Love: What Really Matters

A loving relationship can be an oasis in uncertain times. Nurturing it requires attention, honesty, openness, vulnerability, and gratitude. Here's a guide to important facets of intimacy.

By Psychology Today Contributors, published August 19, 2020 - last reviewed on September 1, 2020

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Fundamentals of a Strong Relationship

by Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.

Good relationships aren’t optional, and they aren’t what we do after we take care of everything else. Good relationships can determine who lives and who dies: One meta-analysis found that social relationships were more predictive of warding off mortality than quitting smoking or exercising. But it wasn’t just the presence of other people that mattered, it was the presence of supportive others—toxic relationships may be worse than no relationship at all.  

In uncertain times, relationships matter even more. When the world is chaotic , we turn to our partners for security and stability. In a clever series of studies, Sandra Murray of the University at Buffalo and her colleagues found that on days when Google searches for terms like "terrorism," “recession,” “global warming,” “racism,” and “protest” were high in people’s zip codes, they were more likely to turn toward their closest relationships to satisfy their need for security, acceptance, and love. The world is certainly uncertain right now. A global pandemic, economic recession, and sociopolitical turmoil have been heaped onto all of our usual problems. But times of uncertainty can also represent opportunities for growth. Forced out of our usual routines, we can reassess and remember what is important. With global uncertainty, investing more in our relationships is a safe, practical, and healthy choice. We need love now, more than ever.

So how do we do it? First, we need to be open and honest with the people we care about. We need to share our thoughts and feelings with them. We need to ask for their support rather than always trying to go it alone. And we need to tell them what we appreciate about them.

Second, we need to be there for our partners. We need to listen and acknowledge what they are feeling. We need to provide support for them in both good times and in bad. We need to do it in ways that are helpful. And we need to allow ourselves to feel appreciated by them.

Third, we need to give each other a break. No one gets it right every time. We need to forgive the small grievances. We need to let it go when the other person makes a mistake. And we need to promise to learn from our own mistakes and try to do better next time.

To achieve this, we can start with a simple step: paying attention to each other again. Eminent relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman have tracked couples for decades, and one of their key findings is that partners make bids for each other’s attention. These bids can be small, like sharing an anecdote from the day or a gentle touch on the way past each other. Or they can be big, like asking for help solving a work problem or requesting a weekend away together. These bids go into an emotional savings account and add up to define a relationship’s bottom line. Are we reaching out to our partners throughout the day? Are we responding to their bids? Or have we stopped paying attention to each other? Couples who are thriving create and respond to these bids, and these small investments add up and help them overcome harder times. But couples who are struggling tend to ignore them.

A demanding world makes investing in our relationships—taking the time to talk and listen and to create and respond to bids—all the more difficult. Whether we are juggling work and family demands or stuck at home in the midst of a quarantine, stress, lack of sleep, and other outside forces can make it difficult to be the best partner we can be. We’re quicker to start a fight over an empty milk carton in the fridge or to see our partner’s late night at the desk as an insult.

Researchers haven’t figured out yet how to prevent outside forces from affecting relationships, but being aware of their presence, creating rules to minimize their influence, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt are helpful steps in the right direction. When I was a sleep-deprived new mother who kept starting late-night fights, I finally made a rule for myself not to bring up any contentious topics after dinner. Six years later, I still regret it any time I break that rule.

Many of us spent the spring at home with our families. My colleagues and I surveyed nearly 2,000 people to ask how sheltering in place had changed their relationships. Not surprisingly, couples reported that they’d become more irritated with each other. But many also reported that they were spending more quality time together and were, overall, more satisfied with their relationships: The busyness of everyday life had been somewhat stripped away, allowing them to truly be together again. People told us about exercising and cooking together and starting new hobbies. They were doing activities they hadn’t thought about before, or that they never felt they’d have time to try.

I’m curious to see how these couples are doing when we follow up with them this fall. Will they have made a lasting change to how they live their lives together? For better and worse, we adapt quickly to new situations. This means that even pandemic life soon becomes normal to us, but it also means we are likely to fall back into our old habits once life resumes its hectic pace. To fight this, we must make a new habit of paying attention. We can do this by asking ourselves each night: Did I pay attention today? Did I talk to my partner and say what I was thinking? Did I listen when my partner was talking? I urge us all to try it for a week and see what happens.

