Written by: Patrick De Bortoli, M.A., CFT, Psychotherapist
Wednesday, February 14, 10:15 am. Marcy and Jen are uncharacteristically late. Usually nestled in their waiting room chairs at least 10 minutes before every appointment, I immediately assume that I have messed up the times again. My e-calendar confirms that
I have not. I leave my office door open, waiting my usual 15 minutes before contacting the late clients.
10:26 am. Marcy crashingly appears in the door frame. Alone. Red-eyed. She sits, boots on and coat zipped up, as if to keep safe. She weeps. Closing the immensely large hospital door of my office, I feel a last-minute resistance. Jen. Stone faced. Anger leaking out of her piercing gaze.
I surmise that they just came out of one of their patterned volatile disputes. I wait silently, leaving the room for a natural unfolding of the scene.
“Might as well state the obvious!”
Jen commences, ostentatiously breaking the silence.
“Once again, cruel Jen crushes little Marcy’s delicate soul!”.
Marcy cries more profusely.
“This Valentine’s Day non-sense is precisely why I hate this holiday so much! High expectations which always result in disappointing outcomes!”, states Jen furiously.
“I don’t get what she wants from me. To play the commercial dance of love: bringing home flowers and chocolates, candlelight dinners? It’s just not me. And it’s not going to happen!”.
I highlight Jen’s value for authentic gestures of affection and her frustration around the artificially prescribed ones forced upon by a profit-driven society.
“It’s so fake and ludicrous! I can’t believe she still falls for that crap!”, she insists.
“Sorry for not being as cold as you are Jen and trying to infuse some romance in our relationship!”,
Marcy painstakingly asserts through a curtain of tears.
“You are incapable of romance! And of expressing any type positive feelings toward me! You’re cold! Cold! Cold!”, she almost yells out. “Not even this one day in the year…”.
“But you are so babyish about this! I can’t stand to see you just candidly waiting for the little sign or gift of approval, measuring my every move!”, Jen brutally retaliates.
“I never feel that I’m enough for you!”, Jen finally expresses, with a softened voice.
“I never feel that I matter enough to you”, replies Marcy tranquilly.
I commute back home that day, opening up the kitchen door to see that my wife and kids had prepared a Valentine’s Day dinner. Then, I realized I had forgotten to get her something…
Why is it, that two individuals who want to be together, who ultimately want to care for and be cared for, so blatantly miss each other and end up hurting each other? Being in relationships is one of our most challenging tasks as human beings. A strong affectionate connection between two people feels, and is, so vital to us, and yet, we keep getting caught up in relational traps. Where does one learn to recognize and express one’s emotions? Where does one learn to cultivate healthy relationships? To receive and give love? To learn what love even actually means?
We learn indirectly from our family of origin, and throughout our specific life experiences and we bring singular meaning and understanding to how to love, to share, to fight, to relate. Society educates us to “perform” love, through material gifts and cliché symbolic acts or scenarios, but prepares us less on how to “do” love. The practice of love rests in the common details of our quotidian interactions with our partners. It commands curiosity, affection, care, respect, trust, commitment, responsibility, and vulnerability. Love is a verb more than a noun, it implies action. It implies making a choice to love.
“Love is as love does”, writes bell hooks, a leading scholar on the matter. “Doing” love need not be flashy or overdone. Its significance lies less in its semantic meaning than in its felt experience of trusting in a secure bond and cultivating the ways that make our partner and ourselves feel that we matter to one another and that we are seen. Cesare Pavese, an Italian author wrote that, “You will know that you are loved, the moment you will show yourself to be vulnerable without the other person using the opportunity to assert his strength”. Love is also knowing that in our most vulnerable states, our partner will not turn to us in an opportunity to hurt, but to cherish us. Trusting that they too have made the choice to love.
So, with the aim of using Valentine’s Day as a learning opportunity, I have conjured up a few of what I like to call “relationship secrets from the therapy room”, that might help you and yours learn how to better “do” love.
Here are 10 relationship secrets:
1. Going back to the drawing board: Don’t be afraid to go back to the basics of efficient communication skills, by using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. This might seem puerile but it is the key to even rendering possible a dialogue where you could actually risk being heard by your partner! Starting with “you” statements, as shown in the example above, is the equivalent of starting peace negotiations by shooting arrows. Pointing the finger is the best way to close off your partner’s heart and ears, as she will be busy protecting herself from the attack, raising her fortified walls and lowering the artillery! “I” statements, on the contrary, say something about how you feel, and shows you are willing to risk being vulnerable. No one can ultimately contest how you feel, no matter how hard they try. And extending your hand, instead of shooting cannon balls, seriously increases your chances of being heard by a non-threatened partner.
2. Be egotistical! : Sometimes we feel so flooded by frustration and exasperation toward our partner that the idea of making an extra step for them or even for the relationship seems unfathomable. So don’t do it for your partner, do it simply for you : authentically listening to your partner, or underlining a nice gesture on their part or an effort you’ve seen them unskillfully risk, will only help soften them so that they will become more available and able to listen to your needs! Making the effort to use “I” statements will also set the scene for a more responsive partner, more open to listening to you! Remember, this is not a war, where if you do nice things and your partner lags behind, that they “are winning again by not making the efforts or acknowledging their faults”. You are simply, egotistically, building a safe nest where you will rest satisfyingly being seen and heard. You will see, as seasoned couple’s therapist Daniel E. Wile states, that your partner will eventually end up defending your point of view and you their’s: “No, no, you’re right I have been too whiney recently” and “Well, your complaining was justified, I have been more sloppy around the house in the past month”, etc. Try it, it works!
