Reflection 13: Radical Decency Is Its Own Reward

Alan died a few weeks ago. He was a remarkable person, devoted to his family and friends; active throughout his legal career in efforts to improve the lives of disenfranchised people. He will be missed. At his funeral, his brother remembered his trip to Mississippi in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights struggle. Asked why he went, Alan said it was the right thing to do.

I have no problem with that response. But Alan’s life exemplified another, much less discussed answer to this question: The choice to actively engage in decency, in every area of living, is the surest path to a more vibrant and joyful life.

I raise this point because of a strange and, I would argue, not accidental anomaly in our mainstream take on lives, like Alan’s, of commitment and generativity. Living in a culture that is all about shrill self-promotion we are, at the same time, trained to feel tacky and puffed up if we share our acts of kindness and generosity in a forthright and public way.

This model of modesty and anonymity, when it comes to good deeds, is not a good thing.  To the contrary, it unwittingly supports the purposes of the mainstream culture, leaving society’s megaphone entirely in the hands of the forces that promote its acquisitive, “me first” values. Even as the Alan’s of this world shrink from advertising their ways of living, we are continually bombarded with TV shows that celebrate our compete and win ways – from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and The Apprentice, to Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Seeking to avoid that trap, I offer a Reflection that unabashedly presents Radical Decency as the surest path to a vibrant and nourishing life; arguing that, in the end – without regard to outcomes – its own reward.


The reason why this is true is grounded in our neurobiology. We are wired to be in relationship. As Dan Siegel says, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, it makes no sense to think about a brain in isolation.

The implications of this insight are profound. A baby’s brain is molded by interactions with his primary care givers. Mother joins the baby in his joy, modeling and teaching how that emotion looks in a mature brain. Then, as the baby moves into sadness or frustration, the mother moves with him, modeling these emotions and, just as important, a mature transition between these two states.

And this process continues throughout life. More than any other factor, our growth and evolution, for better or worse, depend upon the social context within which we exist. If our family, friends, communities, and culture model decency we will, whatever our innate disposition, tend in that direction. But if they model competition, dominance, and control, our states of mind and habits of living will move in that direction.

The bottom line in all of this? We are profoundly affiliative beings, wired to be in intimate connection with one another.

In choosing how we live, we also need to account for the fact that we are creatures of habit. According to Hebb’s Theorem, “if it fires together, it wires together.” So when a barking dog startles a baby, a chain of neurons fire. And because they fired once, they are more likely to fire again in response to similar stimulus. Confronted with that stimulus a third time, the likelihood they will fire again is even greater; and so on.  In other words, absent conscious intervention, our brains will do in the future what they did in the past.


Why do these neurobiological realities point to Radical Decency as the surest path to a better life? First, because – in stark contrast to the values that predominate in our culture – Radical Decency is congruent with our biologically wired, affiliative nature.

Bowing to the mainstream culture’s imperative to compete and win, we (very sensibly) become skilled in suppressing a wide range of emotions that put these goals at risk: Fear, confusion, weakness, even altruism and empathy directed toward competitors.

Doing so, we cut ourselves off from ongoing intimate connection; the very quality so essential to our healing and growth. The result: An epidemic of depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviors – drug and alcohol, workaholism, sex, video games – all designed to anesthetize our isolation and pain.

Radical Decency, by contrast, offers a very different path. Instead of riding roughshod over our innate affiliative nature, it systematically expresses and extends it into all areas of living; offering, in this way, a powerful antidote to the mainstream culture’s debilitating pattern of emotional suppression and interpersonal isolation.

Radical Decency also accounts for the fact that we are creatures of habit. Pick and chose decency – doing what we have to do “out there, in the real world,” and then making a 180 degree pivot to decency in our private lives – is untenable. Why? Because we spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work and in other venues in which the values of the mainstream culture are practiced with a vengeance.

So, in the absence of a comprehensive and committed decency practice, the habits of thinking and living we cultivate in those arenas will overwhelm the small, private islands of decency we seek to carve out in our off hours. Selfishness, manipulation, defensiveness, rage, withdrawal – some or all of these will almost inevitably infect, our intimate relationships.

And, importantly, we will also punish ourselves. Driving ourselves too hard – as the culture demands – we wind up being self-judgmental and unforgiving when, as is inevitable, we exhibit any of a wide range of human emotions: Confusion, physical and emotional fatigue, fear, and so on.

