In working with couples for over four decades, I have rarely heard intimate partners ask each other what they could do or say that would make the other feel more loved. I’m much more likely to hear self-serving statements like: “Why don’t you just remember what makes me happy?” “No matter what I do for you, it’s just never enough.” “You just never get me, do you?” “Why is it always about you? Don’t you ever want to know what I want?” “Why do you keep hurting me this way? Don’t you even care?”
Why is it that people, who once cared deeply for one another, seem so intent on getting their own needs met, and no longer interested in how they can love their partners more successfully? Why do long-term committed couples, who once seemed to care about the other’s deeper feelings and thoughts, become partners who are content to know each other by old assumptions and observations?
If you are an intimate partner who hasn’t kept up to date on your significant other’s internal feelings and thoughts, you are not alone. Many people become lazy in long-term relationships and just adjust and adapt to things as they are, forgetting that successful relationships depend and thrive upon continual regeneration. People get too easily caught up in other life priorities, assuming that if something is important, it will somehow find its way to the surface.
If they have made a practice of avoiding searching for each other’s more vulnerable inner worlds, many intimate partners, instead, engage in repetitive, negative interactions that they seem unable to adequately resolve. In my working with them, it quickly becomes apparent that they are unable to do so because they have either never shared some of their deeper thoughts and feelings with their partners, or buried them because they created a threat to the relationship.
When I observe those kinds of limited or superficial interactions in their therapy sessions, I'm reasonable certain they have done exactly that. Without either never have known each other’s deeper fears, traumas, and vulnerabilities, never have known them, or forgotten them, they are unable to go beyond what they have practiced.
If they are willing to re-open a genuine exploration of what they may have missed in the past, suppressed, or are currently ignorant of, I can take them to a place of a more genuine connection and re-open their hearts to a deeper and more alive connection.
I’ve designed an exercise that will get them there. It’s called “How Can I Make You Feel Better Loved by Me?” It is in two parts. The first has each partner asking a series of two sets of unique questions designed to identify his or her past or current hidden fallibilities, wishes, vulnerabilities and genuine wishes. It gives the listening partner needed information he or she needs to restart, rehabilitate, and regenerate their love for the other.
The second part is when the partner who has written down the answers to those questions, shares them with his or her partner. The partner listening does not comment, but simply listens with compassion and interest, even if they are surprised, defensive, or emotionally moved.
If you are ready and willing to challenge your own relationship limitations, I invite you to try this exercise together.
How Can I Make You Feel Better Loved by Me?
One partner will ask the two sets of questions in order. The first set of questions uncovers words and actions that can help that partner feel more deeply known, safe, and cherished. The second set of questions brings forth any words or actions that may hurt, offend, or distance that partner. The partner being asked silently writes down the answers to both sets of questions, one at a time, but does not share those answers during this part of the exercise.
The listening partner does not comment or interrupt. He or she is there just to take the information, to listen with compassion, and to more deeply understand what the other person feels and thinks.
At the end of the first set of questions, the partner answering them then reads the answers aloud and the inquirer listens but does not comment.
The couple then sits quietly for a short while to let the new information sink in while keeping their hearts open to each other. Without any more exchange, the second set of questions is asked and the same procedure follows.
The couple decides who should go first and they then alternate the exercise.
Section One Questions – Words and phrases that soften and heal
Whether from childhood, media experiences, fantasies, or past relationships, every man and woman know some of the words, phrases, or behaviors that would melt their hearts. Though many of them may be easy to know and share, others may be harder to access, especially if they’ve been hidden by traumas from the past. Some may even be embarrassing to share, especially out loud or expressed for the first time. The answers will also be strongly influenced by voice intonation, body language, facial expressions, rhythm, timing, and touch.
If you are the first person to start answering the questions, you will respond by writing the answers down on paper after your partner asks you each of them. If there are specific past experiences that come up when you think of them, jot them down as well. When you share these with your partner later, they will help him or her understand you better.
