- Be clear. When we expect our partners to read our minds, we're often disappointed.
- Be encouraging. When you make a request, use a positive frame and build on past successes.
- See the good. Positivity breeds positivity in our relationships.
People have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be—not what you nag them to be. –Max Lucado
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s important to remember the ultimate aphrodisiac: clear, positive communication.
Perhaps you had your money on chocolate, lingerie, or a wildcard like oysters, but bear with me on this. I have an idea for how you can harness the power of emotional contagion and direct communication to give your love life a boost.
I’m fairly confident the results will exceed any oyster effects.
Avoid Mind Reading
Here’s the thing—we all have needs. While our partners can’t meet our every need or cater to our every whim, most loving partners want to please us and make us happy, to the extent they are able to.
Things tend to break down in the execution, often because we don’t make our needs or desires terribly clear. We expect our partners to come equipped with mind-reading capabilities (which rarely come standard, by the way), and we get angry or disappointed when their powers of telepathy miss the mark.
Do you ever find yourself thinking: "They should just know what I like/need/want!" or "They should know how this makes me feel!"?
John Gottman hit the nail on the head in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:
The problem is that the less clear you are about what you want, the less likely you are to get it.
We also have to accept the fact that emotional intelligence can differ between partners. Subtext and subtle cues that seem obvious to one of you may be lost on the other. If you're not able to navigate more nuanced communication in a way that works for both of you, you'll have to fill in more of the blanks. Ask yourself, is my partner being malicious right now, or simply oblivious?
Not clearly asking for help with the laundry might mean you don't get it. Same with a massage. Or the last piece of chocolate cake.
Frustration, disappointment, and resentment brew due to our inability to articulate what we need or want, and we typically blame our partners for that.
But, is it really fair to?
Offer a Positive Frame
Gottman created a simple formula to help us bring up issues or needs in our relationships. The format keeps things short and nondefensive by design, so our partners are more apt to hear what we really need and then understand what they can do to help.
It goes like this:
- I feel _________________________
- about (factually state the issue without judgment) _______________________.
- I need or would appreciate _________________________________.
Complaining you haven’t had sex in weeks or your partner never buys you nice gifts is not likely to win you friends or influence them. Ask for what you want, clearly, and frame it as a positive. Focus on how it will make you feel when the thing you want happens, so they really understand why it matters to you.
Example: “It would mean so much to me if you planned a Valentine’s date for us this year. I love the element of surprise, and you always come up with the coolest ideas!”
That goes over far better than complaining about how your partner planned nothing last year and how your best friend’s husband took her to Hawaii, or for dinner at Kona Grill.
Perhaps you want to have more sexual intimacy with your partner. Letting them know you find them attractive and desirable, explaining why that kind of intimacy is so special to you, and what makes you want it with them in particular will go a long way. Saying some lucky co-worker has a sex life on steroids and yours is on life support—not so much.
Give genuine compliments, be specific, and build on past successes.
When we learn to approach our partners in ways they can hear and receive better, we end up getting more of what we want and need in the process.
Use Emotional Contagion for Good
Our emotions can be contagious, a lot like colds and all the other crud we keep passing back and forth in our house lately. The trick is, with emotions, you can control what spreads.
When negativity is pervasive, it gets hard to stay upbeat. The more positive energy we put in, the more we affirm our partners and compliment and treasure them; that’s what spreads and multiplies.
It’s easy to get stuck in cycles of criticism and defensiveness and replay those tapes each day. Making a deliberate effort to see the good in your partner, to believe they are doing their best, and to otherwise give them the benefit of the doubt can transform your relationship in a hurry.
Gottman calls this a positive sentiment override. The more positives we have swirling around our relationship, the more apt we are to let the little things slide and focus on all that’s good. We feel grateful for our partners and eager to please them, help them, and spend time with them.
Positivity breeds positivity.
If you’ve got big aspirations for Valentine’s Day, your birthday, an anniversary, or anything really, share those plans, ideas, and hopes with excitement. Invite your partner into them. Let them know how they can help, or be the hero, and they are likely to rise to that level (or at least move more in that direction).
When we trade nagging for encouragement and blaming for appreciation, and focus on the good that’s right in front of us, the positives in the relationship go viral.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony Books.
Lucado, M. (2019). How happiness happens. Thomas Nelson.