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Relationship Advice: How to Stop “Fixing” and Start Listening

Relationship Advice: How to Stop “Fixing” and Start Listening

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Strengthen Your Relationship, With Every Conversation

We all hate to see our partners in pain or discomfort. I know this as a marriage counselor and couples therapist, but it is certainly true for me personally too. When my husband tells me he’s unhappy with something, my mind immediately starts race towards the “fix” that will solve the problem, and make him feel better.

While my type-A solution-focused attitude certainly has led to some important, positive changes in the way we conduct day-to-day aspects of our partnership (like, we now have a Roomba!) it can also get in the way of emotional connection. He doesn’t want me to solve his problems. He wants me to listen, and care, and empathize — exactly what I want when I’m struggling with something.

When I express displeasure / annoyance / sadness about something, and he immediately goes to, “Well let’s just not do that,” or “Forget I brought it up,” it feels like a door gets slammed shut in my face. I want to talk things through. I want to hear how he feels, too. Most of all, I want to feel like I’m not alone in whatever is feeling real for me in that moment. When I just get to talk about how I’m feeling, and have that be heard, most of the time no “action” is even required — I just feel better.

Connection is key. Solutions don’t even matter that much, when you’re feeling validated.

Men often get a bad rap for being problem solvers in relationships, although plenty of women do the same. Let’s face it: When our partners have a problem (especially if they have a problem with us, right?) it’s anxiety-provoking. It feels like an unpleasant conflict that we need to resolve, or shut down, or get away from. Or fix — and as quickly as possible.

However, what I know now, both as a marriage counselor and someone who’s been very happily married for over twenty years: You have to lean into the feelings, even if they stress you out at first.

When you can manage your own anxiety and avoid scrambling to get away / shut down / fix-fix-fix whatever they’re bringing up, you can then connect emotionally with your partner. More importantly, they won’t have to fight to feel heard by you. Consequently, you will come out the other side of this conversation with a stronger relationship.

Paradoxically, when you indulge those good intentions of “helping them feel better” it will either create a fight (trust me) or it will lead them to leave the interaction with you feeling unheard, not understood, or like you don’t care. Why? Because in your helpful rush to solve their problems, you shut down their feelings and got in the way of what they really wanted and needed from you: Being heard.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid jumping the gun and going into “fixit mode.”

Know your job: When your partner is feeling something real, your only jobs — your only jobs — are to help them talk about their feelings, listen to them, help them understand that you understand, and hold the door open for them to talk all the way through. Anything else is not what they need. (Unless they specifically ask for something else.)  But unless you literally hear the words, “What do you think?” or “What would you do?” come out of their mouths, you’re the doorman: The one who keeps the space open for them to share. Not the fixer.

Validate: Embrace the power of validation. Even if you see things differently, or would handle a situation differently, simply acknowledging that someone has the right to their feelings is enormously helpful. I can’t tell you how powerful a simple, “I can understand why you would feel that way” is to hear. Confirmation, validation, and acceptance are vastly more effective in helping someone sort through a difficult situation than actual, specific advice. 

Listening: When I talk about listening, I don’t mean just “hearing.” I mean a special kind of reflective listening, which is a learned skill. Whether or not you are hearing what someone is saying doesn’t matter. What matters is if they know that you are hearing and understanding the feelings they are trying to communicate. If your number one is telling you about the super-hard day they had, listen for the feelings underneath. If you can reflect back, “That sounds really exhausting” as opposed to “You should talk to your boss about rearranging your work schedule” they may fall into your arms weeping with relief of knowing that you really and truly get them.  Just be prepared for them to get super-excited when you do this. Seriously, if you do a really good job here, they might cry.

Open-ended questions: You’re the doorman, right? How do you hold the door open in a conversation? By asking open ended questions: Questions that do not have an agenda or a specific informational answer, but are rather an invitation to say more. “How did you feel about that?” or  “Then what happened?” or “What do you make of this?” are all solid choices.

Empathize: People are different, and have different ways of thinking, feeling, behaving. We have different values and priorities. However, in order to really connect with someone, you need to understand how they are feeling by connecting to your own emotional experience. When your partner is going through a moment, scroll through your own life experiences to see if you can relate.**

Then use that awareness as an opportunity for an even deeper kind of reflection: Tentative guessing about how they feel. When your partner is telling you about their super hard day, and you reflect on how you’ve felt when your day at work has been a non-stop crap-show, you’ll be able to come back with something that rings true for them, like “I can imagine that you must be feeling really disappointed in your leadership right now.” This, again, will increase their sense of being heard and understood by you, and will help them feel connected and supported by you. More weeping with joy may ensue.

