- Research shows that durable, happy relationships need daily doses of positivity.
- To strengthen your relationship, find out what feels like affection to your mate, because it may not be the same for you.
- Your relationship can deepen with small, spontaneous acts of love and attention.
I don’t like Valentine’s Day. Too commercial. Too fattening. I’ve never been on a date night—a pre-planned evening where long-term couples can reconnect. Too much pressure to act happy and feel sexy. Quality time (I think that is what whoever coined the term “date night” was hoping for) requires quantity time. Humans don’t turn on and off to each other like light switches. Connection is not a one-and-done fix. It’s a daily dose. Here are some ideas, right and wrong.
The Wrong Way
Several months ago, I was facilitating a first responder retreat. It was the last day. We were talking about going home. Many of our clients are significantly changed by the retreat. They have a deeper understanding of the ways that emergency work has damaged them and injured their families. Things are in better perspective and their priorities may have changed to family first, job second. Many have bared their souls to each other and to staff for the first time in their lives.
The focus of our discussion was how best to thank mates and spouses for standing by, not just for this week, but through all the hard times; what to expect when your family realizes you kept secrets from them that you shared with strangers; and how to react with compassion and understanding. One of the peer team leaders suggested stopping by the gas station minimart to buy flowers. Or sending a computerized greeting card over the internet. I nearly choked on my coffee. Flowers are lovely, but not from the minimart. And as clever as those online greeting cards can be, I would rather have a sincere message of love and gratitude written on the back of an envelope than a commercialized jingle. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it. The peer leader wasn’t being mean, he was being a cop, doing what cops are trained to do—get it done and move on.
The Right Way
Gary Chapman, renowned marriage counselor, says there are five ways to express love; he calls them “love languages.” The idea behind his popular books is that you can strengthen a relationship by learning what makes your mate feel loved. It’s a little like hostage negotiating. If you want the hostage-taker to release a hostage, you better get him or her something they want in exchange, not something you think they should have. Chapman says people feel loved by acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time (including undivided attention), words of affirmation, and physical touch. Some of us are bi-lingual, meaning more than one form of expression feels like affection. You can assess your and your loved one’s style by going to Chapman’s website and clicking on the love language quiz.
Chapman isn’t talking about big things. It’s the little things—done spontaneously—that count. Neither is the famed marital counselor and researcher Dr. John Gottman. He recommends making small deposits of positivity to your relationship every day. The resulting balance of positive to negative will be so high that when trouble strikes—as it inevitably will—it feels less threatening and will be less disruptive. Recognize when your partner makes a bid, obvious or subtle, for your attention and respond to it in a positive way. Learn how to manage differences (we all have them) and fight well. Don’t withdraw physically or emotionally during a conflict and do your best to avoid being contemptuous, critical, or defensive during a conflict.
What are we talking about when we talk about spontaneous little things? Everyone’s different. That’s why you need to have this conversation with your mate. These examples illustrate the scope and scale of what Chapman and Gottman mean. Pick up the dry cleaning on your way home from work, cook his favorite breakfast, take a walk and don’t talk about your work, touch her on the shoulder as you walk past, pat his leg under the table. Chapman and Gottman are not talking about surprising your spouse with a cruise to Europe. The truth of the matter is, if you haven’t been doing the little things every day, a cruise won’t make up for what’s missing.