3. Be curious! : Start being more interested in your partner’s perspective. I always say that every individual lives in his or her own little universe unlike any other. We often mistakenly presume to know what our partner has felt or heard from what we have done or said to them; assuming “it meant exactly what I meant it to mean” and are surprised when our partner “overreacts”. Our past experiences are what constitute our singular universes. How words and actions reverberate in each specific universe is contingent of these past experiences. Thus, all the misunderstandings. Come to your partner with a perspective of not-knowing and ask questions around their reactions, if you don’t understand where it’s coming from. Be curious!
4. Become a “news reporter” of your inner self : Because we are such unique entities or universes, it is also recommended to clearly communicate to your partner what it is you are seeing and feeling, here in your world. A nice way to be able to do that is to act as a reporter to your own thoughts and feelings, to your partner. Thus, instead of being solely in a reactive state, you could describe to your partner exactly what you are witnessing is happening inside of you. For example, instead of telling your partner off like Jen did in our opening vignette with something like “You are an egotistical jerk, and are just incapable of caring for anybody else but yourself!”, you could tell them more accurately, “I am feeling extremely reactive right now. I just feel like yelling or hurting your feelings so that you could hear and see me. I feel like I don’t matter to you”.
In the former, your partner will only hear the noise of the arrows zipping by, hearing the medium, not the essential message. Leaving you even more fossilized in feeling like you don’t matter. In the latter, you would be expressing exactly what you want your partner to hear, so that the medium and the message do not get confused.
5. Intention doesn’t matter!: In relationships, our intention behind our behaviors ultimately doesn’t matter. How often do we find ourselves hearing our partner’s grievances? They tell us how hurt they felt by what we have said or done and we answer with : “Oh no, you completely misunderstood me, that was not my intention!”. Thus, systematically invalidating our partner’s felt experience. No matter how we had intended our action or word to be, the first step before justification is validating our loved one’s feelings. Jumping over such an essential step is risking compromising any healing or possibility of further constructive dialogue. Whether we meant it or not, it still hurt!!
6. Have recovery conversations: After a fight or a hurtful misunderstanding, whether a few minutes later or a few hours or days later, make the effort of having recovery conversations. Fights, arguments, hurt, will inevitably occur in any loving relationship. We do or say things to protect ourselves from further hurt or fears. Calling a recovery conversation after the fact, when the dust has started to settle, is a great way to create intimacy, and mend our respective wounds. In our initial scenario, Jen or Marcy could have gone to the other and say something like:
“Hey… You know yesterday when I repeatedly accused you of being cold… Well, I wanted to tell you that it felt like the only accessible way for me to express to you how lonely I can sometimes feel. I am so afraid that when I don’t feel connected to you that it means the end of us. It was an unskillful attempt at having you look my way. I know it was hurtful and I’m sorry.”
The idea here is not to start a new argument where we left off the old one. Rather, it is a way of showing vulnerability by exposing the underlying fears that, often times, guide our actions and demonstrates that we acknowledge how we have been hurt. Pulling the other into ourselves is fostering intimacy, closeness and connection.
7. Facts are not facts: Interminable investigations and quarreling about finding out “what really happened”, “who said what” or “who did what to whom”, etc. is a headless spiral that leads only to more conflict and feelings of not being understood and considered.
“Facts” about what you saw and heard your partner do or say are subjective reflections of our reality, not of reality. Rather, focus on what is true to you: your felt experience. On how and where what you saw or heard landed in your universe. And expect too, that what you sometimes put out there might be received in ways you couldn’t have ever imagined. Aside from common abuse, facts do not really exist outside our singular perspective.
8. “I am not really talking about you!” : When your partner lashes out at you, and is bombarding you left and right with “you” statements, it is easy to be duped into believing she is actually speaking of you. In fact, not much of what we say about others say much about them; rather it says much about self. Jen’s last remarks about her partner’s infantile needs and her annoying scrupulous ways of measuring her every move to look for signs of authentic appreciation only translates into what she is finally able to admit to Marcy: the fact that she feels she never measures up, that she fears she might not be good enough. She is seemingly speaking of Marcy’s short-comings. While in fact, she is expressing her own fears and insecurities of not being worthy of Marcy’s love. Understanding this can help you go right to the essential in recovery conversations and speak of you. It can also help soften the blow of the arrows, in seeing them as acts of vulnerability.
9. Infuse your relationship with positivity: To strive, any relationship needs to fill up their love tank with a profusion of compliments, acts of affection, sweet considerations and gestures. A relationship cannot endure the challenges of the long road on an empty tank. So, don’t be afraid to mention to your partner that you see the efforts that they are making. Tell them that you appreciate their daily detailed gifts of affection, that you notice their ways of pleasing you, etc. Fill up as much as you can on acts of love. Make sure that they always exceed the number of bumps and hills of negativity that suck up all the relational juice!
10. Love mirrors love: I see that there exists a basic fundamental law of relational satisfaction that stipulates that no love can stem from lovelessness. That it is very hard to find relational satisfaction without tending to the work of self-love. Learning to self-love is thus the cornerstone to the edification of relational contentment in the long run. It enables us to see with less reactivity how and how much we deserve to be loved. It sets the limits of how far we are able and willing to go for other without sacrificing self. And, how much we are willing to let other take from us. Acts of self-love start with working at truly looking at where we start and where we finish. Tend to the boundaries of self in acknowledging our true strengths and accepting our limits. The love you invest in self will mirror the love you will receive.