What did being “in love” look like to you when you were a child or when you first began dating?
- Media and commercialism can definitely play a role in how we construct this ideal, even in childhood.
- The relationship modeled by our parents or parental figures in life can also contribute to this picture.
- Being “in love” can be composed of things you’d envision adding to the utopia of your relationship and others things you’d hope to avoid.
When you consider your own self-constructed “to do” and “not-to-do” list, what happens when some or all of it turns sour?
When the love you have for your partner no longer feels strong; it seems to be a distant memory; or it may even seem as though it never even existed.
- You feel like roommates.
- You are defensive and ready to respond to any verbal attack hurled at you.
- You see how bitter you both have become toward each other and your current experiences.
- You’d prefer avoiding each other’s presence rather than even sitting awkwardly together at meals or bedtime.
- You sense you are carrying the heavier burden in your relationship when it comes to household duties, financial obligations, children, etc.
- You find that both of you can see each other’s weaknesses and rather than this vulnerability drawing you closer, it seems as though it only adds fuel to the fire.
- You feel inadequate to meet the needs your partner has or the demands that are crying to be met in your relationship or family.
When love isn’t lovely can be one of the loneliest feelings to experience, since you feel the potential is (or was) there and now the hopelessness makes the very idea of love seem unrealistic and completely out of reach.
How can a couple take this version of shattered ideals and turn it into a catalyst for renewed connection and understanding?
P R A C T I C E
This relationship skill overrides many of the other conflict management strategies I give my clients. Primarily because this is practice focuses on leaning into the uncomfortable and not rushing to escape the unpleasantness of the exercise.
This exercise is adapted from Gottman Institute’s Dreams within Conflict (c) intervention.
Note: As you approach this conversation with your partner, find a way to dedicate uninterrupted time and limit distractions (silence phones, turn off the computer screen or TV, tuck the kids in bed, give the dog a bone, etc).
The primary goal of this exercise is for both partners to feel understood and validated.
Remove any other agenda or the desire to find solutions or problem-solve.
This is primarily a practice to improve the understanding in your relationship on a deeper level where you support one another’s dreams. If your dreams connect, so much the better.
There are two roles in this exercise: The Speaker and the Listener.
STEP 1: PREPARE YOURSELF.
Sit for a silent moment as you examine the emotions you are experiencing and the beliefs you hold about the love you have/had/will have.
STEP 2: OWN YOUR EXPERIENCE.
As you speak, resist any urge to argue for or persuade your partner to you point of view. You can own your own experience, explain what you see, feel, perceive about your love feeling unlovely.
Speak honestly about your feelings and beliefs. Keep to your own feelings/needs. Own these. NO need to blame, criticize or speak for your partner.
STEP 3: CORRECT WITH CARE.
Your partner will ask questions and part of the Listener's role is to reflect and summarize. If you find the summary or reflection is not what you are trying to say, then respond to your partner as you would a close and trusted friend. Attempt to rephrase or provide additional information or stories to provide better understanding. Blaming, criticizing and contempt toward your partner will only create a barrier to your partner’s ability to hear and understand you.
STEP 1: PREPARE YOURSELF.
As your partner sits quietly to examine the emotions within these ideals on love, you will use this time to breathe slowly and deliberately set aside your own agenda. In this exercise you are walking into your partner’s world, hearing the wishes and the pain, even if you don’t agree with the details.
Your job as listener is to create safety for your partner to share the thoughts/feelings/dreams behind the ideal of love in your relationship. You will listen and respond as a trusted and respected friend would listen.
Press pause on any urge to problem-solve, rescue, judge, criticize, minimize, or silence your partner’s experience. Your goal is to deepen your understanding of your partner’s story and the dream that may lie beneath the story. Just listen and ask open-ended questions (these are questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes/no response).
STEP 2: INVITE.
Here are several inviting statements/questions that have been shown to promote understanding for couples:
What are your core beliefs or values you associate with being “in love”?
Tell me a story when you saw this ideal working well in a relationship.
How does your view of love relate to your background or childhood?
Tell me why this is so important to you.
What feelings to you have about your ideal of love and the kind of love we are experiencing together now?
What do you feel it looks like when we are loving each other well?
What would be your ideal dream here?
If there’s a deeper purpose or goal in this for you, I’d like to hear it if you’ll share it with me.
STEP 3: UNDERSTAND.
Now, as listener, take a stab at trying to put words to the feelings you notice your partner experiencing. Don’t argue for your point of view, just listen and ask questions.
Summarize and reflect what you heard and understand your partner’s needs and longings are related to the love you two share. Ask your partner if you understood correctly. If either one of you feels unclear, ask, “What do I need to know to understand your perspective better?”
STEP 4: SWITCH.
Once your partner feels understood and you feel that you understand clearly, then switch roles.
Notice that understanding the feeling and emotion behind the needs came first. Communicating understanding trumps problem-solving any day. You will often approach problems and areas of concern in your relationship. If you are too willing to jump to problem-solving, the urgency of removing the challenge replaces the opportunity to grow more resilient in your love together.
When your love isn’t lovely, take this as an opportunity to truly explore what the idea of LOVE is for both of you. This ideal may have shifted over the years for one or both of you. This is your chance to re-map where you are in your relationship and better navigate where you want to go.