Real Relationship Advice: The Secret to Love That Lasts
In the last 15 years of working with couples as a marriage counselor, I have heard a similar version of the same theme. It goes something like this….
“We don’t feel in love anymore”
“We feel like roommates”
“Sometimes I can’t stand being around my partner.”
The certainty of their original feelings and commitments, embodied in the ‘emotional high’ of being in love at the beginning of marriage, inevitably gives way to uncertainty, and in some cases, outright disdain for their partners. Underneath the fear, apathy or anger, most couples long to recapture those magical feelings of being ‘in love’ with their partner. They want to feel the energy of love again. However, the feelings of ‘falling in love’ that initially got us into a relationship are not the same feelings that sustain a relationship over the long term. True love is a ‘work-in-progress’ over a lifetime and requires a lot of intentional hard work.
My parents have a Snoopy refrigerator magnet holding a sign that says, ‘Love is a Decision.” What Snoopy is trying to tell us is that love doesn’t just happen. It must be cultivated and nurtured over time. And this is the crucial piece of information that couples don’t realize when they are busy ‘falling in love’. Love is a verb. It is the result of our actions and behaviors towards our partner that keeps love going. The feelings follow the behavior. As my husband likes to say, love is a lot like poker, it takes 15 minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.
So now that that you know this little secret, here are 12 tips you need to put into practice, on a consistent basis, if you want to bring the love back into your marriage.
1. Practice Kindness. One of the most underrated acts one person can bestow upon another is kindness. Research has shown us that acts of kindness are a critical and necessary component of a successful marriage. Additionally, being kind to another isn’t just about making the other feel good. Choosing kindness also fundamentally alters the character of the giver. Being respectful to another is adhering to socially appropriate behavior, but expressing kindness fills the giver with oxytocin, the same bonding hormone women have when they breastfeed. So, in addition to forming closer bonds with the person we are showing kindness, there is the added, and incidental benefit, of making ourselves into better human beings.
2. Love your partner in the way that satisfies ‘their’ needs to feel loved. I see a lot of couples that give love to their partner in the way that satisfies their own needs, rather than the needs of their partners. When that happens it is like pouring water into a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. Find out what makes your partner feel loved and simply do it…even it is difficult and uncomfortable. If you fell in love with someone who did not speak English, you would want to learn their native language to be able to communicate effectively. In short, learn how to speak your partner’s love language.
3. Take responsibility, and keep your side of the street clean. Simple as that. Don’t make excuses. Don’t use the word, “but”. Just own it. Defensiveness slowly destroys connection in a relationship and many times arguments and hurt could be avoided if one person owned what they said or did.
4. Foster empathy. If empathy does not come easily for you, here are some concrete ways to help you increase your empathy. A. Focus on staying aware of your own emotions. Doing so helps you be more attuned to the other person’s emotions. B. Make eye contact when talking to your partner. Doing so fosters intimacy and connection. C. Be a good listener. Suspend your own judgment or disbelief, even for the moment. Doing so allows you to see the situation from your partner’s point of view. D. Pay attention to the non-verbal clues your partner is sending you, and E. Don’t interrupt. Use reflective listening to try to understand the emotions behind your partner’s words.
5. Show vulnerability. Disclose parts of yourself you have not shown anyone else. Be vulnerable (I know, easier said than done). When I hear couples complain about becoming bored, I usually try and assess if they are at an impasse because they refuse to become vulnerable in order to remain on safe and familiar ground. They have only shown the parts of themselves that they think will not cause anxiety for the other person or for the relationship. When you do that, you are only showing a small portion of your ‘color wheel’, and choosing not to show the whole palette. As humans, we have an inherent need to grow. It less important as to where we end up, as much as the striving that keeps us content. Many couples are afraid to reveal that growth to their partner for fear of acceptance. If you don’t dare to make that choice, then you are settling for mediocrity and the mundane. In doing so, you are unconsciously choosing to keep things monotonous as a way to contain your own anxiety. Yet, at times we need to feel anxious if we want our relationship to grow.
6. Let the best part of you show up (happy, confident, joyful, interesting, healthy.) Couples have this illusion that their partner should just ‘accept them as they are.’ Is there anywhere else in life where that holds true? School? Work? Why would it be any different in love relationships? The belief that ‘if someone truly loves me they will all love all parts of me’ is a myth that needs to be let go of. Both partners need to work on bringing their best selves to the table. It is reasonable to have expectations of your partner. One caveat though. It is easier for partners to bring their best selves to the relationship when they feel safe and loved.
7. Be generous with your judgment. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Realize that a lot of times their overreactions are from their past (their parents, an ex, their own insecurities.). The key ingredient in this process is to not overreact to your partner’s overreaction.
8. Be curious. Instead of attacking your partner before you fully understand the situation, be curious. Ask questions to understand what is happening with your partner. Try and determine what ‘triggered’ the incident, before you react. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, and try and solve the situation, before it becomes a confrontation that spirals out of control.
9. Contain your own anxiety. Managing your anxiety is not your partner’s job. Learn and practice coping strategies to deal with your own stress and anxiety.
10. Expect less. Always expect less from the relationship and expect more from your life. Don’t expect your relationship to be your whole world. If you do, you are putting too much pressure on your partner, and this will only squeeze the ‘life’ out of the relationship. Have a life outside the relationship that will allow you to feel more fulfilled and a more interesting person to bring to the relationship.
11. Make repairs quickly. When one partner has been injured–a core injury of not feeling loved or worthy in a relationship, make sure that repair happens as quickly as possible. Otherwise the pain and hurt can fester, and by doing so the wound becomes harder to heal. The longer you wait, the more potential for lasting damage.
12. Don’t push love away. This might seem like an obvious one, but it happens more than you’d think. And when it does, typically you don’t even know it’s happening. The culprit is usually one’s own fears and insecurities. Ask yourself, “Do you want to work at accepting love now?”
I remember going to my own marriage therapist when our children were young. I was complaining that my husband had a short temper with me and it made me not want to be close to him. I fully expected to be vindicated by my therapist. Instead, I encountered a rude awakening. My lack of emotional availability was a contributing factor to the intensity of my husband’s outbursts. He did not come home wanting to turn into a raving jerk. He was just having a bad day. All he was looking for was connection and empathy from me. Instead he was confronted with resistance and fear. He felt like he was with someone who always had one foot in and one foot out of the relationship. Relationships can be hard, and I wasn’t ready to embrace ‘the hard’ with my husband. The therapist looked me in the eye and said, “I know how much love and affection you give your children. I know that you can give that to your husband too.” In between my tears, I said I didn’t know if I could. I was scared. But that’s where commitment to the relationship kicks in.
There is no magic bullet. My ability to show love took time. Lot’s of time. When my husband was able to create a safe place, it allowed me to open up and be vulnerable. Over the years I have learned how to express my love better than I did 15 years ago. That does not mean that some days I still ask myself if the risk of loving someone else is worth it. I have decided most days it is.
I have learned that love is the outcome and the reward of all the behaviors we put into a relationship. It is not a feeling that magically pops into our life; it comes about by how we treat the person who means the most to us in life. And just like the little Snoopy magnet proclaims, love truly is a decision, one that requires consistent work and attention. I just never realized how hard it would be. The quest to be loved and to love is definitely worth it. No question about that.