the short term it may make you feel bad. But previous research has shown that thinking negatively of an ex and the ex-relationship helps people get over a break-up, so it will likely make you feel better in the long run.
How to increase your love feelings
If you want to increase your feelings of love for someone, you should do the opposite: think about his or her positive qualities (he’s kind, she’s spontaneous) or the positive qualities of your relationship (we have so much fun together). In addition, try imagining positive future scenarios (we’ll live happily ever after). Positive thoughts like these will increase how attached to your beloved you are and is likely to increase your satisfaction with your relationship as well.
Now you may already have these negative and positive thoughts about your beloved, the relationship, or the future. But if you want to change how in love you are, it is important that you intentionally focus either on the negative or the positive thoughts, depending on whether you want to decrease or increase your love feelings, rather than having a mix of the two.
It is important to note that love regulation doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Thinking these negative or positive thoughts will only change your love feelings a little bit and the effect will wear off after a short period of time. Like with most things in life, if you want to make a lasting change, you’ll have to regulate your love feelings regularly. You could write down as many negative or positive things you can think of once a day, for example.
Some people might argue that love is the result of an interaction between two people. But it is not uncommon for love to be one-sided. Maybe you’re in love with someone you’re not in a relationship with. Maybe you experience some form of love for someone you’ve never even spoken to, such as a crush on a celebrity or love at first sight. The advantage of love regulation is that it’s something you can do even when your beloved is not on board. You can decide if and when you want to make your feelings of love more or less intense. So, go on and take control of your love life!