In short, living in an endemically indecent world, a pick and chose decency will never work.

Radical Decency, by contrast, promises transform our habitual brain from a negative into a positive. The reason? Because applied “radically” – in every context and without exception – decency will, with time and persistence, become our new habit of living and, with that, a trusted ally in our efforts to fundamentally diverge for mainstream culture’s debilitating ways of operating.


Radical Decency is a powerful and intensely practical compass, pointing the way to a better life. The focus isn’t some far-off ultimate goal – how to be “happy” or “fulfilled.”  Instead, we work day-by-day, moment-by-moment, on the task of being decent. Doing so, we trust that the habits of mind we are cultivating will powerfully support us in creating a more vibrant and nourishing life.

Here’s how it works.

When across the board decency is our priority, curiosity becomes our habitual state of mind. Why? Because we quickly learn that, in order to make good choices, we need to more deeply understand our motives, feelings and states of mind – and those of others.

One fortunate side effect of chronic curiosity is a decline in our tendency to judge our self and others. Focusing on why we do things requires openness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. And because these states of mind are inconsistent with judgment, this debilitating, culturally induced habit shrinks from inattention.

Note also that a committed Radical Decency practice regularly requires difficult choices.  Moment by moment, how do we harmonize and balance decency to our self with decency to others? And what choices should we make when it comes to the thorny issue of allocating an appropriate level of resources to social causes.

In the mainstream culture, standard operating procedure is to duck these issues:

  • Ignoring them in the rush to deal with the day-by-day pressures of living; or
  • “Solving” them by either ignoring our needs or the needs of others; or
  • Latching on to a convenient sophistry to explain them away (“the invisible hand of capitalism will cure our ills”; “giving money to a beggar is enabling”).

Good things happen, however, when we really allow ourselves to be in these “wisdom stretching” moments; fully inhabiting the seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas they create. Doing so, we hone our emotional awareness and analytic skills.  We also cultivate:

  • The courage to act in uncomfortable situations;
  • The patience and self- control to forbear when that is the better choice: and
  • The wisdom to know the difference.

Fully inhabiting this process, we become more and more skilled at loving our self and others.

Where does all of this lead? When all that we do is approached with curiosity and growing sense of discernment, we will have an increased sense of:

Living in the present which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future – and, with it, greater focus and clarity; states of mind that are a natural expression of the less complicated emotional landscape we inhabit;

Appreciation, empathy, and acceptance for our self and others which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control – and, with it, more warmth, appreciation and joy in the company of others;

Clarity and coherence about our priorities and choices which leads to less anxiety – and, with it, an increased sense of ease in life; and

An ennobling sense of purpose which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust – and, with it, a growing sense vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.

These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a good life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization. So while Radical Decency is the right thing to do – as Alan might have said – the really exciting news is that it is also its own reward.


Reflection 12: Radical Decency in Politics — Pitfalls and Possibilities

Radical Decency’s goal is to systematically replace the values that predominate in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

But embedded in the culture are a myriad of beliefs, ways of operating – and supporting institutional structures – that maintain and deepen the grip of its mainstream values on our lives. If we hope to meaningfully advance Radical Decency’s ambitious goal, a thorough understanding of these processes is an essential first step.

With this as its starting place, Radical Decency offers fresh perspectives on what really drives our lives – “what is” – and what we need to do to craft more effective change strategies.

In this Reflection, I deal with these issues in politics and public affairs.

I have been involved in public affairs for almost 50 years: The civil rights and anti-war movements as a young man; Common Cause/Philadelphia in the 1970s; the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; the National Constitution Center; domestic and overseas service trips; Radical Decency; and, when it seemed important, partisan politics.  A lesson I have drawn from these experiences is that the key processes that make meaningful change so difficult are seldom recognized and discussed – and, for that reason, all the more effective.


One of the geniuses of the mainstream culture is that it rarely quashes people who want to reform it. Instead, they are distracted and marginalized, leaving the engines that drive the mainstream culture free to pursue their purposes with little meaningful interference.

A key element in this process is the way in which our reform energies are channeled and, in so doing, domesticated and marginalized.  Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to work in discrete subject areas – poverty, housing, the environment, nutrition and health.

