The to-do list associated with Valentine's Day typically involves flower orders, dinner reservations, and chocolate deliveries. All of these can be lovely gestures of fondness and appreciation, but all of them are fleeting symbols whose pleasures fade come Feb. 15. The greatest and most lasting gift we can give a loved one is to be open to evolving as a person and improving our relationship. So why not use a holiday that celebrates love as an opportunity to think about how we can make ours stronger?
In working with couples, there are six principles I often cite as proven methods to maintain closeness and keep the excitement alive in a relationship. Conveniently, these six characteristics fit nicely into an acronym that also describes the most important action to maintaining intimacy: L-O-V-I-N-G.
Being loving isn't just a matter of playing the role of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. It is a matter of having integrity in ourselves and being attuned to our partners. Being LOVING means maintaining Laughter, Openness, Vitality, Individuality, Non-defensiveness, and Generosity in our relationships.
Laughing with our partner is indicative of sharing time where we experience mutual joy. Bringing pleasure into each other's lives plays a big part in falling in love. Having a sense of humor also helps smooth the waters when our interactions become stormy. Being able to laugh at our shortcomings and at our partner's idiosyncrasies can steer us away from unwarranted dramas, arising due to everything from subtle pet peeves to intense overreactions. Laughter isn't just good for our relationship or our mood -- it is actually good for our brains, strengthening our capacity to experience joy and pleasure.
When we first date someone, we are often open to trying new things, to experimenting with their interests and entering their world. As our relationship gets closer, however, we often simultaneously start to grow apart by closing off to new experiences or limiting each other in certain ways. For example, if a partner enjoys hiking, we might try it out in the early exciting days of getting to know each other. Yet, once we become a couple and form a routine, we may feel more resistant to sharing these activities. We may even start altering our partner's behavior, nudging them so that their interests match our own. "You went hiking last weekend. Wouldn't you rather go to a movie?"
Love doesn't exist in a vacuum. We have to share time and activities to keep it thriving. It's essential to stay open to our partners' interests. Pay attention to what makes them happy and be careful not to take actions that will restrict that happiness. Apply this same rule to yourself. Love isn't as much about compromise as two people doing what fulfills them individually. Strong relationships exist when what fulfills two individuals is sharing the activities that make each other happy.
Lack of energy is a relationship's most silent enemy. Love doesn't exist unless it is treated as a vital and living force between two people. Saying "I love you" holds far less meaning than showing our love for someone. Bringing energy and aliveness to our relationship will keep it interesting and evolving. Show your excitement to see each other. Make time to just talk. Don't forego affection for the everyday routine of your lives. Hold hands and look into your partner's eyes. The small steps that are easy to overlook in the face of busy schedules and mounting responsibilities can be the most important elements to keeping love exciting.
Losing yourself in love can sound like a romantic and passionate endeavor, but it is actually one of the biggest threats to maintaining intimacy. Getting close to someone shouldn't mean fusing our identity or losing respect for our innate separateness. We should always respect that our partner has a sound mind separate from our own. Becoming a "we" should never mean losing the "you" and "me." It should be a matter of complementing and supporting each other to become our fullest selves instead of merging together to become something else. Author and neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel cleverly describes this as forming a colorful and vibrant fruit salad as opposed to a dulled and texture-less smoothie.
Everyone brings a lot of baggage to their relationship, and no matter how great the love or strong the attraction, perfection just doesn't exist. Human beings make mistakes. We don't match up perfectly with other people. Our partners will have plenty to say about the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways we push them away. Inviting open communication and being receptive to feedback can help us overcome the real obstacles in our relationships. Instead of making excuses or counterattacking when our partner gives us feedback, we should look for the kernel of truth in what they're saying. Don't pick apart their words. Instead, find what you think applies and be compassionate to how they feel. In this same manner, you should seek to be direct and honest with your own feelings. How does your partner push you away? How could you each work on your issues and get closer?
The best gift we can give someone we love is to have integrity in our actions, making sure they match our words. If we say "I love you," we should be respectful of the "you" we've grown to love. This involves giving love in a way that our partner would experience as loving. It doesn't mean giving them what we would want or even what we would want for them. A romantic Valentine's Day dinner may be a sweet gesture, but what activity would really light your partner up and make them feel seen, known, and cared for?
Being generous involves being giving of yourself but also being accepting of what's given to you. Be sure to show appreciation, even when gifts and acknowledgment are hard for you to receive. When it comes to the natural give and take in a relationship, it's important not to keep score. Being generous isn't just a moral issue but a mental health principle that has been proven to make people feel good, whether or not they get anything tangible in return.
Developing our capacity to be consistently loving is the greatest challenge to long-term relationships. Yet, the simple act of being loving can be the greatest foundation for a strong union. When relationships get complicated, and couples are at a loss for the convoluted reasons things have steered off course, it is sound advice for them to lay down their arms and start fresh. Think about the ways to apply the above principles, and enjoy the precious joys of loving and being loved.
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