You may have discovered that despite your best intentions, you can’t control the course of love. While the experience of love is replete with awe and wonder, how to create conditions for it is not a great mystery. Rather than exhaust ourselves trying to control people, we’d be wiser to make skillful efforts to create these five conditions, culled over 35 years of being a marriage and family therapist.
John Gottman, a psychologist an author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, conduced extensive research into what makes partnerships thrive. He discovered that criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness are reliable predictors of marital distress and divorce. We react with an instinctual fight, flight, freeze response when there is a real or imagined threat to our physical safety or emotional wellbeing.
Our tendency to hurl hurtful criticisms or to shutdown is often propelled by something we don’t allow ourselves to face and feel—something painful or threatening. Practicing mindfulness allows us to notice what we’re really experiencing inside. Bringing more spaciousness to our feelings and longings, we then have more choice over what and how to communicate. For example, beneath our destructive anger and blame (“Why are you always late? What’s wrong with you?”), we can notice and reveal what is more vulnerably alive inside us (“I felt sad when you arrived late. I was really missing you.”)
Communication problems usually reflect self-awareness shortcomings and an inability to soothe ourselves. Before we can communicate our true feelings, we need to slow down and connect with what we’re really experiencing. This means pausing and going inside—mindfully accessing and revealing our authentic feelings and wants. Noticing and expressing the emotions that live inside us is more likely to invite our partner toward us.
“Respect” derives from the Latin respectus, which means “a looking at.” It is defined as an attitude of consideration or high regard. Respect begins by seeing the other as other—a human being with feelings, needs and sensibilities that may be different than ours. Love does not thrive if we have a hankering to change or fix someone—or speak to them in destructive ways.
People want to be seen as accepted as they are. They want to be respected for who they are, not manipulated into responding to our demands. Love asks us to see who they are and try to give them what they need to be happy.
Sustaining respect is tricky. To some extent, respect must be earned. It’s difficult to respect someone who doesn’t care for themselves. If we have a habit of eating poorly, not exercising or maintaining addictive habits, it may be challenging for people to respect us. Taking care of ourselves helps garner respect, which builds a foundation for love.
Attuning and listening soulfully
Seeing and respecting people for who they are is a step toward attuning to them. We demonstrate caring by listening not just to the words, but also the meanings. This requires suspending judgments and temporarily putting aside our own needs as we attend to theirs.
Staying connected to our heart, body, and being allows us to really be there for our partner. Our eyes meet gently as we take inside what they’re saying, allowing it to wash through us.
We may find it comfortable to say “I love you,” but love is more powerfully conveyed through our soulful presence. Verbal expressions of love are more meaningful when they flow from a spacious and attentive heart.
You might have noticed that things don’t always go our way in relationships! We need a way to tend to ourselves—our hurts, fears, and sorrows—when we don’t get what we want or when our partner isn’t available. Without the capacity to soothe the inner beast, we may flip into the flight, fight, freeze response—attacking our loved one or shutting down.
Self-soothing means bringing caring, loving attention to ourselves. Being gently present with our breathing or cultivating a meditation practice allows for self-soothing. The practice of Focusing, developed by Dr Eugene Gendlin, offers a well-researched path toward being with ourselves in a caring, accepting way. Listening to our own feelings and being there for ourselves allows us to find a peaceful place inside when another person is not available or responsive.
Partnerships and friendships are about giving and receiving love. We might have a large capacity to be generous and responsive to another person, but can we receive caring, attention, and affection when it comes our way?
Giving is often easier than receiving. Receiving deeply means lowering our guard and letting someone into our vulnerable world. It’s a powerful practice to drop our defenses and allow ourselves to be touched by another’s kind words, warm hug, or caring presence.
These five conditions suggest efforts we can make to be there for ourselves and others. Skillfully weaving our attention between ourselves and others deepens our capacity to give and receive love. Being robustly gentle and mindfully present with ourselves and others, we help each other stumble our way toward loving more fully.