And the problem with this approach? The best intentioned and most highly motivated among us wind up working on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Then, they are provided with just enough financial support to keep them going but not nearly enough, even to accomplish their (highly commendable but) partial agendas. These processes, and possible responses to them, are discussed in greater detail in other Reflections: # 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other; # 7: Gathering in the Good Guys; and # 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work.

Another phenomenon, instrumental in this process, is way in which the mainstream culture creates the illusion of meaningful choice around particular elections and issues.  Inordinate amounts of energy are then sucked into the fight over this “pivotal” election and that “make or break” issue. The result? The systemic issues that could more effectively promote meaningful change are never attended to.

The obvious example is elections. They are, without question, important. Millions of lives are affected by our choices.  But, in the end, they offer no realistic prospect for fundamental change. The consuming sense of urgency generated by Kennedy vs. Nixon, Kerry vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Romney masks a deeper truth. On the vast majority of big issues, nothing ever changes – not, at least for the better.

So, across the last 50 years, without regard to who is in office: Our enormous defense budget remains; the grotesque underfunding of services for the poor has steadily increased; businesses continue to use their economic leverage to enrich ownership and senior management and squeeze workers and consumers; degradation of the environment continues; and unnecessary wars are fought.

Equally distracting are the so-called big policy fights. John Kenneth Galbraith noted years ago that what usually captures our attention are hotly contested, rather than important, decisions. Thus, we recently spent 2 years, riveted by a tax and budget battle, which resulted in a 4% income tax increase, applicable only to that part of an individual’s income that exceeds $450,000.

In reality, most really important changes just happen, without little or no debate at all.  In the late 1970s, for example, a bankruptcy reform bill was quietly passed allowing judges to modify labor contracts. Over the ensuing decades, this has become a key mechanism used to disempower the labor movement.

Equally invisible in their implementation, and in seismic in their impact, have been

  • The dismantling of country’s pension system (401ks replacing true pensions);
  • The transformation of the criminal justice system into a decentralized system for locking up and disenfranchising shockingly large numbers of African Americans and other minorities; and
  • The deregulation and centralization of the financial services sector, paving the way for massive money grabs by our largest financial institutions.


The juice that keeps the current indecent system going is the priority it places on money, power, and success; that is, on its compete and win, dominate and control values.  In the service of these goals, indecent behaviors are condoned, encouraged and celebrated while, on the other side, “being nice” is subtly (or not so subtly) dismissed as soft and naïve – the province of losers. With this mindset permeating every aspect of our lives, it is hardly surprising that “nice” public policies – that is, policies that are humane and empathic – are pushed to the margins of our public awareness and debate.

Compounding the problem is this dispiriting reality: While the temptation to be indecent for the sake of success is immense in our private lives, it is even greater when it involves strangers; that is, in the area of politics and public policy.


What we need to do to change this mindset – and the indecent public policies it brings in its wake – is to promote an alternative set of values that is just as forceful in the other direction; that make decency a priority in every area of living and, crucially, at all times and without exception.

Why? Because our current approach to change – employing the advocacy tools of the mainstream culture to fight “this” policy battle, or “that” one – will never work. Failing to challenge the values-based premises that drive the mainstream culture’s policy choices, here is what typically happens.

Well-intentioned nonprofits, with little or no reflection, modify “less important” aspects of their mission and ways of operating to meet the expectations of a key foundation or other mainstream funding source. And, as these exceptions accumulate over time, the clarity of their mission erodes, and their tactics increasingly mimic the tactics of the mainstream culture. In the end, playing the culture’s conventional game, but with far fewer financial resources than the corporations and lobbyists that oppose them, guess who wins?

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that more conventional reform efforts should be limited or curtailed. The ameliorative work of nonprofit entities, healing professionals, and more enlightened office holders is highly important. Their work softens the virulent consequences of the existing system, helping millions. The problem, however, is that this work is too often confused with the transformational political work that our culture so desperately needs. We need to be clear about the difference – and deeply supportive of both.

The approach I advocate is a difficult and uncertain pathway toward fundamental political change. But the alternative – to go along with the indecent values that drive our culture and, in this way, being marginal players (at best) when it comes our most basic public policy choices – is worse.


Needless to say, this approach is both intellectually and emotionally challenging.

