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.