There is always a lot going on between two people in a relationship. But very often, much of what goes wrong in a relationship has to do with what's going on in our own minds. Most of us have a constant dialogue running in our heads, analyzing our relationship and informing us on how to behave. Instead of simply acting based on how we feel, we are advised by our "critical inner voice": "Don't be a fool." "Don't let her know how much you like her." "Don't tell him what you're really thinking." Although these thoughts may seem self-protective, they're actually self-sabotaging.
While it may sometimes feel like we have to outsmart our feelings so as not to get hurt, when it comes to our relationships, we are far better off being vulnerable, making a practice of being the one who loves more. Throughout our lives, the only people we can fully change or develop is ourselves. We can strive to be the best we can be at expressing love. And when we do, we give ourselves a better chance of getting what we want.
As we get close to someone, we must not listen to the critical inner voice that warns us not to "be a sucker" or "love too much." This doesn't mean choosing someone who doesn't love us at all or staying with someone who mistreats us. Rather, the goal is to develop into a giving person, a loving person. It's a worthy pursuit to learn to do extra things and go the extra mile to show love. Here are five tips on how to be more loving in your relationship:
1) Communicate what you feel. People often make a big deal of who says "I love you" first. Many people feel shy or foolish to be the first to admit their feelings. It's scary to take the plunge and tell someone how you feel, but it is also the only way for your relationship to survive. When we take the advice of our "critical inner voice" telling us not to trust or open up, we deny our partner a chance at really knowing us. We also deny ourselves many opportunities to get closer and get what we want. Make sure to say how you feel, rather than trying to temper or hide it. Avoid playing games or over-analyzing your partner's communication. Instead, think about how they make you feel and let them know how you feel toward them. There is always a chance you will get hurt or rejected when you put yourself out there, but it is still worth it for your own sake to take risks and let people know you for who you are.
2) Avoid the "tit for tat" mentality. Couples often get into trouble when they start quantifying what they do for each other. If you find yourself thinking or saying "I will only do this if you do that," you may be forming an unhealthy habit. Pretty soon, you might find yourself thinking, "Why should I clean the bedroom? He never lifts a finger!" or "Why should I be the one to go toward her and be affectionate? She always acts too busy for me anyway." Instead of thinking about what you'll get in return, try to be selfless in your giving. In other words, commit to acts of kindness with no strings attached. When you do this, it doesn't just make your partner feel loved; it makes you feel good. Plus, it leads to a cycle of openness and exchange between you and your partner, instead of promoting a posture of defensiveness, in which both of you won't budge for fear that the other will let them down.
3) Be sure to support and participate in the things that excite and interest your partner, that light your partner up. If he or she loves to hike, take time to experience this passion alongside your partner. Encourage them to pursue their interests and the things that give their lives joy and meaning. You can expand your own world by being open to another person's. This doesn't mean sacrificing your own interests or giving up what makes you happy. It just means staying open to trying new things, so that your world is always expanding instead of getting smaller, which is a risk in many relationships.
4) Take actions your partner would perceive as loving. Quite often, our acts of kindness tend to take place on our own time or within our own parameters. In other words, we might do things for our partner that suit us then feel hurt when our partner doesn't react the way we want them to. Maybe taking them out or buying them presents is something you consider worthwhile, but is it something that your partner values? Perhaps he or she would rather just spend a night at home, curled up next to you and watching a movie? Even a simple act, like picking up something they need at the drugstore or offering to make dinner, can be true expressions of love to the people close to us. When we consider what matters to them and respond accordingly, we show love and consideration that goes beyond ourselves.
5) Don't become closed off. Often, when relationships get closer, we have the tendency to create a protective distance by slowly shutting down or closing ourselves off more and more to our partner. We may start to get cynical toward them, honing in on little traits that we don't like. We may start building a case, piling up every mistake they make until we've formed a wall between us and them. Hardening ourselves to our partner can be a defense against being too vulnerable or loving. When we love someone, we are more susceptible to fears of losing them or the life we are accustomed to. It is better to face these "fears of intimacy" than to turn against our relationship. We should fight to maintain our feelings of love, even when it is frightening to do so.
No matter what, we can only feel our own feelings. Being loving is the best thing we can do for our own well-being, because it allows us to feel genuinely good about ourselves. It is a skill that benefits us in all of our relationships, with our friends and our children as well as our romantic partners. Plus, when we expand our own ability to be loving, we actually grow our capacity to be loved. It opens us up to new possibilities, while allowing us to feel a consistent sense of honesty and integrity within ourselves.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.