Thus, for example, we need to embrace the fact that public policy is thoroughly implicated in our private choices – in how we allocate our time, energy and money. Doing so, we need to decisively diverge from culture’s singular focus on financial security and consumerism; replacing it with financial choices that reasonably account for decency to self and, at the same time, actively considers decency to others and the world.

The approach to public policy I advocate also needs to challenge the taken for granted ways in which we view collaboration.

We live in a culture that promotes and celebrates individualism and also places a very high value on privacy; translated to mean that you have no right to know what I am doing, and vice versa. Effective public policy initiatives, however, require collective action and that, in turn, requires deep and sustained collaboration. With this in mind, notice how effectively these mainstream values discourage collective efforts, encouraging a “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” approach and, more darkly, allowing deeply irresponsible private choices to be protected from public sanction by our fierce over emphasis on privacy rights.

A far better approach would integrate a more modulated and qualified emphasis on individuality and privacy into a larger perspective that more fully accounts for the effort of others – melding our efforts with theirs. In this new approach, we would no longer take refuge behind a cloak of anonymity and, instead, hold others – and ourselves – accountable for our choices.

Still another key challenge involves the attack/counterattack style that is so predominant in our politics – and the importance of weaning ourselves from these habits.

The simple — and uncomfortable – truth is this: Ridiculing Sarah Palin (on the left) or Barack Obama (on the right) – as opposed to challenging their policies and tactics on the merits – only reinforces the caricaturizing and dismissive behaviors that allow others, in other contexts, to discriminate against minorities or to dismiss the suffering of the poor.  On this crucial issue, I strongly recommend Encountering Bigotry, by Philip Lichtenberg, et al, a book that brilliantly and with empowering specificity describes how to engage in this vital work. See, also, Reflections 75 and 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1and 2.


These steps – greater collaboration, increased personal accountability, attention to the quality of our political dialogue – are not, realistically, going to transform our public policy in the foreseeable future. However, initiatives such as these are the vital the ground out of which a meaningful shift toward more decent and humane public policies can emerge. And if we neglect them, movement toward this goal will, I fear (and believe), continue to be surpassingly small.

Reflection 11: Recognizing, Naming and Valuing Difference

I went to high school in the early 1960s, a different era – before the Stonewall riots and the women’s movement. So it never occurred to me that Miss Dodge and Miss Wheaton, teachers who walked from their apartment to school each day, were lesbians. And, with all the smart/with it kids that were my classmates at Scarsdale High School, I never heard anyone else mention that possibility either!

Years later, I watched a movie in which a lesbian’s life long partner died suddenly. The nephew arrives a few days later and “generously” tells her to stay in the house (titled in her deceased partner’s name) for another 30 days because she and his aunt were such “good friends.” Since her marriage was unnamed and unacknowledged, she was rendered invisible and mute, unable to express her anguish at the loss not only of her life partner but of her home as well.

A final anecdote: An author at the center of the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, when interviewed 50 years later, talked about how she and her friends loved the dime store novels of that era in which a young woman would visit the “dark” side only to be “saved,” in the end, by a man’s love. For them, the endings were irrelevant.  What excited them was that they were being acknowledged. They were being named.  They existed.

This sort of marginalization is one of the culture’s most powerful tools of oppression. In some cases, the oppressed group literally has no name.  Think, for example, of the children who for decades (or, perhaps, centuries) were being abused within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Prior to its disclosure, these victims didn’t exist. And if they dared to speak up, they were dismissed as troublemakers, delusional or worse.

In other cases, such as being a lesbian in the 1950s – or a transgendered or intersexed person today – the culture does offer a name. But the group is so thoroughly stigmatized and marginalized that it is seldom talked about. And when it is, the discussion is suffused with embarrassment and typically conducted in hushed tones. The group exists in theory but its members are never acknowledged as real people, living with and amongst us.

Invisibility and marginalization take repression to a new level. When you are is part of a recognized group, you can coalesce with others and take countermeasures. But when “who you are” is unacknowledged or deeply suppressed, the level of isolation and negation goes much deeper.

Even the seemingly simple act of naming yourself – to yourself – can be tough. Many gays and lesbians who came of age in my generation (the 50s and early 60s) always knew that “normal sex” didn’t work for them. But because homosexuality was so marginalized and stigmatized many of them were in the closet not only with others but with themselves as well. And their challenge didn’t end there. Even when self-recognition broke through, there was often the daunting problem of finding others, like them, for communion and support.

