Two people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. This seems to be the widely held notion of love that society likes to propagate via film, music, social norms, and even social media. In reality relationships, romantic or otherwise, can have various cycles including the highs and lows of interacting with people we are close to. Relationships take intentional work to make them as satisfying as possible for everyone involved.
If you’ve ever thought, “This is not worth it!” “This is too much work!” “Why do I even bother?” or felt frustrated, neglected, angry, or confused by your relationships there are some things you can do to improve intimacy and help you address any potential tensions with your loved ones. I will use the acronym L.O.V.E. Listen, Observe, Validate, Empathize to help you remember four ways you can express affection and tune in to your loved ones relational needs and wants.
Communication is key. Listen to what your partner says.
Make sure to really listen not just hear what your partner says. Hearing can be more of a physiological activity, like when we hear background conversations. Listening involves actively attending to what you hear and paying attention to the details that are being shared. For example, if you are more preoccupied with your to do list than with paying attention to what your partner is saying then you are not really listening. Your partner will sooner or later realize that you are not listening and may react with anger, frustration, or resentment. He or she may feel reduced to an object, like a television or radio, that is kept on at all times as background noise but that is tuned out most of the time. When partners feel tuned out they often feel unappreciated and unimportant. Listening may involve scheduling specific daily and weekly times during which you can catch up with your partner without interruptions or distractions. The goal is to have a time when both partners can be fully present and attentive to each other.
Notice patterns in your dynamics with your loved ones. Observe their reactions during different situations.
Does your partner, friend, or relative, tend to become agitated when stressed? Observing reactions allows people to stop potentially maladaptive cycles before they become a recurring concern in their relationships. For example, if your loved ones are agitated when stressed it may be best to wait to have important conversations after they met any important deadlines they may have. The caveat here is to learn the difference between what is a priority and what is urgent in your loved ones lives. For most people their loved ones are a priority but certain work, academic, and other deadlines can be urgent. Observing your dynamics and being flexible when possible can do wonders to improve intimacy.
It is equally as important to observe what is helpful to your loved ones. We may assume that asking how a specific project is going is helpful and shows that we are invested in and aware of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives when in fact what they may really want is a nice meal. It is essential to know that what works for us may not work for others which emphasizes the importance of observing each person’s reactions and learning what works best for them.
Acknowledge your partner’s experiences.
Validating does not mean you agree with everything but it involves being open to acknowledging your partner’s perspectives. For example, instead of offering a potential alternative to explain your partner’s distress focus on actively listening to what is distressing them. Instead of making invalidating comments such as “You’re just being sensitive!” “You’re so emotional!” “Suck it up!” or “Get over it!” focus on noticing what is making you think or say those things; are you uncomfortable with emotions? Some people’s discomfort with emotions leads them to ignore their own emotions and dismiss their partner’s emotions creating an invalidating effect in themselves and their partners.
The instinct may be to invalidate experiences but acknowledging your own discomfort or ambivalence on how to respond can be more validating than you think. Instead of “You’re being too sensitive!” or “Get over it!” responses like “I'm sorry you are having a hard time” “Let me know what I can do to help” “I’m not sure how to respond but I want to be there for you” can communicate to your partner that you acknowledge his or her experiences.
Empathize with your loved ones’ feelings.
Empathize does not mean you know exactly what your loved ones are feeling but rather you are willing to understand where their emotions are coming from and be there for them when they express them if this is what they want. It does not mean you are “throwing a pity party” for them or helping them “complain” or “focus on the negatives of life;” rather you are creating a shared space for both of you to be emotionally available and supportive of each other.
L.O.V.E IS THE FOUNDATION
In summary, to love involves Listening, Observing, Validating, and Empathizing with our loves ones. Each person contributes their own perspectives and reactions to the relationship dynamics and each person can improve the relationship by learning to express affection in manners that communicate that they are present with their loved ones. Being present means actively listening, observing, validating, and empathizing with your loved ones. If you feel you can improve in any of these areas consider counseling to help you learn more about yourself and your relationships.