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Love Bites: Couples Counseling for V Day

Tips for straight, gay, and all other modern couples

For many, Valentine's Day is the time to indulge in romantic delights, typically of the instantly-gratifying but not-so-long-lasting variety. This is all very well when your love's fire is newly kindled, but several years in, the chocolates, bubbles and baubles may be inadequate fuel. This Feb. 14, I recommend sharing something perhaps less arousing but far more sustaining than small bites, sweet bites, and all other bites you're likely to share with your partner: sincere sound bites.

Yes, I know what you're thinking: "That doesn't sound very hot." But I assure you, even hotter—not to mention more durable—than expensive expressions of passion is the ability to authentically listen, talk to, and be heard by your partner.

Where to begin? First, we must acknowledge what happens to relationships once the Hollywoodized hue of the first year or so has begun to fade. You each become exposed, and the magnetic love fields at your inner cores—the very specific, subjective, and deeply-rooted reasons you have gravitated to each other—begin to reveal themselves, making you vulnerable. Many of your conflicts as a couple derive from a fear of this vulnerability, which leads you to rely on opportunities like Valentine's Day to glaze over the rough spots with chocolate denial. But it is in precisely this vulnerable place that you need to be to keep the love flame alive.

Vulnerability is necessary in order to have a "strong sense of love and belonging," says research professor Brene Brown, who has studied vulnerability, authenticity, and shame for over a decade. Brown says that a crucial component of this is being able to say "I love you" first and having "the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees." This aspect of love often bites.

Now, the tricky thing about being vulnerable in love is that it can easily lead to unfocused emotional chaos, which is why we so often avoid it. We need to harness our vulnerability by defining where each of us is coming from, and thus clarifying our specific emotional needs. To accomplish this, it is helpful to establish the boundaries around each of our "characters." As actress Mary McDonnell says, "Great characters develop out of restricted situations. When people feel the limitations of life, something else takes over that's specific and colorful." Much like acting, defining our roles can be incredibly helpful in freeing our expressions of emotion.

I must say, I often try to resist oversimplifying, generalizing, or categorizing relationship roles (e.g., books of the Men Are From Jupiter, Women Are From Neptune variety only apply to a limited number of romantic pairs), but I've learned that defining emotional roles that are somewhat flexible, and which reasonably account for nuances, can create focus and lead to clear and productive communication.

Having worked with a variety of couples for years, and reading about couples' therapy from myriad schools of thought—the work of Harville Hendrix in particular—the two roles that I've identified in every single romantic relationship are what I call The Engulfed and The Abandoned.

What does that mean? Well, couples, I'm telling you that without exception, that one of you is The Engulfed—meaning you learned from a very early age that emotionally-intimate relationships require you to be engulfed, enveloped, or somehow encompassed, to varying degrees, by the other person. And the other one of you is The Abandoned, meaning you learned from a young age that emotionally-intimate relationships cannot be taken for granted and constantly require you to do something to maintain them, or you risk abandonment.

A few clarifications need to be made. We've all been abandoned in one form or another, and we've all experienced some version of engulfment. It should also be noted that I am not making any assumptions about gender, personality, temperament, passivity, or dominance in utilizing these terms. What these labels refer to are the highly-specific ways in which each of us has learned to attach emotionally, and from what I've seen in my practice, there is always one person in a couple who does this by becoming engulfed and another driven by a fear of abandonment.

These two roles are complimentary, which is how you ended up together, but they are also threatening to each other. Like a wandering oyster and free-floating sea particle, the two of you found each other, aggravate each other, and are in the process of forming a thing of beauty. Knowing and accepting which of you is which will take you both to the place you need to be. You'll be vulnerable, but with clarity and on equal footing, as neither of these roles is more powerful than the other. They both imply a need for the other, and if these needs are acknowledged and authentically expressed, neither one of you can rise above the exposure of your emotional nakedness.

There are various methods I use to help couples, (same sex, opposite sex, or otherwise) get to this place and to communicate with each other once they've arrived, but for now, in order to apply this concept on Valentine's Day, think of it as an acting exercise. Like an actor preparing for a big scene, much of the "work" will take place within you, as you take some time to reflect upon all of the reasons you are drawn to your partner. You will want to make special note of the contradictions in your attraction and to consider the psychological literature that contends we are attracted to aspects of our partner that seem familiar—whether that be comforting or frustrating, good or bad. Think about your own reasons for choosing someone "so controlling" or someone "so elusive." Meditate on all of the caretakers you had as a child, what you got from them and what you didn't, what overwhelmed you and what you didn't get enough of.

Keep all of these reflections in mind as you approach the hot seat and choose to share one current feeling, desire, concern or request with your partner, delivering the line from a place of vulnerability, clarity, and truth. This is a frightening task, so one of you will likely need to set up the scene, to say "I love you" first, and once you take this leap of faith, you'll need your partner there to catch you. You will need to prepare your partner to listen...carefully, lovingly, and without judgment. The listening is just as important, if not more. The unconditional listening of a romantic partner is incredibly healing and can help one to integrate seemingly-contradictory feelings.

Harvel Hendrix suggests a listening tool that you can both use, not unlike mirroring exercises developed by the acting teacher Sanford Meisner. The idea is to listen to your partner describe a feeling, desire or concern and to say it back to them neutrally, without attitude or interpretation. The next step is to validate their statement and then to empathize with it. That's it. As any good actor would do, simply play each of those actions in your own way.

So, in review, your effective love bites can be achieved through the following steps:

1) One of you will have to initiate a dialogue.

2) You'll both have to agree to be vulnerable with each other.

3) Cast yourselves as yourselves: Acknowledge who is The Abandoned and who is The Engulfed, and then reflect upon your attractions to one another.

4) One at a time, state one feeling, desire, concern or request—possibly sharing a specific memory for context.

5) Wholeheartedly listen and mirror what your partner has said to you.

And you're done!

If you both can allow yourselves to be fully present and follow these steps, expecting "no guarantees"—much, much easier said than done—you'll feel closer to each other than any oysters, petit fours, or champagne would ever allow. You'll also likely find yourselves open to exploring more potential possibilities in your relationship...perhaps even bites you haven't yet imagined trying.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW

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