Being unnamed and unacknowledged typically carries with it a diffuse, ill understood form of pain – frustration, loneliness, depression, confusion, a feeling that things just aren’t right. And because you don’t understand the cause of your pain you assume, more often than not, that there is something wrong with you.


This phenomenon is deeply political. Groups at risk of invisibility are groups that interfere with, or slow the momentum of, the culture’s predominant values. And while socially disenfranchised groups are its most obvious victims of this process, the reach of the phenomenon extends far beyond these groups.

The culture pushes us to be a certain kind of person: Logical, focused, goal oriented, organized, efficient, a good linear thinker. But who we are encompasses so much more.  We are also emotional, visual, sensing, tactile, and so on. And these qualities richly contribute to our vitality and aliveness.

The good news is that people have a wide variety of dispositions and aptitudes. There is no shortage of people who can help us understand our potential in each of these less logical and linear areas. Unfortunately, however, the mainstream culture’s support for these people is tepid at best. And sadly – for them and for us – the more they diverge from the culture’s left- brain ideal, the less they are seen and acknowledged.

Take my friend William, for example. Trained at the best schools, he has all the necessary left brained skills. But that is not who he is. William’s core passions and gifts are tactile and sensing. The center of his being exists in an essentially nonverbal world of movement and sensation. He loves to milk goats. He has tracked animals, been on archeological digs, and led bicycle trips. Recently, he spent a summer working on a small family farm in the Pyrenees.

As a more logical and linear person, I don’t understand the joy William feels in milking goats at 5 a.m. – in the dead of winter! But I do know that I am deeply nourished by his different sensibility; a sensibility that leads him to these choices.

Life has not been easy for William. Being smart, organized and charming, he spent years doing what he was supposed to do, working as a teacher and business executive.  But he had no passion for these jobs. Much of the time, he was discouraged and confused. And a key cause of William’s pain was the culturally imposed invisibility, described above.

In an entirely analogous way, the mainstream culture tells people with an artistic or spiritual sensibility that that’s ok, but only if they demonstrate competence in its approved set of aptitudes and skills – by making money off of it. Absent that, their sensibility is likely to be seen as a problem to be overcome, rather than as a different and valued way of living.

This same phenomenon applies, in a more subtle way, to many individuals who, on the surface, seem to be doing just fine in the mainstream culture. These people fit in – sort of. But in fact the emotional fit is uncomfortable. Responding to the culture’s pressures, they let their less mainstream aptitudes and passions atrophy through neglect and disuse. The result is a diminished life not only for themselves but for those around them as well, since they are deprived of their unique contributions.


When it comes to recognizing, naming and valuing difference, the challenge is multi-dimensional. We need to cultivate a heightened sense of curiosity and possibility about people who are different from us and we need to do it in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most political.

In closing, I want to highlight one area in which the rewards of attending to this challenge are very high: The workplace. Work is the epicenter of our culture’s competitive, win/lose values. We spend the best hours of the great majority of our days at work. And, at most jobs, the pressure to take on a mainstream persona is unrelenting.

But there is a very encouraging “on the other hand” to this discouraging reality. If we are able to bring curiosity about, and appreciation for, difference into the workplace we are bringing this more enlightened way of being in the very belly of the mainstream beast. In other words, change in the workplace could, potentially, become the catalyst and main driver of change in the culture at large. So, imagine a workplace:

  • Where an employee with a more spiritual disposition (for example) does not feel compelled, out of fear, to stifle his or her differences;
  • Where an employer who does not instinctually judge and marginalize this worker but, instead, seeks to engage with, and magnify, his or her unique strengths; and
  • Where, unable to follow through on that optimal outcome, the employer is still willing to modify the worker’s role, hours, and (if necessary) compensation to maintain his or her viability as an employee.

There is no practical impediment making this a reality. Indeed, one by-product of these different sorts of choices could well be soaring morale and increased productivity.

While there are companies that experiment with this sort of approach, what we need is a paradigm shift – from “interesting experiments by a few companies” to “accepted way of doing business.” To do so, however, will require businesses to wean themselves from our “success at all costs” mindset, systematically replacing it with a more humane set of values, such as those reflected in Radical Decency.