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches interpersonal relatinships and well-being.

Boyoun Kim, used with permission.
Boyoun Kim, used with permission.

Why Gratitude Leads to Sexual Fulfillment

by Mark Travers, Ph.D.

Expressions of gratitude have been shown to have numerous psychological and physical benefits. One study found that keeping a gratitude journal improved diastolic blood pressure. Another found that focusing on things to be grateful about before bed each night increased pre-sleep calmness. Now, new research suggests there is a connection between gratitude and sexual satisfaction in committed relationships.

For a study in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, a team led by psychologist Ashlyn Brady of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that more-frequent expressions of gratitude increased couples’ sexual satisfaction by improving the emotional connection they experienced in their relationships.

“Over the course of a relationship, most couples experience declines in sexual, and thus relational, satisfaction,” the team posited. “We predicted that gratitude would increase ‘sexual communal strength’—the extent to which people are motivated to be responsive to their partner’s sexual needs—because gratitude motivates partners to maintain close relationships.”

The researchers asked 118 couples to report the level of gratitude they expressed and received, as well as their degree of sexual satisfaction, over a 21-day period. Three months later, when the team had the couples complete the same measures again, they found that changes in gratitude were closely associated with changes in sexual satisfaction. In other words, people were sexually satisfied to the extent that they and their partner expressed and received a high degree of gratitude.

These findings, the research team believes, could help therapists design more effective interventions for couples experiencing sexual difficulties. “Practitioners have often sought to identify ways in which couples can maintain, or even improve, sexual satisfaction. The current results suggest that gratitude may be a promising method for achieving that goal,” they concluded. “These studies suggest that experiencing and receiving gratitude increased the motivation to meet a partner’s sexual needs.”

Mark Travers, Ph.D., is a psychologist, researcher, and writer.

Jumbo Tsui/Trunk Archive
Jumbo Tsui/Trunk Archive

Let Your Partner Be There for You

by Mark D. White, Ph.D.

We generally should not lie to our partners, but most people would agree that some lies are worse than others. Self-serving lies told to cover up an affair, for example, compound a betrayal with deception, prioritizing the cheater’s interests over the partner’s and denying the latter the respect he or she deserves.

So-called benevolent lies are a different matter. But there is a class of benevolent lies that, however well-intentioned, can be corrosive to a relationship: lies told to withhold or disguise what partners truly need.

Suppose Harold and Sally have been married for 10 years, and fairly happily, but recently each has been dealing with different personal issues. Sally suffered medical problems that caused changes in her body she fears have made her less attractive to her husband. Harold has been arguing with his brother about their parents’ long-term care, which has dredged up some emotional issues from his past and eroded his self-confidence.

Harold’s problems have caused him to withdraw from Sally physically exactly when she needs his attention more than ever, and her feelings about her body have made it harder for her to reach out to Harold just when he needs someone to talk to about his family. Each knows basically what’s going on with the other, but they are unwilling to tell the other what they need. Instead, motivated by a sincere reluctance to burden their partner, they say, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”

When we are suffering, we realize how much we need a partner to be there for us. This essential purpose of relationships is defeated, though, if we withhold our needs from them. We may think we’re being kind, but our partner wants to help us, and rejecting that compassion can be hurtful and damaging. Although it may feel selfish, opening up about what you need from your partner is a truly benevolent act.

Mark D. White, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

Boyoun Kim, used with permission.
Boyoun Kim, used with permission.

Three Reasons to Be More Vulnerable

by April Eldemire, LMFT

Imagine that your partner seems anxious about something. You’re not sure what’s going on, but you feel the tension in the air. How do you respond? Does part of you perceive this mood as a rejection of you? Do you reach out? Do you know how?

