“Len and I are doing OK; for one, we don’t argue as much as we used to. But something is still missing, some spark that used to be there. We’re pleasant with each other and still make love but that whole deep connection thing we had before kids has really faded.”
The heart is full of mysteries. Sometimes two people seem like they’re just an inch away from falling in love again – but somehow it never quite clicks and they keep on slowly drifting apart. And another couple seems so distant and battle-weary that their hearts for each other are stony ground – yet somehow seeds of love take hold and their caring for each other grows back like green grass in the spring. You never know, and there are no guarantees.
Nonetheless, you can increase your odds dramatically of cherishing and care and fondness refilling the empty spaces in your relationship. First, consider the foundation of your partnership:
- As individuals, are you each experiencing reasonable health and well-being?
- As a couple, are you communicating well, with civility, empathy, authenticity, and skillful problem-solving?
- Are you working well as teammates in the amazing and demanding endeavor of raising a family?
- Are you making room for your relationship, with some regular conversation, time to yourselves without children, and routine affection that’s not sexual?
If you can answer “yes” to all four of these questions, you’re in good shape to head into the deeper, wonderful waters of loving intimacy. And if not, then you know just where the work needs to be done. To do it, you could take a look at our book, Mother Nurture, which focuses on those four questions. And consider using a therapist if you are getting stuck on your own; your relationship is too important to your kids and to yourselves to give it anything less than all the help it needs!
Second, in the deep end of the pool, you and your partner can each try to develop these three things, and even if it’s mostly up to you, on your own you can make a profound difference in your relationship:
- Relational presence – This sounds fancy, but it means simply that very natural quality of really being with the other person. Think about a person who seemed quite distracted when speaking with you . . . and then think about a person who seemed open and really there with you, deeply accepting, deeply receptive. Notice the difference? Being open and present can feel a little scary at first, so we tend to step back and close up, like drawing a curtain over the heart. But try to relax and allow the other person’s communication to flow through you, like wind through the leaves of a tree, and be aware that you’re actually just fine, that it’s alright to be that open. Practice this quality of relational presence and see what happens. (And it’s a great way to be with children, too.)
- Delivering fondness – Caring, interest, cherishing, sweetness, appreciation, friendliness, affection – these are all specific kinds of self-expression in a relationship. They are real, and you can deliver them or not to your partner, and vice versa. Think of them as relationship supplies. What kind of deliveries has your partner been making to you lately? What sort of deliveries have you been making to them?
In most couples, each partner could send more packages of fondness without it getting phony. Yes, it takes some deliberate thought, but what you are expressing is truly inside you – it’s really how you feel, deep down, about your mate. So it’s sincere . . . and actually extra loving because you are caring enough to make the extra effort to reach down and pull it up and deliver it.
Try to make fondness concrete. For example, determine to touch your partner affectionately three times a day. Or give one real compliment. Or look at him or her in a loving way. Or say goodbye or hello with genuine friendliness. You probably have a pretty good idea already of what your spouse likes – and if not, why not ask? And it’s perfectly fine to let him or her know what sort of fondness you’d love to receive, yourself.
- Landing in your heart – Behind the eyes of your mate, there’s a person there just like there’s an inner being behind the eyes that are reading these words. When your partner is talking about matters of any importance at all, see if you can sense into his or her inner self – and let the concerns and needs and hopes and feelings of that person really register inside you. That way, you’ll get to the essence of the matter, the real stakes for your partner, what it’s all most deeply about. Knowing that essence, you won’t get distracted by side issues, including the murky or cranky or off-putting way that things may have been expressed. You’ll be able to zero in to the crux and respond to it – which is only good for you and your partner and your marriage and your family.
On the other side of the table, the other person will really feel heard, that he or she (let’s say) has landed with a soft welcome in your heart. That makes people relax, and open up themselves. . . to you.
In conclusion, what each of us really wants to know is whether we matter to the other person; that’s vastly more important than getting our way with some point we’re trying to make. We want to know that they care enough to show up and be present . . . to be nice and sweet and keep the supply train of fondness pulling up to our station . . . and to be moved by our needs and let us land – thump! – in their heart. That’s what we want to know. And when you feel that you matter like that to another, the day-to-day grumpy grievances of late dinners and forgotten errands and missed sexual signals and toilet seats left up and getting scolded for something and all the other similar bruises of daily life with family can be managed as local irritants that really don’t mean much at all.
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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.