Why? Because, if companies remain psychically wedded to the old ways of operating, competitive pressures will inevitably cause them to regress to the mainstream culture’s norms: Reserving the new policies’ benefits for their most economically productive workers; shrinking or abandoning these initiatives when, as is inevitable, the company goes through a period of reduced profitability.

In addition, offered a partial “when it is convenient” shift in policy rather than a whole-hearted embrace of more humane ways of operating, workers will quickly smell a rat.  Case hardened by their long experience with insensitive, quick to judge workplaces, most workers will – in this compromised scenario – (very sensibly) refuse the invitation to be more open about their differences.


As this example illustrates, effective strategies for fostering a greater appreciation of difference are difficult to craft and even more challenging in their execution. But the rewards are commensurate with the challenge. People like William will find their place in the world more easily and with less pain, and we will all be enriched by the new vistas their more robust and empowered involvement opens up for us.

Reflection 10: Romantic Love: Making What’s Good Better

Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes, discusses how couples can make different and better choices when they are fighting; how, instead of talking about what triggered the fight – whether the keys should be hung on the hook; whether your partner is back seat driving – they can re-focus on:

  • Why each partner is triggered; and
  • How to minimize the episode’s duration and effect.

Notice, however, that the skills discussed in that Reflection only come into play when things have already broken down. Equally important – and less discussed – are the positive things that can be done to strengthen the relationship when things are going smoothly.

Effective work in the good times is vitally important. It means fewer ruptures in the relationship and, therefore, less need for repair work. It also improves your ability to offer and accept love, day by day; creating in the process a more nourishing relationship.  And, the skills you cultivate with your spouse are vitally important in your ongoing efforts to improve other important relationships in your life as well.

Here are some key guidelines for doing this work. Note, importantly, that they assume a relationship where trust is intact; that is, where each partner has an abiding belief that the other is deeply invested not only in her own well being, but in his as well. For this reason, while the guidelines are relevant to your interactions at work, in politics, and in other public venues, their applicabilty in these contexts come with important qualifications. See Reflection #66, Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships; and Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.

1. Become the world’s expert on who your partner is.

When I say this, it may seem like an obvious point. But, in reality, most of us take it for granted. “Of course I know who he is, I’ve lived with him for the last 10 years.”

But each of us is an incredibly complicated being. We can literally spend a lifetime understanding who we are, never mind who another person is. So the easy assumption that I know this person since, after all, I have seen her in the morning without her make-up, or have witnessed his meltdowns is not – and will never be – true. Indeed, when this becomes a settled habit of mind, it invites a corrosive complacency in the ways in which we interact with, and treat, our partner.

Understanding this, what better way to honor and love your partner than to make knowing her, more and more deeply, one of your life’s primary vocations? John Gottman, a man who has spent a lifetime studying what successful couples do, calls this building a love map of your partner.

The key to doing this work is to make questions of curiosity a regular habit:

  • What stresses you?
  • What is it that you like about that friend? What do you like to do with him? Why?
  • How would you like our relationship to be different?
  • What do you like about our house?
  • What’s one adventure you’d really like to have?
  • How do you feel about being a dad?
  • What are some of the highlights of your career?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What would you change in the bedroom?
  • What are your hopes and dreams?

The list is, of course, endless. And weaving open-ended questions, such as these, into the fabric of your interactions is a classic win/win: Your partner will feel seen, appreciated and loved; and you will be cultivating a habit of curiosity and appreciation that nourishes and enriches you, not only in your intimate relationship, but in every other area of living as well.

2. Lean into bids.

This simple but powerful tool comes from John Gottman as well. When you think about it, we are all continually bidding for our partner’s attention, interest and affection, in large ways and small: Telling a joke, sharing a stressful event, putting a hand on her shoulder. Indeed, even our criticisms are bids for attention. Why else would we bother to mention it?

What Gottman has observed is that successful couples habitually “turn toward” each other’s bids. After 6 years, couples that ultimately divorced engaged in this behavior 33% of the time while still married couples did it 86% of the time.

So when your partner bids for your attention: Put your mobile phone down and offer full eye contact; really listen and build on what he has said; if you have nothing to add, at least acknowledge the comment. And, of course, work really hard not to “turn away” from her bids; e.g., by not responding at all, or responding with a distracted “huh?” or a cutting and dismissive retort.

