The Most Important Thing You Can Say to Your Partner
It’s not “meet my needs.”
Posted Apr 08, 2018
One of the worst things we can do for the health of a relationship is to pretend that we know how to make intimate unions work. Under that illusion, we’re likely to conclude that our partners are unable or unwilling to do what we “know” would make our relationships succeed. It’s an illusion that comes from the Toddler brain — the limbic area of feelings and impulses, fully myelinated by age 3. In the Toddler brain, we’re likely to give what we want to give, rather than what our partners want to receive, like the toddler who offers you candy when you’re hungry for sirloin.
In reality, there’s no way that any of us could know how to make modern intimate relationships work. Biology has not prepared us for love’s special challenges in our rapidly changing culture. Tradition is hopelessly outdated; the old socialized roles and norms have broken down almost completely. And pop psychology gives little more than platitudes, or oversimplified and contradictory advice, or “communication techniques” that are so unnatural you’ll just end up resenting each other for failing to do them consistently.
Let’s here and now relieve ourselves of the awful burden of having to defend an ego that’s unrealistically inflated when it comes to love relationships. Repeat the following out loud at least three times, or until you feel a sense of relief:
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to making a modern intimate relationship work!”
Now that you no longer have to defend egotistical preconceptions of how relationships should be, you’re free to learn how to love the unique person with whom you want to share your life. The most loving thing you can say to your partner is:
"Teach me how to love you, and I will teach you how to love me.”
The simple formula below will almost certainly improve your relationship:
- Ask your partner: What can I do to make you feel loved? Write down the response. (Example: Surprise me now and then with flowers.)
- Assuming that your partner responds with something you can do, say: This will make it easier for me to do what will make you feel loved. (Example: Show me that you’re pleased with the flowers when I bring them.) In the Toddler brain under stress, we actually make it hard for our partners to love us, just like toddlers, though adorable most of the time, are a bit harder to love during a temper tantrum.
- Compile a list of things your partner would like you to do to make him or her feel loved, along with what your partner can do to make it easier for you to do those things.
- Tell your partner: I feel loved when you... (Example: Greet me with a hug when I come home.) How can I make it easier for you to do this? Write your partner’s response. (Example: Show appreciation when you hug me.) Compile a list of things you would like your partner to do to make you feel loved and what you can do to make it easier for him/her to do those things.
If your relationship has been dominated by the Toddler brain (where all of your arguments can be reduced to the toddler’s two favorite words: “Mine!” and “No!”), the level of automatic reactivity between you won’t disappear overnight. It takes about six weeks of practice to develop Adult brain habits of improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting whenever you feel the urge to blame, deny, or avoid.
Your best chance of getting the relationship you both want is for each of you to commit to change unilaterally, regardless of whether you feel that your partner is changing. This will give you room to recover from lapses while developing new habits. Stand up and read the following resolution out loud; we tend to be more committed to declarations we make out loud while standing.
For the next six weeks, I will unconditionally:
- Make an effort to see you and hear you.
- Make an effort to help you be well.
- Appreciate your contributions to my life.
- Regard your desires and preferences as equal to mine.
- Make behavior requests from my core value, that is, respectfully, without devaluing you.
- Acknowledge your efforts to improve.
- Create reasons to be happy.
- Try to maintain compassion and kindness when you slip into Toddler brain habits.
- Try to feel closer and more connected.
- Try to feel sexier.
- ... and if I slip into Toddler brain habits, I’ll try hard to recover and repair as quickly as I am able.
If you consistently do the above for 30 days, you’ll likely achieve an empowered love, based on your deeper values and desires rather than temporary feelings and perceived “needs.”