For centuries, February has been known as the month of love. We all become especially aware of our intimate partner relationships, or our lack thereof, in February.
It's a good time to take stock of our intimate relationships and to express love and commitment to our partner. After all, to love and be loved is one of the most important elements of a fulfilling life and happiness. And yet, millions of adults are shut out of a loving, intimate relationship.
According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of American adults were living without a spouse or partner in 2017.1 This, along with the popularity of online dating sites, suggests that millions of adults are in search of true love. But recognizing genuine love for another is complicated, and getting it wrong can lead to considerable misery and discouragement. Take Jan's intimate partner experiences as an example.
Jan's Search for Love
Jan is a 41-year-old divorced mother with two school-aged children. Although highly successful in her career, Jan spoke about her regrets and sense of defeat over her intimate relationships with men. Before marriage, she had an active dating life, including several serious relationships. Men were attracted to her but then stalled in making a commitment.
Time and again, Jan would fall for a guy, but as soon as this happened, he'd lose interest and disappear, leaving her feeling confused and rejected. Now, as a middle-aged, divorced mother trying to navigate 21st-century dating practices, relationships were evaporating faster than ever. Like before, she'd develop an intense interest in having a relationship, convinced it might be true love, but then it never worked out. He'd end the relationship, leaving Jan with that old feeling of rejection, worthlessness, and despair.
Love and the Spontaneity Bias
In previous postings, I've talked about unwanted, negative, intrusive thoughts and their effects on our emotional health. But not all of our spontaneous thinking is negative. A high proportion of this type of thought is positive. It includes positive, intrusive thoughts as well as mind-wandering, daydreaming, and sudden recall of past experiences.
It turns out that positive, spontaneous thinking is very useful in achieving our goals, planning, creativity, and dealing with the future.2 When people have frequent positive, spontaneous thoughts about an enjoyable activity, they're more likely to engage in that activity.3 Given that the frequency of positive, spontaneous thought is also linked to positive emotion and well-being, it makes sense that we pay more attention to this type of thinking.
There are two other reasons why we have a built-in bias toward our positive daydreams and mind-wandering. First, positive, spontaneous thinking boosts motivation, such as causing us to want to engage in certain actions.4 And second, we have this implicit belief that thoughts that arise spontaneously are more meaningful and insightful of our true inner self than more directed, effortful thought.5
What, you might ask, has all this to do with love? There are two critical questions to falling in love: Am I in love, and does my partner love me? The spontaneity bias is relevant to the first question. How do we know we're in love?
Certainly, there are many indicators of being in love, some of them neurochemical, physiological, emotional, interpersonal, behavioral, and yes, even spiritual or transcendent. But being in love also affects how we think. So, naturally, if your ability to think and concentrate is frequently interrupted by positive, spontaneous, intrusive thoughts, daydreaming, and mind-wandering about the relationship, and it's hard to shift your attention back to the task at hand, you might take this as a sign of true love.
This was Jan's problem. She assumed her constant daydreaming, mind-wandering, and intrusive reminiscing about her current partner meant she was in love. But Jan's focus was too narrow. She gave too much meaning to her spontaneous thinking and overlooked other ways to determine if this was genuine love. This caused Jan to conclude too quickly she was in love, which then resulted in an escalation in emotional intensity and eventual breakup.
I am not saying that you should ignore your spontaneous thoughts about the relationship or consider them meaningless or irrelevant. Rather I am cautioning against over-interpreting their meaning and significance.
Knowing whether this is the right relationship for you and whether you're feeling genuine love requires much more than interpreting what happens in your spontaneous mind. You'll want to consider how you feel when together, the quality of your interactions, how you behave toward each other, your physical reactions, and so on. To achieve this more holistic approach to knowing love, consider some steps you can take to control the spontaneity bias.
Harnessing Your Spontaneous Mind
- Awareness: We need to start with greater awareness of our tendency to assume that thoughts are more meaningful when they suddenly pop into our minds. It's important to question our spontaneous thinking, knowing that their spontaneity doesn't necessarily mean you're in love. Some people have more spontaneous thoughts than others, so your frequent daydreaming and mind-wandering may simply reflect your style of thinking.
- Attend to Deliberate, Effortful Thinking: Much of our day is spent in task-focused, deliberate, and effortful thought. While writing this article, I must direct my thinking to compose a sensible discussion of the topic at hand. However, I do get spontaneous ideas about the article, what I might call "inspiration" at the time of writing. Later, when editing the article, I deliberately think about what earlier seemed so "inspiring," and it's no longer so meaningful. Often, I dramatically edit or even delete that spontaneous, "inspirational" idea. Why not do the same with your positive, spontaneous relationship thoughts? Spend time in deliberate, effortful thought about the relationship and your feelings. This process of "thinking it through" is just as significant in determining your true feelings of love and commitment as interpreting your daydreams and mind-wandering.
- Balance Intuition With Reason: You've often heard it said: "But I just love him (her)," or "I have to follow my heart." Often, such statements reflect a spontaneity bias, a belief that intuition, a gut feeling, or spontaneous thoughts reflect our true inner self. But in seeking love, reason must balance intuition. The spontaneity of thought and feeling must co-existent with an intentional, effortful, and thoughtful consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship. Only in this way can you begin to understand your love and commitment to this relationship.
Like Jan, do you too quickly think you've fallen in love? Has this had a negative impact on your intimate relationships? If so, consider whether you're over-interpreting your positive, spontaneous relationship thoughts.
1. Cilluffo, A. & Cohn, D. (2018). 7 Demographic Trends Shaping the U.S. and the World in 2018. Retrieved on February 10, 2020 from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/25/7-demographic-trends-s…
2. Marchetti, I., Koster, E. H. W., Klinger, E., & Alloy, L. B. (2016). Spontaneous thought and vulnerability to mood disorders: The dark side of the wandering mind. Psychological Science, 4(5), 835-857.
3. Rice, E. L., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2017). Of passions and positive spontaneous thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41, 350-361.
4. Rice, E. L., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2017). Do positive spontaneous thoughts function as incentive salience? Emotion, 17(5), 840-855.
5. Morewedge, C. K., Giblin, C. E., & Norton, M. I. (2014). The (perceived) meaning of spontaneous thoughts. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4), 1742-1754.