3. Ask for what you want.

When you ask for what you want, you provide your partner with a vivid roadmap for loving you. Failing to do so, you deprive him of that guidance.

And since effectively loving your partner is one of life’s greatest joys, providing this roadmap – regularly telling partner what you want and need – is one of your core responsibilities as a lover. There is, quite simply, no better way to support him in his ongoing effort to find really effective, soul satisfying ways in which to love you.

For people on the flight  side of the fight/flight reactivity equation, this can be a difficult stretch. They often have what I call a “Mother Teresa complex,” thinking that putting their needs second is a virtue and, thus, that asking for what they want is selfish.

Neither is true.

Note, in this regard, that asking and demanding are very different things. If the goal is to be the best possible lover, demands almost never work. In the typical case, they provoke annoyance and, at best, grudging compliance.

With trust in place, however, you already know that your partner, eager to love you, wants to respond positively to your requests – subject only to his core needs. So demands are not only unhelpful, they are also unnecessary. Clear and positively stated requests, by contrast, offer the promise of a pleasurable result for both partners.

For people who are more typically on the fight side of the fight/flight equation, this “always ask, never demand” guideline is also very challenging – but in a different way. When fighters are reactive, they demand agreement. And even when they try to rein in this tendency, the music of their “ask” is often so forceful that, to their partner, it still feels like a demand. So fighters need to work diligently to make the words and music of their communications match. For them, explicitly reassuring their partner that “no” is a perfectly acceptable response is, often, a helpful step.

4. Model what you hope to receive.

This guideline may seem complicated, but it isn’t. What we want most of all from our intimate partner is to be seen, accepted, and loved. So “modeling what we hope to receive” means that and nothing more. Strive, always, to see and love your partner when she is at her best and, equally, when she is at her worst.

One area in which the challenge of this guideline regularly comes up is when we are seeking to implement the third guideline, just discussed. With exquisite care you phrase your need as an “ask” and not a “demand.” But your partner, despite your efforts, hears a demand and responds with reactivity and defensiveness.

Needless to say, if the roles were reversed (and they will be!) you would want your reactive response to be accepted with understanding and equanimity – that is, with the acceptance and love you long for – even in the face of your provocative behavior.

So, in that moment, you need to model what you hope to receive. In other words, avoid the easy trap of telling your partner that she shouldn’t be reactive; that she didn’t do what she was supposed to do under the guidelines. Instead, trusting her commitment and intention, strive to maintain your loving presence without editorial comment.

5. Be grateful for what you are offered in return.

This guideline requires you to remember how much you are loved and how motivated this person is to love you. So if her response falls short of your fantasy – and it will on a regular basis – you need to see this as an indication, not of indifference, but of difference.

When what your partner offers is viewed through this prism, cultivating gratefulness for what you receive in return will, in fact, open you up to the possibility of a response that is even better than your fantasy. Why? Because, coming out of his unique and different sensibility, your partner will, on a regular basis, be offering a kind of comfort and love that – before you became intimate with this person – was literally beyond your capacity to imagine.

Here’s how that process works.

Growing up we instinctually let certain behaviors and sensibilities atrophy in order to fit in and survive in our families of origin. Harville Hendrix teaches us that romantic love is nature’s way of bringing us together with someone who is more gifted in these neglected areas; someone who, by their very nature, offers a roadmap for our healing and growth. So, for example, left brained thinkers will, with regularity, find more intuitive sensing partners and vice versa.

With this in mind, being alive to the possibility that you do not understand the gifts being offered by your partner seems especially important. Gratefulness for what you receive is precisely the habit of mind that will allow you to dwell in this possibility and, over time, to more fully understand his or her special gifts.

But even in the absence of this dynamic, you still need to remember that your partner is a package deal; that the limitations you perceive in him are also an expression of who he is. Loving him means not just appreciating the many things he can do, but also accepting with equanimity the ways in which, in your eyes, he fall short.

As Gottman points out, the path to success is to cultivate gratitude – to get really interested in catching your partner doing something right – and, on the flip side, to avoid the corrosive and all too common habit of feeding a critical habit of mind toward this person who is, after all, your great love; the person you have chosen to spend your life with.