The Circle Line

Learning to Love

The word “Love” conjures many images and ideas… But where do we get our ideas of love from? How do you love? What is love? The Big Question. And one to which we all have our own answers. It may be a big question, but that’s what makes it worth exploring…

Love is an emotion

Love as an emotion, or a chemical, is in us innately; a primeval oxytocin-fuelled drive to love and be loved in order to both reproduce and to survive.

It varies in intensity from amusement, relaxation to connection, warmth to trust, passion and perhaps just occasionally ecstasy.

Love can be learnt

Yet while it is an emotion and a chemical reaction, love is also a system or a set of behaviours that we learn through observation.

We see it at school – in the classics we’re taught and the behaviours we’re rewarded and punished for. In films – Disney, cartoons, then later on in epics, romcoms and dramas.

Most importantly – we see it in our parents. It was modelled by our carers when we were children. How did they show they cared about us? How did they show they cared about each other? Did they show they cared?  Good news is – if their example was somewhat inadequate, love is something we can learn as we go through life by observing and copying other good examples.

Love is an Exchange

Love is most satisfying when reciprocal. We are built to love and be loved. Sometimes we (subconsciously) focus on only one half of the equation, being more desperate for love than to love or vice versa. If that goes on love can be very unfulfilling.

Love can be like a see-saw. There’s a perpetual motion to it – and it can go on indefinitely and beautifully when it flows in both directions. The thing we call unrequited love psychotherapists understand arises from unresolved feelings from childhood. An unconscious longing for an absent parent perhaps. Some undone grief. Or a desire for something deeply unfulfilled within your life or your self.

Love is an Action

Love can be seen and felt in daily practice. It doesn’t descend like a gift, even though a person we may later choose to actively love may appear in our life like a gift. If we want love to last we must manifest it in actions and words. We are love’s vessels. It is us that give love life.

Love may encompass many desires, different things for different people – fun, joy, chemistry, trust, loyalty, communication… the list goes on.

What these have in common is that they require us to see, hear and understand another person. To connect.

And it’s possible to also connect to our self – to see, hear and understand ourselves. For if we can apply love to others we can also apply it to ourselves.

Love is seeing, hearing, understanding

How do we learn to see, hear and understand?

By freely doing a cycle of positive things – for both ourself and others:

  1. Talking – ask about others’ views and experiences, and say what we think and feel.
  2. Listening – without interrupting, with no agenda, without calculating what to say next, without trying to control the conversation. Listening to our selves means pausing and being quiet, so we can note our thoughts and emotions as they arise and acknowledge them.
  3. Identifying our feelings – knowing when we are happy, sad, angry or scared. Whether in response to a thought or another person.
  4. Doing things others like, and doing things for ourselves that we like – a cuppa, a bath, a hug, sex, swimming, jigsaws…..
  5. Doing things to help ourself and others.
  6. Forgiving.

These take a lot of practice. And often two of these are particularly hard…


Listening is one of the most important. It underpins empathy and understanding and is a skill that with time and practice we can learn. Most of us find listening very hard; if we’ve not been listened to in life it can be hard to listen to others. We haven’t learnt how – how would we if it’s not been modelled to us so we could observe, absorb and copy? So instead we tend to wait for the person to stop talking so we can give our advice, or jump in with our thoughts, or respond with “me too”.

The first step to actively listening is simply to be quiet. Don’t say anything. Don’t respond. Just hear and nod.

Ironically, the very first step to listening may be to talk; to find someone to really listen to you. Once you regularly feel truly heard it’s much easier to (a) find the headspace to listen to others, and (b) copy how to do it.

Active listening on a deeper level takes a strong self-awareness and perhaps suspension of your self. This is what therapists are so good at. Which is why they make pretty good people to seek out to start your learning.

This is what shores up strong relationships – hearing and trying to understand the other’s world, their point of view; empathising. We may not always condone the behaviour that comes with it but if we listen we can understand.

Only if we listen can we understand.


Forgiveness is one of the core aspects of love at its most generous. It can also be the hardest. When the hurt caused has been great, or long-term, the pain and anger can be intense and deeply entrenched, and it can be hard to see the bigger picture. Digging up our resentment, excavating it from its buried chamber, and acknowledging the pain privately to yourself or with another person is the first step. You may need to repeat this – forgiveness is a process.

There is a time for forgiveness – which might not be now. And you may or may not share your forgiveness with the person who hurt you – that’s up to you. It might be something you do – or that comes – just for your benefit.

Write your way to forgiveness

There’s an exercise that takes us through the process of forgiving (taken from the 1990s classic – and dated! – book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’) that’s actually quite useful.

Write to someone you feel you might be ready to forgive for something. You won’t actually send the letter. So write freely, without thinking, going through everything you can think of connected to each of the following in turn:

Short example: “Dear Dad, I’m so angry at you for missing my birthday. I felt sad that you weren’t there, I missed you. I feared that you don’t love me and that I’m unimportant to you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I missed you. I’m sorry I didn’t read the book you gave me as a present – I feel very guilty about that. I want you in my life. I love you.”

You may feel something in your body as you write, you might cry or feel your heart thumping – breathe deeply and take a break to ground yourself. When you are ready, start again.

We may not instantly be able to forgive, and we need to go at our own pace. But eventually once we’ve released our own feelings on the matter and begun to understand why that person behaved as they did, lightness comes. We get it off our chest – where love comes from.


Love in all its wonderful forms is both a feeling and an action.

It’s an ability we were all given at birth – an innate ability in all of us and the very essence of being human. If many of the above behaviours weren’t taught – or modelled – to us as kids, it might take uncomfortable daily practice to learn to love.

But that is lucky. Because we all have the ability to practice something. In this way, love in all its myriad forms truly is for everyone.

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