** Warning: It can be tempting and very easy to totally hijack a conversation via empathy, if you’re not careful. When you say, “I totally know how you feel. One time at band camp…” and then spend the next five minutes telling YOUR story, you’ve just turned the tables and made their moment your moment. Trust in your relationship: If you do a good job listening and holding the door open until they are all the way through, you will likely have a very appreciative partner eager to do the same for you. [Unless you are partnered with a legit narcissist. Check back for a post on this topic soon.]

Breathe: Sometimes, when you are listening to someone talk about their feelings, especially if their feelings are big, intense, dark, or worst yet — about you, it can be hard to not get emotionally reactive. When YOU start having feelings come up, or feel the need to rebuttal / correct / problem solve, you’ve just stepped out of the ring of connection. You’ve abandoned your post as the doorman. Trust in your relationship.

Breathe, be in the present, listen to the sound of their voice, look in their face, listen, reflect, ask your open ended questions, and be patient. Let them talk all the way through. It may take a whole HOUR. That is okay. Be patient, breathe, and you’ll arrive at connection eventually. Promise. (I can also promise that if you indulge any of your impulses to do otherwise you’ll very likely wind up in a fight.)

Couple’s Strategy: Ask your partner to alert you to what she is needing. It’s not fair for anyone to expect their partner to always know exactly what they need, particularly when it comes to emotional support. SO many things changed at my house, when my husband and I figured out that if one of us literally said, “I need to talk through something with you, no action is required. Please just listen?” we could immediately drop into “patient, non-reactive listening mode” rather than “oh-crap-they’re-upset-what-are-we-going-to-do” mode.

This is a strategy we also routinely teach our couples in marriage counseling here at Growing Self. Ask for what you need, and give your partner a heads up so they can do a great job at supporting you in the way you need to be supported at that moment. Because truthfully, in different situations you might need different things, right? If you’re like most people, sometimes you need a warm shoulder to cry on, sometimes you need a good listener, sometimes you need a hug, and sometimes… just sometimes… you might even want some advice.

With love,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

Feeling Invalidated By Your Partner?

Feeling Invalidated By Your Partner?

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

How to Stop Invalidating Your Partner in Three Easy Steps

Hi there. Are you reading this article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of saying they have been feeling invalidated by you and would like that to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I’m the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely, and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret that your partner — possibly not having read this article themselves before texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: We all invalidate our partners accidentally. I’ll bet you a cookie that you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.

How do I know this is happening to you, too? First of all, I’ve been a marriage counselor for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has been a diagnosable sociopath. But I will save that tale for another day).

Secondly, I’ve also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I’m a marriage counselor!  I should know better! And To. This. day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad.

But I’m working on it, and it’s better than it used to be. You can do the same. Here’s how:

Step One: Understanding “Invalidation”

First of all, let’s talk a little about what “invalidation”  means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you a) don’t understand them or their feelings or b) if you do understand, you don’t care.

In order to improve invalidation you need to be self-aware of when it’s happening, and what you’re doing to cause it. Invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways. Let’s review.

Types of Invalidating Behaviors

Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don’t pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C’est moi!)

Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I had a really hard day at work today. I think I might be getting sick.”

You (And by “you” I mean “me”): “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start checking flight prices]

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Belligerent Invalidators: Their M.O. is to rebuttal rather than listen, and put their energy into making their own case instead of seeing things from their partner’s perspective.

Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I feel like you were rude to my friend.”

You: “Your friend is an annoying idiot who drinks too much and if you want to avoid these problems you should stop inviting him over.”

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Controlling invalidators:  These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more. (If I’m not careful, I actually have a tendency towards this one too).

Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:

Them: “No, Timmy, you can’t go out to play because you have to take shower and clean your room.”

You: “Be back before dinner.”

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Judgmental Invalidators: These types of invalidators minimize the importance of things that they do not personally feel are interesting or important to them, in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.

Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:

Them: “What should we do this weekend? So many fun things! Do you want to go to the farmer’s market / prepper expo / rv show / rodeo?”

You: “Pfft. NO. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”

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Emotional Invalidators: Then of course there is the stereotypical, garden-variety Emotional Invalidator, who feels entitled to “disagree” with other people’s feelings, or argue that other’s feelings are not reasonable, or to talk them out of their feelings.

Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:

Them: “Crying”

You: “You shouldn’t be sad. At least we have one healthy child already….”

You some more: “….That’s not what I meant. We can try again next month. You’re overreacting.”

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Fixit Invalidators: Lastly, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions.

Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:

Them: “I am heartbroken about my argument with my sister. I feel really bad about what happened.”

You: “She’s just a drama queen. Forget about it. You should make plans with some of your other friends. I’ll see if Jenny and Phil want to come over on Friday.”

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There are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you.

Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation

While the first step in learning how to stop accidentally invalidating your partner is to figure out what kinds of invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it’s so important.

So: What is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. Like you really get how they see things, and that you support them in their perspective.

