By: Lisa Firestone Ph.D. | August 27, 2022
"As much as being in love can feel like a natural state we either experience or don’t, we have much more say in it than we may think. Research has shown that taking more loving actions can make couples feel more in love. In this way, there’s much truth to the notion that love is more a verb than a noun. The more we express love, the more we ignite it in our partner and cultivate it in ourselves.
Thinking about how we show love can be a powerful practice for keeping our feelings alive and well in a relationship. The key isn’t to solely focus on our feelings of affection but to think about what our partner perceives as love. In other words, what actions would that specific person experience as loving?
It’s common and fairly instinctual to give love how we would feel it. For some people, that means showering their partner with cards and gifts, expressing lots of affection, and frequently saying “I love you.” For others, love is something more low-key, a quiet appreciation of the other person wherein you give them space to do their own thing.
Many relationship issues can center on misunderstandings or miscommunications about what makes each person feel loved. For instance, one person may expect their partner to know instinctively what they want and need. They may feel hurt by their partner when they inevitably get it wrong, thinking things like, “I would do this for them. Why wouldn’t they do that for me?” The answer may be that their partner just doesn’t see that particular action as meaningful or desirable in the same way. They simply have different things they categorize as expressions of love.
For example, a couple I worked with often got into heated arguments around their anniversary. For one partner, the day meant a lot, and she wanted to celebrate by doing something together. She thought of the occasion as an excuse to tell her husband how she felt about him and what she loved about their relationship. She liked to plan getaways and romantic dinners and was often disappointed that her husband didn’t put the same effort into celebrating.
For her husband, the date itself didn’t hold as much meaning. While he often bought her a small gift or flowers for their anniversary, he didn’t see the point in making a single day such a big deal. He felt like what mattered most was that he appreciated his wife and their relationship every day. He believed romance should be more spontaneous and not overly planned.
Their two perspectives inevitably left one of them disappointed. While she was feeling hurt and rejected, he was feeling pressured and disregarded. What finally helped them reach an understanding was each of them taking time to put themselves in the other’s shoes and recognize that the things that made their partner feel loved and appreciated were different from their own.
Once they accepted that simple reality, they saw their actions as part of a goal to make the other person feel valued instead of a sacrifice that bent them out of shape. Because each of them desired to make the other happy, they could be more open about what that meant for their partner. However, they realized that love boiled down to different actions than they imagined.
The husband realized that kind and acknowledging words, affection, and gestures meant much more to his wife than gifts that weren’t as personal. The wife started to understand how much it meant to her husband to let things happen naturally. She let their anniversary unfold more spontaneously and did not place as much pressure on just one day of celebration. Instead, she could appreciate her partner's loving ways throughout the year.
All kinds of factors determine what each of us experiences as love. Yet being curious and open to our partner’s unique way of feeling loved can make us better, more attuned partners. So, how can we “get better” at knowing what our partner wants and needs?
1. Listen to what they’re saying.
When we spend a lot of time with someone, on the one hand, we may feel we know them better than anyone else. On the other hand, we may stop noticing certain things about them as they become more familiar to us. This isn’t because we’re not interested or don’t care. It’s often just because our lives can get busy, routinized, or comfortable, so we stop actively getting to know the other person.
Paying attention to what our partner says sounds like the most obvious advice we’ll ever hear, but it’s something we have to remind ourselves to keep doing. Make a mental note of when they mention something that matters to them or something that excites them. Encourage them to be vocal about and ask for what they want."