The way you respond to such situations is influenced by how you access and express vulnerability. Far from a weakness, vulnerability—the willingness to tell the truth and be yourself, even in the face of uncertainty—is a resource you can develop to the benefit of your intimate connections. “Vulnerability is having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome,” psychologist Brené Brown has said. “It’s our greatest measure of courage.” Here are three ways it can enhance a relationship:

  1. Vulnerability improves your relationship with yourself. By facing and working through uncomfortable situations, rather than turning away or shutting down, you teach yourself resilience and increase self-confidence. You come to feel less dependent on others’ perceptions, promoting a sense of security that provides a solid foundation for connecting meaningfully with a partner.
  2. Vulnerability establishes trust. We build trust when we speak truthfully about how we feel and what we need and give our partner space to do the same. Can this feel uncomfortable? Absolutely. But when we are willing to be vulnerable, we communicate that our relationship is a safe space to take chances. This trust is essential for discussing sensitive topics like money, sex, and parenting.
  3. Vulnerability strengthens your bond. With deeper trust, we learn that we can show up as ourselves in our relationship without fearing rejection or shame because we are supported. Such a relationship becomes a powerful container in which to work together to heal past hurts, honor each other’s needs, and manage conflict with respect and humility.

April Eldemire, LMFT, is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with couples.

Chris Craymer, used with permission.
Chris Craymer, used with permission.

“Say the Thing” to Save Your Relationship

by Assael Romanelli, Ph.D.

In intimate relationships, ambiguous communication can lead to disaster, erecting a buffer between partners. People communicate obscurely in intimate relationships—It’s complicated. I’ll get back to you. What do you think?—to avoid mistakes, to enable future denial, or to protect themselves from pain or hurt, or from intimacy. This can lead to high relational costs, though, such as relationship stagnation, a decline of intimacy, and unnecessary pressure on a partner to try to read one's mind.

In theater improvisation, there is a well-known rule: “Say the thing.” It means you should verbalize the reality of the moment, whether positive or negative. In therapy, articulating the here-and-now of the moment is known as an “immediacy skill.” When you name what is happening right now in your relationship, your confidence increases, because you hear yourself speak the truth, increasing your agency, self-respect, and sense of self. You take responsibility, confront your blind spots, and block your exits. Soon, communication becomes easier, as your partner gains a clearer sense of where you stand, becoming more likely to reciprocate and more willing to join you in initiating repair. The result should be a relationship that is more vital and exciting because its intimacy has deepened.

Making a habit of saying the thing requires time, practice, and courage. Initially, your partner may respond with surprise, disappointment, or even insult. But with work, communication can improve. Start by reflecting on how your old patterns held your relationship back and aim to establish a fresh common language together, as well as a commitment to building an environment in which saying the thing is welcome. Call yourself out for avoiding an important question because you were embarrassed or surprised by it. And remember that in the long run, the work is worth it, because “explicitly uncomfortable” is better than “implicitly vague.”

Assael Romanelli, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker and a licensed couple and family therapist based in Jerusalem.

Boyoun Kim, used with permission.
Boyoun Kim, used with permission.

The Vital Importance of Erotic Empathy

by Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW

One of the most important ways to be sexually fulfilled is through deeper communication. “Sexuality is one of those topics that can be awkward to talk about,” even for therapists, says psychotherapist Amanda Luterman, the founder of the Centre for Erotic Empathy in Montreal. She urges couples to explore and express erotic empathy by “validating and including the unique experience of the person in front of you as a sexual being.”

“All too often, couples love each other, but there is noise between them, a feeling that they’re not fully acceptable, not fully received, or not able to truly be their authentic erotic self,” she says. “Both people in a relationship have a plethora of things that interest them, sexually speaking. In a relationship, we are not necessarily everything that our partners find attractive,” but we allow our insecurities to convince us that we need to be, out of fear of being found inadequate or unappealing.

“Eroticism is about two people wanting to feel desired and desirable with each other,” Luterman says. “Erotic empathy allows your partner to find you attractive. Even when you don’t feel you are, your partner can see you in a way that you do not see yourself, and you have to understand that and allow it to happen. A mistake we make is rejecting our partner’s initiative because we don’t feel attractive.”

So, if you come home from the gym feeling sweaty and smelly, but your partner is turned on by seeing you, Luterman advises, “erotic empathy would say, ‘Let me adjust this moment to include the conditions I require to be able to feel erotically present.’ Give your partner a kiss, put your hand on them, and say, ‘I love that. Don’t move. I need 12 minutes.’ If you don’t feel you can enjoy your own body, it can be a distraction or a difficulty to be present with your partner, so those adjustments are really important.”

Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW, is a sex and relationship therapist and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes.

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