If you are the listener, you will be simultaneously listening to what your partner is telling you from the past while imagining whether what he or she is sharing is taking place in your current relationship as well.
1. Think of someone from your childhood with whom you felt safe and cherished. Can you remember the sound of that person’s voice, and the words he or she used that gave you those wonderful feelings?
2. What kinds of words or touch help you the most when you are already feeling badly about something you’ve done?
3. When you are feeling insecure or shaky about your own value, what phrases could I utter that helps you feel better about yourself?
4. What is the best way I can respond when you are irritated or upset that would help quiet your distress?
5. When you feel depressed or pulled in, what is the best way I could respond that would help you to feel better?
6. When you are distressed but can’t understand why, what would be the best way for one to respond?
7. When you need something but are afraid to ask, how can I make that easier for you?
8. What are the words, phrases, or behaviors that you see in others that would melt your heart were they to come from me instead? In what kinds of circumstances do they occur?
9. If you are angry or hurt at me, what is the best way for me to help you to sort through your feelings and thoughts?
Section Two Questions – Words, Phrases, or Behaviors that hurt or distance
All of us have been hurt or betrayed in some way in our lives. Sometimes those experiences leave traumatic scars or trigger-quick negative responses that we may not even see coming. If we haven’t shared those with our partner, he or she can misunderstand the severity of a past experience, and may inadvertently respond incorrectly. Even though it might not, in any way, be appropriate to your current relationship, the person re-experiencing the trauma may feel as if it is again happening in the present.
Past traumas are not always easy to share, but if they are tap roots that could damage or destroy your current relationship, your partner can only help you if he or she knows what they are. Also, certain words, phrases, or actions are easy to misinterpret if the partners come from different backgrounds. When a partner is sharing a painful or embarrassing thought or feeling, he or she is often overly sensitive or vulnerable. If they are not interpreted correctly, they can be hurtful when not meant to be. That is why silent and compassionate responses are important.
Following are the questions that tap those potentially painful places. Again, if you are the speaker, write the answers down. Try to include any memories you have of when those experiences occurred and how they caused you distress.
Again, as the listener, you may become aware that you have inadvertently or unknowingly said or done some of the things your partner will share with you. Though that may be painful to hear and realize, do not tell your partner at this time.
1. What are any traumatic experiences that have happened in your life that have left heartbreak scars, and the words and actions that accompanied them?
2. What are some of the words or actions that I might say that can make you feel defensive or badly about yourself?
3. Were there any words or phrases that people called you in your childhood that labeled you in ways you felt misunderstood, mocked, or invalidated?
4. What words or actions have undermined your self-love and self-confidence?
5. Are there any words or actions that have been particularly offensive or painful to you?
6. Where have you felt the most misunderstood and unfairly defined in our relationship and what would you have preferred?
7. If there was anything I could change to make you feel more comfortable and more beloved in our relationship, what would that be?
8. When I am angry, upset, or don’t like what you’re doing, what is the best way I can express my feelings to you without setting off your need to defend or counter-punch?
9. What are the words and actions of mine that are the most consistently hurtful or dismissive of you?
This exercise is not easy, but deeply moving for most people. In the process of sharing these experiences, vulnerabilities, and open desires, intimate partners become accountable to each other in a whole new way. They now have information that honestly tells them when their partners feel loved and when they feel damaged. Any future words or actions must then take those new learnings into account. In other words, neither partner can feign ignorance once they know what is true.
That new knowledge, of course, cannot guarantee that both partners will always be able to remember or act on it. But it helps them to take responsibility when they cannot, and to keep from blaming the other when they slip. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” becomes “I knew that might hurt, but I wasn’t yet able to keep from saying or doing it, and I’m so sorry.” Or, “I knew that saying something different would really help, but I was too upset myself to give that to you in that moment.” The answers might not feel good, but the interaction does not blame either partner.
It is so much easier for a couple to be on the same team when both are willing to work on these changes together. When they are successful in coming together, they become more confident in knowing how to accurately love each other in a whole new way.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com