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The Real Secret to Making Relationships Work

A couples therapist shares a trade secret.

Michele Weiner-Davis
#1 Love Tip
Source: Michele Weiner-Davis

After nearly four decades of helping on-the-brink couples repair their marriages, I’ve learned a thing or two about why some relationships succeed while others fail.

Interestingly, there is one common denominator underlying all loving, lasting relationships. The principle is extraordinarily simple to understand, but not so simple to put into practice. If more couples lived by this tried-and-true strategy, it would take the guesswork out of love and put professionals like me—marriage therapists—out of work.

So what is my trade secret? Real Giving.

People tend to give or show love to one another in the way they like to receive. But that’s not Real Giving. Real Giving is when we give our partners the things they need and want.

But the problem is, because we are all very different, we might not completely understand our partners’ needs. We might think those needs don’t make sense or they’re unimportant. And perhaps we’re averse to doing what our partners need because, simply put, it just wouldn’t be any fun for us.

But here’s the deal: Our judgments and feelings about our partners’ needs are irrelevant. Sorry. This isn’t a popular point of view, but bear with me for a moment: We need to do what pleases our partners because healthy, loving relationships are built on this sort of caretaking. Plus, if you thinking, “Sure, but what about my needs?” the good news is that Real Giving generally begets Real Giving. In other words, mutual caretaking becomes the rule.

Let me give you an example of how I learned about Real Giving many years ago—the hard way.

People’s notions about Real Giving or love develop during childhood. When we felt loved as kids, we connected that feeling to certain circumstances or interactions with those around us. Like snowflakes, every person has a unique definition of what it means to be loved.

In many ways, my close relationship with my mother defined the meaning of love for me. Throughout my life, she was extremely tuned into my feelings and would ask about them regularly.

When I was little and returned home after a bad day at school, my mother would immediately notice my flat affect and ask, “Are you OK? Did something happen at school today? Are you sad? Did you have a fight with a friend? Did something go wrong on the playground?”

My mother’s being tuned into me, noticing my feelings and asking me about them, always made me feel seen, heard, and cared for. Conversations about my inner life persisted throughout my adulthood. My mom and I could talk about anything. And we did. To me, these heartfelt conversations epitomized love.

So, I took this lesson of love into the early years of my 48-year-old relationship with my husband, Jim, a macho-ish, independent man who is a real estate developer. Back then, when he returned home from work with a scowl on his face, I did what any loving wife would do—greet him at the door and ask questions about his day, what he was feeling, what went wrong, why he looked so edgy, who in his company screwed up, and so on.

I was giving my husband the gift of my love. But to my astonishment, it was returned unopened. In fact, rather than seeing me as a loving person, Jim was annoyed. Very annoyed.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how Jim could be angry when I was being such a generous, loving person, offering to console him through conversation.

I was hurt and confused. He was irritated.

It took years for me to figure out that the last thing Jim wants to do after a bad day is to rehash it. Instead, he prefers mulling things over himself or vegging out with some mindless activity.

At first, I thought there was something wrong with him. The story I told myself was that he must have been emotionally stunted in his youth. The secondary story was that he was angry at me about something and being spiteful by shutting me out of his life. I also conjured up countless plausible theories about what might have happened that day at work.

My imagination was on overload.

Eventually (meaning later rather than sooner), I figured out that we are just different people with different needs. I learned that in order to show love “Jim-style,” every time his body language screams, “I’m miserable about something,” I need to squelch the urge to talk to him, and give him space, even though, for me, it is an unnatural act.

Real Giving doesn’t come naturally. In my work with couples, when I suggest that they do Real Giving, they often protest, “That doesn’t feel natural. That’s not who I am.” To which I respond, “That’s great! That means you’re stretching outside your comfort zone to do what works for your partner, not for you.”

Think about it: Are you someone who was mystified and hurt when you threw your wife a huge 40th birthday party, only to discover that, not only didn’t she appreciate it, she was actually pissed at you? Your intentions might have been fabulous, but your empathy meter might have been offline. Perhaps you would love it if your wife were to host an extravaganza to celebrate your big birthday, but she’s not you. A low-key romantic dinner for two might have hit the mark.

Think about what spells love for you. Some people say things like, “I grew up in a big family. No doubt about it, food meant love. We would always have lots of relatives around eating wonderful, endless meals.” But what if that person married someone who hates to cook, thinks it’s a waste of time, and is firmly convinced that people eat to live, not live to eat? Then what? I'd say that a cooking course would definitely be in order.

