Monday, June 21, 2010

Couples Communication: Teaching Your Partner How to Love You

**I'm going to start this post with a disclaimer. During this post, I'm going to be exploring how couples make choices about showing love to one another. This post is about couples who are not dealing with issues of abuse or control within the relationship. The accusation that "You are not loving me the right way" is a common tool for individuals who are emotionally controlling or abusive. The information that I am exploring in this post is designed to be used by both partners within a relationship to improve their communication and connection. If you are concerned that you may be in a controlling or abusive relationship, please seek help.**

Teaching Your Partner How to Love You

For this post, I'll be exploring another issue that comes up frequently with my clients. This time around, I plan to explore one of the most common issues that I see between couples: the struggle to give and receive love.

Let me explain that a little bit further. What I frequently see when I meet with a couple is two people who feel hurt, frustrated, unheard, unvalidated, and unloved. This can be true even when one or both members of the couple is working very hard to show their partner that they are loved. On the surface, that seems to be a contradiction. How is it possible that someone can work hard to love their partner, and their partner still feels unheard or unloved? Is that person ineffective at showing love? Is their partner just ungrateful or demanding?

I don't think either of those explanations are accurate. Instead, I believe that our efforts to show love get tangled up in three key ways:

1. Couples do not understand that there are many ways to define love.
2. Couples fall into the trap of using their own definitions of love to
determine how they love their partners.
3. Couples lack the communication tools to communicate their own definitions of
love to their partners.

Defining Love

So, let's begin with how love is defined. What I have learned in my work with couples is that "showing love" is a very subjective term. Because "love" is a value, not a tangible product, our definition of love is a reflection of our own life experiences and values. So, for each person, "giving love" and "receiving love" are personal experiences, with personal definitions. Let me give you an example of this. There is a huge industry built around the fact that many people believe that sending flowers is a good way to show love. However, growing up, I learned that sending flowers to my mom did not make her feel loved. It stressed her out that someone had spent money on something that was going to die in a few days. I learned that, if you wanted my mom to feel loved, you should buy her a lilac or rose bush that she can enjoy for years to come. "Love" means something different to each of us.

Working from Different Definitions

That brings us to the second challenge of giving and receiving love effectively. Our understanding of love is personal and directly connected to our history, values and life experiences. So, it makes sense that our automatic response when we love someone is to love them according to our own definition of love. For example, if I am a person who understands "love" to mean "providing a nice home," I might make sure to pick up the dishes or do the laundry before my partner gets home. But if I am a person who understands "love" to mean "feeling pampered," I might make sure to take my partner out to nice dinners or send them flowers. Neither of these responses is a problem by itself. But, if you have a person for whom "love" means "providing a nice home" partnered with someone for whom "love" means "feeling pampered," it's easy to see how the signals can start to get crossed. No amount of clean dishes, scrubbed floors, or fresh laundry is going to say "I love you" to the person who would like to be taken out to dinner or otherwise pampered. Conversely, no amount of special dinners, flowers, or other treats is going to say "I love you" to the person who just wants a tidy house or a working kitchen faucet. When you explore examples like this, it becomes easier to see how one or both members of a couple can feel that they are working hard to love their partner, but that the love is not felt or appreciated.

Defining Love for Our Partners

That brings us to the third barrier to effectively communicating love--learning how to define love in a way that is meaningful to our partners. Our understanding of "love" is intensely personal. However, the words that we use are generic: "show me love," "let me know you care," etc. As we saw in the examples above, those generic terms can have very different definitions from person to person.

So, when I am working with a couple, I encourage them to begin with a personal challenge. I ask each member of the couple to think about what love means to them. The catch is that they have to define love in terms of specific actions. By using specific actions to capture their personal definitions of love, members of a couple accomplish two goals. First, you give your partner the tools to give affection in a way that is genuinely received as loving because it meets your specific definition of love. Second, when you understand how your partner defines love, you are more likely to notice when they are loving you according to their own definition, so you feel that you are receiving even more love. Accurate, action-based definitions of love can be an important tool for short-circuiting feelings of hurt or invalidation in relationships.


So, in summary, couples can begin to deepen their connection and diminish hurt when they are aware of three things. First, each of us defines love in very personal, specific ways based on our life experiences and values. Second, most of us tend to show love in the ways that we want to receive it--based on our personal definitions of love. Third, by using action-based definitions of love, couples can teach one another how to give and receive love more effectively.

Before I close, I want to address a final point that comes up for many couples. I have frequently had couples resist the process of identifying the actions that fit their love definition. The reason I often hear is a belief that, "If they love me, they should know this." Another objection I hear from couples is, "I show them how I want them to act, why should I have to tell them?" When I hear these objections, I remind couples that love is a subjective term. It simply doesn't make sense to expect our partners to intuit our definitions of love. In fact, that places a large, unnecessary burden on the relationship. Rather than viewing this teaching process as a burden, I invite couples to see it as a chance to learn even more about one another.

Communication skills are essential for a strong relationship. Understanding your own and your partner's definition of love can be a powerful communication tool that ultimately improves both your ability to give and your ability to receive love from one another.