I am sitting here trying to come up with a blog for February. The alleged month of love. Such a load of BS. Mostly because well...as a couples therapist, and partner I know love ideally is expressed on a daily basis - not on one commercially created day a year. Even more so as a feminist, I struggle with (St.) Valentine’s Day as the origins date back to the pairing off of women for fertility rites, is a day now synonymous with romance.
Performance anxiety, anyone?!
So - out the window with the rosy-cheeked cherubs, chalk-flavoured candy hearts, and anxiety-producing expectations. Let’s talk about real Love. REAL, authentic, I don’t-like-you-right-now but I love you Love.
Some tips for fostering an authentic connection:
Always be pursuing your partner.
I like to suggest that there is always competition out there - this isn’t to make anyone feel jealous or insecure. However, it is to avoid taking for granted or taking advantage of a person. If your partner does not treat you in a way you deserve or have expressed a desire for, look for someone else. And I would say the same to them.
Love is not always easy.
Sometimes I have to set a reminder to ask my husband how his doctor’s appointment went. Or make a conscious effort to be mentally present after a busy or stressful day. This is the work part of a relationship. I also keep a list in my phone of tokens of appreciation, both physical and emotional, (think chocolate surprises or words of affirmation) that I have solicited from him so that I can refer to my list and use it as needed - to express my appreciation to him. Is this “romantic”? I wouldn’t say particularly so - but does it help me express what I need to when I need to?
Love hack for the win.
Look for opportunities from your partner to connect.
John Gottman, (the Relationship Guru) calls these opportunities “bids”. These bids are essentially fundamental units of emotional connection AKA requests to connect. When your person tells you how their day was, shares a funny/sad/mad story, engages in physical touch or even does something silly and jokey that drives you absolutely bonkers, this is what is happening. They are looking to connect with you. And need you to respond appropriately. The difficult part is that this can be so subtle you don’t even notice it - because it is about vulnerability - they are essentially whispering Pssst. Hey...psst...pay attention to me….Not shouting it out loud because you know, what if you miss the bid? The crashing feeling of rejection abounds.
Watching out for and leaning into these bids creates the opportunity to attune to your partner - to develop trust, connection, even passion or intimacy.
Check-in with your partner - often.
But not often enough that you dread it. When you check-in, I urge the following prompting questions:
Now, remember, this is going to be uncomfortable. First of all, it’s feeling related. Secondly, what if you or your partner are missing each other’s needs?! Eek. Use this as an opportunity to reconnect, relearn, or even, release.
How do we know when things need work?
John Gottman, aforementioned relationship guru, uses real science-y shit to figure out relationships and where and how they go south. He can predict divorce in over 90% of the couples he's studied.
His top six predictors of the demise of relationships, in no particular order, are;
1. A harsh start-up - when a discussion starts with either sarcasm or criticism (or any others of the Four Horsemen). Gottman is able to predict how a discussion will end in the first 3 minutes with a 96% success rate. See? Science. It’s amazing.
2. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These four deserve their very own blog. This post from the Gottman Institute does an excellent job at explaining them.
3. Body Language - increased heart rate, increased blood pressure nevermind the physical displays of eye-rolling, turning away, folded arms, distressed facial expressions. The sighs.
4. Flooding - an invasion of shitty feelings due to things your partner says to you or how they respond to you i.e. negatively or defensively.
5. Bad Memories - are there fond memories of coming together? Were there difficult times gone through together? Feelings of success and pride at overcoming hardships contribute to positive memories.
6. Failed Repair Attempts - it isn’t the fighting that causes a disconnect. It is the attempts at repair - or attempts to deescalate the situation, and how they are perceived, and if they succeed. If you are in conflict with your partner and they lovingly take hold of your hands, look you in the eyes and apologize or tell you that they love you and want to restart the conversation - how are you likely to respond? That is a repair attempt. If you blow them off - it is a failed repair attempt. They likely will attempt to repair less and less if they continue to receive the same negative response or reaction. It is just behaviourism. You probably wouldn’t keep going to work for long if they stopped paying you. You know what I mean?
What do I observe most frequently?
I would have to say the Four Horsemen, a harsh start-up and flooding - these seem to happen concurrently or simultaneously. Partner A decides to bring up an issue or concern they have - it feels like a criticism to Partner B (hell, maybe it even is) - who then is flooded with the overwhelming and negative feelings. Partner B may then respond in turn with their own criticism, defensiveness or even stonewalling. The negative feedback loop continues and everyone is on the merry-go-round to Divorce Town. Or at least Anger and Resentment Village.
There are so many ways to look at love, how to be successful in love, and how to talk about it. Did you know there are over 100 000 books on Amazon written about love? The category of relationships has over 200 000 listed. Alternatively, divorce only has 50 000. Is that a good sign? I think it depends on what side you're on.
If you found this worrisome - please find a qualified Marriage Counsellor, Relationship Therapist, or Couples Counsellor, whatever we call ourselves, to help you to navigate the relationship. An objective third-party can be a positive partner to decipher the actions and behaviours while translating the feelings underneath. All in the hopes of bringing you together for a common goal. If, staying together is the goal. Couples counselling can be difficult as it requires both parties to put forth the effort, work and it is often uncomfortable. It may even feel worse before it feels better. But it is a safe place where both can express and learn, and it is never too early, only too late.
My husband was my best friend for 10 years before we started dating. We are not each other’s first loves, but hopefully the last. Sometimes it is effort and pain, sometimes it is glorious and easy. Always, it is worth it.
Amanda Hammond is a Registered Psychotherapist, Certified Addiction Counsellor and Registered Social Service Worker. She has over 17 years of experience and specializes in supporting women, substance use and couples counselling - not in any particular order. Amanda is trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy, Adult Attachment and the Gottman Method - all of which can be successful for relationship counselling.