Love is one of the most universal human experiences of all—yet it's still not easy to define. Often, you just know it when you feel it. A simple glance at the person may cause strong feelings of affection and attachment. You may also feel an overwhelming need to make that person happy—because love is also an action, not just a feeling.
Truly loving someone means caring for them in the ways that they need to be cared for, with no strings attached. (That's why they call it unconditional love.) There's not a one-size-fits-all instruction kit for how to love someone, but relationship experts do recommend some specific ideas:
How can you love someone if you don't even know them? Offer your lover the gift of being an attentive, open listener. Carolina Pataky, Ph.D., LMFT, CST, marriage therapist and co-founder of the Love Discovery Institute, tells mbg that it's important to stay present during your conversations with your significant other.
"Make an effort to offer your undivided attention to your partner," Pataky says. She adds that you can show love by "putting away your phone" and not allowing your mind to get distracted by work, emails, TV, or the news while spending time together. Instead, remain "fully connected and engaged in the activity or moment together."
Use your words
Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, tells mbg that one way to express love is surprisingly simple: Just tell them. "It sounds so simple, and yet we don't do this enough," Hsueh says. "You don't need an elaborate speech, and you don't need to be the most eloquent. Chances are, your partner likes engaging with you, and that includes talking to you!"
Hsueh says telling your partner "just how much they mean to you" and "how much you love them and appreciate them" while making eye contact or physical contact can be "very powerful."
Pataky agrees, adding that it's helpful to get specific by highlighting the special moments you've shared or the positive traits you love about this person. For example, you might say, "I love you because of how supportive you've been throughout these tough times at my job." If it's too hard to say these things out loud, you can also say them through text, Pataky says.
Say thank you
Research has demonstrated so many mental and physical benefits of gratitude, and that extends to romantic relationships too. Take the time to thank the person you love, even for "little" things, such as taking out the trash and doing the dishes. Nobody wants to feel taken for granted, and thanking your partner on a regular basis ensures that this is not the case. But as gratitude researcher Amie M. Gordon of the University of California–Berkeley explains, true gratitude involves more than a quick "thanks."
"My definition of gratitude includes appreciating not just what your partner does but who they are as a person," Gordon writes. "You're not just thankful that your partner took out the trash—you're thankful that you have a partner who is thoughtful enough to know you hate taking out the trash."
Expressing interest in someone's life is a timeless way to show your love, and it's a vital form of connection. This is one of the key findings of researchers John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, whose work at The Gottman Institute has pioneered popular frameworks for marriage therapy.
Make sure to "learn what is happening in your partner's world" by asking questions about their daily life, writes Bob Navarra, Psy.D., for The Gottman Institute. "We sometimes forget to check in with our partner or fail to respond to their attempts to connect. Over time, this can create serious damage to the relationship. It can be as simple as asking, 'How was your day?'"
Notice what they need
When you're paying close attention to your partner, you'll naturally start to notice how you could probably make their life a little easier. For example, if your partner has been stressed or overworked lately, you might plan a relaxing day at the spa, Hsueh says. These types of gestures are special because they're thoughtful. They show that you're paying attention.
"The key here is to be observant," she says. "They may have dropped clues, unintentionally or intentionally, about how they're doing, or something that they've been really thinking about lately. Your paying attention to them will manifest into something that will make them feel listened to, and someone who feels heard will definitely feel the love."
Do them a favor
Making your partner's life easier doesn't always have to involve something romantic like a spa day. It can also be very practical and small, Pataky says. These lovingly helpful acts are called "acts of service."
"If your partner is having a tough day, you may want to try to cook them dinner or pick up the dry cleaning," she says. "Help them free up some of their time so they can do something they enjoy after a long, stressful day."
Other examples of acts of service include waking up early to make them coffee or taking their car to get washed. Even doing the laundry can be an act of love!
Of course, being sexual is one way to express love—but physical affection is about much more than sex, and touch that doesn't lead to sex can be some of the most intimate of all. This can include hugs, holding hands, spooning, playing with each other's hair, or massage. It all depends on what your partner prefers.
"Intimacy is important in a relationship, and physical touch can be an aspect of feeling the closeness and affection that you are seeking or wanting to give your partner," Pataky says. "It's important to discuss with your partner what physical touch they enjoy."
Depending on your work and living situation, you may end up spending quite a lot of time with your partner. But how much of that time is intentional—with both of you fully present in the moment, connecting with each other as a couple? Between smartphones, Netflix, chores, and (for some couples) children, quality time can be pretty scarce.