Similarly, I have recently worked with a couple that grew apart because they led parallel but separate lives. Interestingly, they both liked to walk but never did it together. Why?

When he walked, he viewed it as an opportunity to get aerobic exercise. She, conversely, preferred to stroll. The few times he agreed to walk with her, he did so begrudgingly and complained the whole time.

Which leads to another aspect of Real Giving: In order for an action to qualify as Real Giving, you can’t complain while you’re doing it. You can’t suffer in silence, either. Real Giving is a gift. You have to bring your best self and a generous spirit in order for an action to be deemed a gift.

Sometimes, people aren’t clear about what it takes for their partners to feel loved. Are you? If you’re unsure, I’d suggest that you read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. It teaches couples the primary ways most people feel loved and offers a map to understanding yourself and your partner.

But gaining insight into love languages isn’t enough. Let’s say Joe’s love language is touch. This means that he feels close and connected to his wife when their sexual relationship is a priority. He also feels loved when they’re touching affectionately—snuggling in bed, holding hands, hugging frequently throughout the day. Kim’s love language is different. She feels emotionally connected to Joe when they spend quality time together, especially when they’re talking. For her, heart-to-heart conversation is the tie that binds. She enjoys sex, but she needs to feel close to Joe before her interest is piqued. Meaningful conversation is an aphrodisiac for her. Joe, typically a quiet man, is happy to engage in discussions with Kim when he feels close to her. Being close physically prompts Joe to use his words. (See my TEDx talk, "The Sex-Starved Marriage.")

Here's the problem: If Joe fails to carve out quality time with Kim, she feels hurt and angry, and rejects his sexual advances. When Kim turns over in bed disinterestedly, Joe feels hurt and angry and busies himself even more with work and outside activities. This, of course, leads to Kim’s complete sexual withdrawal. It's a vicious circle in the making.

Waiting for your partner to do Real Giving before you’re willing to do it yourself provides job security for marriage therapists and divorce attorneys. Here’s what to do instead: If you feel short-changed because your spouse isn’t speaking your love language, it probably means you haven't been speaking his or hers either. Your spouse believes that you’re the reason he or she stopped speaking your love language, while you’re convinced it’s just the opposite; he or she started it.

Rather than play the blame game (which, even if you think you’re right, doesn’t change things and makes you feel like crap), take the high road instead. Do Real Giving. (Even if you think your spouse doesn’t deserve it.)

Let’s go back to Kim and Joe to see what they must do should they decide to do Real Giving.

When Joe senses that Kim has grown decidedly icy when he reaches out to her in bed, instead of saying to himself, “I don’t deserve this kind of rejection,” he should say to himself, “I know she needs to feel connected to me emotionally before sex. When was the last time I scheduled a date night? When was the last time I initiated or participated in a conversation that was meaningful to her?” And then he needs to do just that.

Conversely, when Kim notices that Joe is missing in action and is always too busy to talk, rather than say to herself, “What a jerk. He is so preoccupied. I obviously mean nothing to him,” she should ask herself, “When was the last time we made love or cuddled in bed? When was the last time I kissed him as if I meant it, or sent him a flirty text?" Then she should do it.

But, and this is the big but, neither Joe nor Kim will feel like doing those things because they will be more in touch with their own hurt and sense of rejection.

And this is where the rubber meets the road. The very thing you have to do to restore love in your relationship is the very thing you won't feel like doing, at the time you least feel like doing it.

But when either Kim or Joe decides to break out of their relationship rut by tipping over the first domino despite their feelings, they’re sure to receive more love in return. Which leads me to my final marriage-saving tip: Don’t be misled by some conventional, but bad self-help advice such as, “Always let your feelings be your guide.”

Quite frankly, sometimes our feelings totally misguide us. Sometimes, when we listen to our angry or hurt feelings, we behave in ways that backfire and bring out the worst in our mates. We get less of what we need or deserve in life. Instead, we need to learn how to turn down the volume on the voices in our heads that condemn, seek revenge, or force us to retreat.

I know that tuning out those protective voices isn’t easy. But once you get a taste of the wonderful things that can happen when you rise above your ego and stubbornness and do unqualified, unadulterated Real Giving, the only thing you’ll be asking yourself is, “Why did I wait so long?”

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