We're all familiar with the complaint that Valentine's Day has taken on too much of a material focus. And looking at it objectively, it's pretty silly to assume that our feelings can be sized up in a dozen roses or a fleet of pink balloons. Yet, cards and chocolates aside, this heart-filled holiday is for many people, an excuse to take time to feel their loving feelings for their partner. A lot of couples seize the opportunity to table their respective issues and really appreciate the person they're with. Research demonstrates that gratitude helps couples by prompting a cycle of generosity. It's an occasion to exercise patience, humor, passion, and kindness. So the real question is, why limit these actions to a certain day of the year, be it a birthday, an anniversary, or Valentine's Day? How can we learn to express love on a daily basis in a way that is uniquely sensitive to our partner? What patterns should we avoid that take away from our romantic feelings?
Don't Be Selfish in What You Give
One problem with Valentine's Day is that it tends to center on the "form" of love over its real "substance." The focus on dinner reservations can distract us from what really matters. A lighthearted valentine can leave us questioning how much our partner loves us. Without even realizing it, the thoughts and activities we engage in on a day like Valentine's Day can become more about us than our partner. We may, for example, get sidetracked planning what we perceive as the ideal date instead of thinking about what would really make our partner happy and bring us closer.
A friend of mine once spent a whole week organizing a surprise for her husband. In the evenings, she scoured the Internet for clever ideas and then snuck away to make arrangements for every detail of an all-day romantic getaway. During this time, she sensed her husband's frustration at not being able to get her attention, but she brushed it off thinking, "just wait til he sees what I've planned." After finally executing her carefully crafted itinerary, rushing her husband from wine tastings to restaurants, the couple returned home and slumped onto the couch exhausted. As she leaned her head on his shoulder, he told her, "This is my favorite part of this day. You know, I would have been happy with just this." Although, her plans were well-intended, my friend realized that her all-day excursion had more to do with her idea of a perfect day. If she'd really wanted to celebrate their love, she would have arranged something much more intimate and personal that more accurately reflected both of their interests. She wouldn't have wasted days getting distracted from her ultimate goal - to share a close time with her husband.
Take Actions Your Partner Experiences as Loving
When showing love to our partner, it's important to take actions that they would perceive as loving. Think about what really lights them up, and offer something that reflects their passions and interests. When we appreciate our partner for the person they are, separate from ourselves, we not only support their happiness, but we strengthen our own feelings of affection. Conversely, when we start to merge identities, forming a "fantasy bond," we lose track of the boundaries between us and our partners. By viewing our partner as an extension of ourselves, we run the risk of losing respect for them and tend to be more disregarding of their feelings.
A client of mine used to complain that he'd "fallen out of love" with his girlfriend, who he felt had "somehow lost her spark." Ever since they met, they spent almost every minute together. At his insistence, she stopped working in order to stay close to him. Eventually, he started to grow cynical toward her, even feeling critical of her for little things he used to admire. When she was away from him, he felt abandoned. In therapy, he recognized how his attempts to control, combined with her subservience, had diminished their attraction to each other. The woman he'd fallen in love with was independent, self-sufficient, and opinionated. Yet, over time, he'd started to view her as a part of himself, and she had given up her independence, not saying what she wanted or stating her point of view.
By recognizing these patterns and behaviors, the couple was able to re-establish their own separate sense of identity. Taking the action of stepping back and respecting one another as independent individuals enabled them to start experiencing their excited and loving feelings for each other again. They were, once again, able to express genuine appreciation for each other's unique attributes.
Another deadening effect on a relationship results from falling into routine. One reason Valentine's Day tends to be so romantic is that we think outside the box and break our usual habits. Anything from going out to dinner to planning a short trip can enliven us. When we are open to new experiences, we resist the lure of doing what's familiar, therefore losing our spontaneity. Make sure to take time to engage in activities that make your partner happy. When we refuse to limit our partner's interests, and instead, are open to engaging in one of his or her favorite activities, we expand our world, rather than making it smaller. Plus, when we don't place unnecessary restrictions on one another, we are much less likely to grow resentful in our relationships.
Challenge Your Defenses
Everyone of us possesses certain psychological adaptations or "defenses" that may make us feel safe, but that often inhibit us from taking risks in our relationships. Our defenses were formed from a young age, as we adapted to any less than ideal interpersonal conditions of our childhood. For example, if we lived with emotionally erratic parents, we may have grown up feeling we can't trust people and warding off any close involvement. If we were raised with the feeling that we were never good enough, we may resist taking chances as adults or act on insecurities in our relationships.
As children, we often learn that wanting is bad. In adulthood, this may manifest in an intimate relationship by us not expressing what we want or need directly. It may make us tone down our behavior and not act excited to see our partner or shy away from sharing a close experience with them. When we learn to recognize our defensive adaptations that are negatively impacting our lives today, we can start to break from them. We can decide how we want to be in our relationship and set goals for ourselves. We can engage in acts that are loving without falling into old destructive patterns that hold us back from staying close to our partner.
Ironically, when we engage in loving acts, we are the ones who benefit most. We can't experience first-hand a person's feelings toward us. We can only experience our feelings for them. In January, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson released a new book titled Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. In the book, she defines love as a "micro-moment of positivity resonance," a feeling that can be felt in an instant and in an array of circumstances. She describes various scientific findings that support the mental and physical benefits of experiencing these moments, with love acting as a sort of "nutrient" contributing to one's well being.
When we think of love as a moment-to-moment state-of-being that lifts our spirits and lengthens our lives, it likely becomes our immediate goal to experience more of these moments. We can do this by taking actions in our own lives that are loving and avoiding those that are self-protective. This Valentine's Day, I encourage partners to decide what patterns, adaptations, or defenses they want to challenge in themselves in order to guarantee a more romantic year ahead. This is a gift your partner will really benefit from and, most importantly, that will help you develop your ability to love.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on Relationships at PsychAlive.org
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone May 12-17 for the weeklong workshop "Making Love Last by Learning to Love" at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. Learn more here