02/14/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2014

How to Be a Good Valentine's Lover

As Valentine's Day approaches, your mind may be turning to love and perhaps the unfulfilled dreams of romance, the "love that got away."

As a professor who has taught a course called "The Theology of Marriage" for 30 years, I have what may come as shocking news for Valentine's Day lovers -- if you're not a good friend, parent, employee, or boss, don't bother trying to be a successful lover or spouse. Chances are you will fail.

Marriage is the most special and intense of relationships, so if you can't cut it in other relationships, you will not survive marriage. As I tell my students, never marry a man who appears to cherish you but kicks his dog and is mean to strangers -- you will surely be next in line.

To be a truly good lover, one must cultivate what I call "Thou" moments in all of relationships. "Thou" moments is a term from philosopher Martin Buber's seminal book I and Thou, written early in the 20th century. In it, he divides encounters into those in which the other is either treated as an "It," an object that is separate and unimportant to an individual, or those in which the other is treated as a "Thou," a person with whom a profound connection and relationship is both possible and pursued.

Whether you're on a date or married, you'll know if you're sitting across from an ego, one who is all about himself or herself. You can easily tell if your significant other is addressing you, is fully "present," without an agenda, and whether he or she really cares and listens -- well, at least most of the time.

To gauge yourself on this scale, here is a simple test: How often do you get immersed in a conversation with another person and time passes almost without your realizing it? This can happen to you any place -- with the coworker at the water fountain, with an old friend over a cup of coffee, or in a conversation with someone you find romantically appealing. (It happened to me many years ago on an overnight train from Paris to Copenhagen -- I never saw the woman again.)

If you don't have this "immersion," in which you are wholly present to your Valentine, and vice versa, all the roses in the world won't change the truth that your relationship is superficial or convenient. If all you have are memories of such an immersion, the relationship most likely has run its course. Sadly, marriages are sometimes based on memories of genuine connections, genuine presence, that cannot be revived.

If you are a person for whom meetings or other events you yourself have not initiated seem go on interminably, where you are conscious of a slow clicking clock of wasted time, you are not fully present or immersed. When your mind and heart are someplace else -- in the memory of what has passed or in anticipation or anxiety about what is to come -- you are not present. This situation is perfectly legitimate while in line at the DMV, of course, but certainly not when you are with that special someone who is your Valentine.

Some of my students are aware of this. They have improved their capacity to love and be loved in numerous ways -- to cultivate and to await those "Thou" moments. When they are with someone they are interested in, they try to put the agenda away -- "I have to look pretty for him," "I hope she doesn't think that I talk too much." Rather than worry about what they need to accomplish in their time together, their only purpose is the relationship itself.

Let's mention sex at this point. Sex is so often confused with the word love today. In an age where the "hookup" is almost the expected form of behavior, how different sexual contact would be if it were not the sole purpose of the evening, but rather the expression of the depths of the relationship itself!

When sex takes place between people who are truly present to one another, and have been consistently present over a period of time, it is fundamentally different than casual hookup sex. It ceases to be a goal or an end and becomes one of the many languages of immersion.

If your mantra is, "How can I use you, let me count the ways," instead of "How can I love you, let me count the ways," chances are you are someone who finds it difficult to be wholly "present" to those in your life with whom you have a relationship.

So this Valentine's Day, give the gift of your immersed self to someone who is not a lover or significant other in your life -- your boss, child, an acquaintance who seems to want to get to know you more. You may find that improving such relationships makes you a better candidate for love.