This is super important in relationships because validation is a cornerstone of emotional safety. And emotional safety — feeling like you are accepted and valued for who you are, like your thoughts and feelings and preferences are important to your partner, and that your relationship is loving and supportive — is the foundation of a healthy, happy relationship.

Just consider how wonderful it feels to hear these words, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” No matter what’s going on, when you hear that it feels like you’re accepted by the person you’re with and that it’s okay for you to feel the way you feel. That right there is the strong foundation from which you can then find your own way forward. (And in your own time).

Also, if we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, 98% of the time, arguments start with one person feeling invalidated by the other. When anyone feels invalidated the natural response is to then escalate their efforts to be understood. Which can sound like yelling. Then if the invalidator doubles down on defending their invalidating behaviors in response, it can get pretty ugly pretty quick. As I’m sure you know.

So if you work towards being more validating you will not just stop pretty much any argument in its tracks, your partner will feel emotionally safe and accepted by you, and you will have a much stronger, happier relationship. Win, win, win.

Step Three: Intentionally Practice Validating Behaviors

The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to. In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was trying to be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner’s perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead. 

Human beings are generally self-focused, unless they put purposeful effort into being other-focused. Sad but true.

The good news is that it’s not hard to be more other-focused if you decide that it’s important enough to make it a priority. It just takes intention and practice, and a genuine desire to want your partner to feel more cared for by you.

Here’s what that looks like at my house:

My husband is telling me something but I’m not really connecting with what he is saying. He’s talking about his day at work, and how he’s not feeling great. And now he’s going on and on about this guy he works with who’s super annoying, and incompetent, and how he’s thinking about taking the day off tomorrow, and…

….I’ve zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind.  Day off… Netflix…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He’s still talking but I’m now having an entirely internal experience. I know he’s still there, but it’s the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons.

Sometimes he can tell when I’m not there anymore, but most of the time neither of us realize what is happening until I say something apparently out of the blue, like “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start researching flight prices]. Then I look up from my phone to see his shoulders slump a little and this look cross his face like, “Do you even care about what I’m saying?” He’s annoyed. He should be.

Because in that moment, my lack of attention left him feeling invalidated in our conversation. He was left feeling like he wasn’t important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to, or worse, like I just hijacked the conversation to talk about whatever I was thinking of instead of what he was bringing up. Which I totally did.

But like you, I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn’t making him a priority in that moment, but indulging my own self-absorption.

In contrast, when I remind myself of my intention to be a good friend to him, to help him feel cared for and validated by me, it’s a totally different experience. I will myself to focus on what he is saying. I look in his eyes. When I feel my mind starting to slide towards something other than what he is talking about, I bring it back to him by very deliberately reflecting something I heard him say. Or I ask open-ended questions to help him say more about what is going on for him, but also as a strategy to keep myself engaged.

I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps.

Every flavor of invalidation has a validating antidote that’s a little different. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly:

  • Inattentive invalidators need to stay present and use mindfulness skills to focus.
  • Belligerent invalidators need to find compromises that honor their partner’s feelings, too.
  • We controlling invalidators need to manage our anxiety, and trust in the competence of others.
  • Judgmental invalidators need to work on acceptance and generosity.
  • Emotional invalidators need to work on empathy and emotional intelligence skills.
  • Fixit Invalidators must make peace with the fact that feelings are valuable, even dark ones.

I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner’s feelings and perspective as important to you as your own .

Now, please send this post back to your partner.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Constant Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop Having “The Same Fight”

Constant Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop Having “The Same Fight”

Teena Evert, M.A., LAC, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed addictions counselor, and certified coach with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She specializes in whole-hearted living and empowered relationships. Teena can help you connect with your true self, and cultivate thriving relationships with others.

Stop Fighting, and Start Understanding

So you disagree with one another. You’re not seeing eye-to-eye on an important matter that impacts your relationship. It’s causing a lot of tension that quickly escalates into a debate where no one wins. It’s exhausting to say the least, but you’re just not willing to give up trying to get the other person to see your point of view and understand your feelings. It matters to you that your partner gets you, feels you and is able to work with you to solve a perpetual problem in your relationship.

The reality is that you have both failed at your attempts to try to resolve the issue for years. You’re both finally at your breaking point and considering reaching out to a  professional marriage counselor or couples therapist in hopes of saving your relationship.

Resolving Arguments: What Doesn’t Work

What hasn’t worked is trying to prove your point by going over the facts and details of what happened and what was said in hopes that you will come to some sort of agreement that will end the argument.

The conversation instantly becomes heated and after a failed attempt to persuade your partner that their actions and ideas are wrong, you step away feeling defeated, hopeless and at your breaking point. You may even threaten to break up or divorce because you can’t continue to have this same argument over and over again with no resolution. [Check out: How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage]

Are You Stuck in a Negative Relationship Cycle?

