How will I know if he (she) really loves me?

More than a Whitney Houston classic, this is a question clients ask me about a parent, a romantic partner, a spouse, or a sibling.

People from all walks of life have sought to define love. Some believe love is a verb, others a noun. I’ve heard love described as an emotion, a set of behaviors, an attitude, or an approach to all living beings.

I observe two things have been true of every single client who has asked me this question: (1) the client is in distress about this relationship, and (2) the client is wondering if a person can feel love and yet behave in ways the client finds painful.

“She lies to me, forgets my birthday, cheats on me with my old boss, and demands I quit bowling, but I think that, deep down, she really does love me,” one client memorably told me.

If s/he hits you, screams at you, ignores you, leaves you waiting at the bus stop in the rain, insists on controlling your bank account, or won’t come to your recitals, does s/he love you? Maybe. Maybe not.

If the above strikes a chord with you, let me suggest a question for you to ask yourself:

What behaviors do I expect in this relationship?

Rather than focusing all of your energy on trying to guess what the other person is “really feeling,” I encourage you to join my clients in considering these questions instead:

Is this behavior–whether I think it’s coming from love or not–outside of the boundaries of our relationship agreement?

Do we have a relationship agreement? Have we ever talked about and agreed upon a shared vision about what is “fair game” and what is “out-of-bounds” between us? (For example, do my roommate and I both agree that no matter how either of us is feeling, it’s never okay to break the other person’s computer during an argument?)

How am I going to keep myself from engaging in out-of-bounds behavior?

What self-respecting steps will I take if the other person continues to engage in a behavior I think is out-of-bounds?

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