But doing an activity together is a useful way to show your love for each other and build intimacy. Cook a new meal, try a new workout, or just go on a walk together. Quality time can also involve simply hanging out with your partner at home and chatting—no phones allowed. The important thing is to set aside a specific time to do something together that you both will enjoy. Sharing these experiences brings couples closer together, research shows1. You may want to schedule a regular "date night" each week to ensure that quality time is consistent.
Give a gift
Far from materialistic, gifts are a meaningful way to express love to your partner because they're a "visual reminder of the love that you hold for them," Pataky says. "Many people have a misconception around giving gifts that it's about how expensive or glamorous it is, but it's merely about the intention. It's a reminder to your partner that you have them on your mind and are keeping your eyes open to things they may enjoy. Buying them a small trinket from the checkout counter or picking a wildflower that you saw on your walk to your car can go a long way to your partner as they're reminded of the love that you have for them."
Write it down
Sweet words are lovely, but a handwritten note? That's something that can be kept forever, a special memento of your love. "Nothing beats a handcrafted letter, card, or note these days, especially so in our text/email/social-media-saturated lives," Hsueh says. "Writing to your partner involves a lot more than just writing." It also requires attention to detail and vulnerability, she says. "It takes more time, energy, and just overall effort than a text. Writing your love is an exercise in thoughtfulness!"
Surprises have the power to break your usual routine and create a memorable experience for your partner. Contrary to what the movies may make you think, surprises don’t have to be elaborate or over-the-top. It could be as simple as a surprise home-cooked dinner. The important element is that it's unexpected because that shows that you took the initiative to plan something all on your own.
"There's always the tried-and-true flower delivery, but if you're looking for a more creative alternative, consider what your partner likes or needs," Hsueh says. For example, you could make a customized care package full of their favorite snacks and deliver it on a special holiday, like Valentine's Day or their birthday. "[T]he key to being thoughtful is keeping your loved one's interests, desires, likes in mind as you make the care package."
Be gentle during conflicts
It's important to hash out conflicts as they arise, but that doesn't mean that love shouldn't still be present as you navigate problems. Yes, there are loving ways to have an argument. The Gottman Institute's research found that successful married couples practice a few specific behaviors during conflicts. First, they avoid pointing fingers and instead focus on their own needs: "I" statements are key. Also, avoid making generalizations like "You always" or "You never."
It's also important to avoid shutting down, becoming defensive or being combative. Instead, handle conflicts with "mutual respect, humor, interest, openness," Navarra writes, and make sure to acknowledge your partner's point of view.
The reality is that, with many relationship conflicts, both people play some role. Love means taking responsibility for your own actions. Owning up to your mistakes, saying sorry, admitting that your partner has a point—all of these things are difficult, as they require humility and vulnerability. Make the effort to show your partner that you're not scared of a little discomfort if it means doing what's right.
Accountability goes both ways, too. If you love your partner, you need to hold them responsible when they mess up. It doesn't serve anyone well to bottle things up for fear of hurting someone's feelings.
Give them space
Love without boundaries is codependence. Setting boundaries means acknowledging where one person ends and the other begins, and one important aspect of this separation involves time and space. For your love to be healthy, you must give your partner the freedom to prioritize their own needs and desires, even when that means taking some alone time to focus on their own life—their work, health, friendships, or creative pursuits. Neither person in a relationship should feel as if they're responsible for their partner's happiness all the time, especially at the cost of their own. Encourage your partner to take care of themselves and reassure them that you'll be there to support them no matter what.
Ask how they want to be loved
The only person who's an expert on how to love your partner is...your partner. Every person on the planet is unique, and so is every relationship.
One helpful place to start this conversation is to figure out your partner's "love language." The five love languages were outlined by Gary Chapman, Ph.D., in the classic relationship book, Love Languages. They include ideas that we've covered above, including words of affection, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service. "These ways of receiving and giving love can be a great guide to helping you tailor your plans around what your partner enjoys," Hsueh says.
Having a conversation with your partner about their love languages and then tailoring your efforts accordingly is a loving act in itself. In addition to the rest of the ideas on this list, you'll come up with a crystal clear picture of how to love your partner exactly the way they want.
Kim Wong-Shing is New Orleans based writer with a B.A. from Brown University. Currently, she is a contributing writer for GO Magazine and StyleCaster. Her work focuses on beauty, identity, wellness, relationships, and pop culture. Bylines in: Men’s Health, USA Today, Healthline, Autostraddle, Bustle, and more. She is a queer woman, a Black feminist, a lipstick hoarder, a plant lover, and a Buddhist.