I have worked with hundreds of couples who have struggled with this dilemma. They are highly distressed from getting stuck in this negative cycle. They need help getting out of it so they can resolve the argument at its core and enjoy the good things that they share in their relationship.

The truth is, this is not a quick fix, particularly if this pattern has been repeating itself for years. It will take some time to untangle and get to the root of the problem so that it can be handled in a manner that prevents it from continuing to grow, fester and take over your seemingly great relationship otherwise.

How to Resolve a Chronic Argument in Your Relationship:

  1. First, you must be willing to be 100% responsible and accountable for your part in the argument.
  2. Second, you must be open to taking a look at what your partner does that triggers your behavior and therefore impacts your partner’s reaction to you.
  3. Third, you must also be willing to explore the emotions you feel and identify your relationship needs.
  4. Fourth, you must be willing to take a look at your worst fears and be able to talk about this with your partner.

You’re Not Alone

Every couple has arguments that if not resolved can turn into a negative cycle of interaction. [Check out: Communication 101] This can leave you feeling estranged from your partner, which often includes feeling alone and isolated. The truth is, there is no way to keep from getting caught in a negative cycle from time to time. If you don’t have the knowledge and skills to work through this together, then partners become stuck in a disconnected alienated impasse.

Working with a trained couple’s therapist or relationship coach can help you break out of these negative cycles and as a result you will become more resilient and experience more trust and security in your relationship.

This is what I want for you so that you can enjoy your life together, grow stronger together and have a happy and fulfilling partnership. If this resonates with you and you think you could benefit from some professional help, then please set up a free consultation with me so I can help you move forward.

Warmly,

Teena Evert, M.A., LAC, LMFT

How to Restore Sexual Intimacy in Your Relationship

How to Restore Sexual Intimacy in Your Relationship

Dori Bagi, M.S, is a kind, empathetic couples counselor, individual therapist, and life coach with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching who specializes in sex therapy. Her friendly style makes it safe to talk about anything, and her solution-focused approach helps you move past the past, and into a bright new future of intimacy and connection.

Have You Drifted Apart?

Any good marriage counselor or couples therapist will tell you that sex isn’t the ONLY thing in a great relationship. Friendship, teamwork, communication, emotional safety, respect, and appreciation are all fundamentally important too. And yet, even when all those strengths are present, if you’re not connecting sexually over a long period of time… eventually lack of physical intimacy can erode even the best relationship.

It’s easy to fall into the “friend zone” in a long-term relationship. Certain phases of life that couples naturally encounter can throw cold water on your sexual connection: Having a new child, going through an intense phase of your career, or simply feeling overwhelmed by the busy-ness of modern life can make it hard to find the time and energy to put into the sexual relationship with your partner.

Furthermore, sexuality is kind of like the “canary in the coal mine” of a relationship: When things are feeling off emotionally, or when communication is breaking down and resentments are building… increased distance in the bedroom can be one of the earliest signs that you need to work on your relationship.

Sometimes, working on the other issues in a relationship like emotional safety, communication, teamwork, and appreciation can restore the goodwill between a couple and their sex life naturally improves. But sometimes, sexual problems ARE the problem and need to be addressed directly.

However, talking about sexual issues is not as easy as it sounds. Many couples struggle to communicate about their sexual relationship, often feeling embarrassed or vulnerable, or afraid of hurting their partner’s feelings. That’s one of the reasons why couples often enlist the support of a good marriage counselor, couples therapist, or sex therapist to help them restore the intimacy in their relationship.

And that’s where we’re going today: To help us understand the most common sexual problems that couples encounter, and how to resolve them, I’ve invited expert sex therapist Dori Bagi to speak with us on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

We’ll be discussing:

  • Why couples often have differences in sexual desire (meaning one person wants to have sex more than the other) and what you can do about it.
  • The role that pornography can play in a relationship —  both positive, and negative.
  • Why body image and self-esteem issues are so often at the root of sexual problems, and how you can work together as a couple to resolve them.
  • Differences in the sexual response cycle between men and women, and how understanding arousal can help you both develop a stronger sexual connection.
  • How to talk about your sexual relationship in a healthy and constructive way.

Hope this conversation helps you find your way back together again…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby & Dori Bagi, M.S.

 

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Restore Sexual Intimacy In Your Relationship

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

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How to Be in Love With Your Partner

How to Be in Love With Your Partner

Brenda Fahn, M.A., LMFT is a marriage counselor, therapist and life coach with over fifteen years of experience in helping couples and individuals create lives full of meaning, fulfillment, balance, and joy.

Real Relationship Advice:
The Secret to Love That Lasts

In the last 15 years of working with couples as a marriage counselor, premarital counselor, and couples therapist, 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 a 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 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.

Brenda Fahn, M.A., LMFT

Growing Self Counseling & Coaching