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Heading Into a Bumpy Valentine's Day? Consider the Paradoxes of Love

02/10/2015 12:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Tino Tedaldi via Getty Images

In 1973 Steve Miller recorded "The Joker" and we learned of his now famous line "cause I speak of the pompatus of love."

I'm not a joker; I'm a clinical psychologist and I speak of the paradoxes of love.

I do a fair amount of couples therapy. One of the challenges in doing that work is that many of the science-based principles I use are paradoxical or counter-intuitive. If you and yours are struggling a bit this Valentine's Day, consider these five paradoxes. They just might get you back on track, feeling once again like a "gangster of love."

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Communication skills are over-rated. Many couples point to poor communication as the reason for strife, assuming that one or both lack effective communication skills. There are many benefits to using communication rules such as turn taking, I-statements, and the occasional timeout. Of course, those who would use violence or hurtful words to influence their partner are clearly in need of new communication skills. That said, many couples sitting in my office are able to put into words the sentiments they carry in their hearts. My presence is certainly helpful but it's not the only factor. Also important is scheduling the time to have these kinds of "courageous conversations." Few couples, especially those with young children, realize that good scheduling skills are way more important than communication skills. Couples start communicating better in my office but I quickly have them identify the conditions out-of-session that are needed for safe, uninterrupted conversations without my presence. A key piece of this work is managing expectations: For busy folks, the odds of both being ready and willing to talk about emotionally charged issues at the same time is quite low unless it's scheduled.

Fail to solve a problem together. If I were honest, I'd have to admit that I grow weary when couples are talking in my office about the "stuff" that makes them angry or dissatisfied with each other. It's usually about one partner working too much, disagreement about parenting, meddling in-laws, money concerns, or other really gnarly problems. These conversations seldom fix the problem, so relationship strife continues and partners feel even more hopeless. I'd much prefer conversations that shift from stuff and focus instead on the level of connectedness in the relationship. That's THE most important issue to address.

Can we be together, respect each other, laugh together, and love each other?

Do you really hear me and know that I feel so scared or hurt or sad?

I feel so far away from you right now and I don't want that.

Sometimes I have couples do these conversations while holding hands or with a hand on their partner's gut. That's because task is visceral, not intellectual. It's about being together, in the same soup, sharing the emotional messiness of life.

Give by receiving. It is important to give time, attention, help, and, yes, gifts to your partner. But one of the more powerful ways to give to your partner, especially for men, is to receive your partner's influence. This is challenging for some because they struggle with accepting help, admitting mistakes, or giving up control. So, be open to your partner's preferences, tendencies, and choices. Take the time to hear and understand how your partner is thinking and feeling. The goal isn't to be a doormat; it's to have give and take, mutual respect, and a sense of we-ness in the relationship.

Choose self and other. You probably know that forsaking your own health and wellbeing can lead to a relationship imploding on itself. That's because what began as two people can devolve into one person and a mere attendant. But it's also true that we need to be kind and generous toward our partners. This can be tough when you're not feeling love or attention from your partner. If that happens and you start keeping score, look out. Fight that urge by giving with kindness and generosity in your heart. Of course that can't happen if you're not taking care of your own health and wellbeing. The key is to choose self and other. It's hard to do. And there's no way to find and maintain a perfect balance between taking care of self and supporting your partner. It's an everyday challenge, at the very least. I work hard to be open to my wife's feelings, to respect her beliefs and values, and to learn from her knowledge and experience. But there are still some instances when I choose a different path based on what I think is best. I don't do it often or lightly. But I do it knowing that I can't choose self OR other. I have to choose both.

Sometimes it's neither self nor other. This could be called the "S*#t Happens Law." Human beings, generally speaking, tend to point fingers at others when things go badly and we tend to take credit when things go well. So consider what happens when a couple's life is full of stressful events and daily hassles. Think young kids, lack of family support, money woes, work demands, lack of exercise, and little time or energy for relaxation or physical affection. Others can see that life for such couples has moved to a new level of difficulty but the couples tend to blame their partners. I try to point this out when I see it, but it's hard to convince two miserable people that no one is winning.

Attending to these five paradoxes might not lead to what Steve Miller called "lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time." But as a Valentine's Day gift, they're worth more than a box of chocolates.