Valentine's Day is a celebration of love. And what more worth celebrating than that? It's a day set aside for us to profess and demonstrate and receive love from those in our lives that mean the most. Yet, so often, this day doesn't live up to the expectations we have. Or worse, it just brings us down altogether. This day embodies so much pressure to show your love in grand gestures, to get just the right (or expensive) gift, to go big or go home, essentially. But love is not built on grand gestures and trips to Bora Bora. So for this Valentine's Day and every day forward, let's take a look at three ways that feed our relationships and keep them healthy.
Bids for connection/Turning Towards or Away
Life is built in the little moments; in the small, sliding door moments. It's also how love is built up or worn down—in the little moments. I've heard it said that he who cannot steward little will not be given much. I believe this principle holds true for relationships. If you miss opportunities to connect in the seemingly small, everyday moments, your big romantic gestures can fall flat. Gottman refers to these opportunities to connect as "bids" or "turning towards and turning away." When we respond to bids for connection, we turn towards each other and grow closer, more emotionally intimate as a result. When we miss bids, we turn away, sometimes leading to drifting apart. It can be something as simple as chuckling at something you see as you scroll through your phone and your partner asking what made you laugh—connection made; or asking a question from the other room, and your partner doesn't hear you—connection missed. Often when we miss bids for connection, it isn't malicious. In our day to day lives, we all seem to stay pretty busy. We spend our daily lives, living in a blur, not particularly present or aware of the life we are zipping through. It's usually in these busy, buzzing moments that we miss how our favorite people are trying to connect with us. One of the simplest ways to stay connected and friendship in your relationship is by being present on a day to day basis. Practicing mindfulness by becoming aware of what is happening around you, slowing down to a single task, and focusing on those around you will help you notice when your partner is making a bid for connection, and you'll be better able to respond. Likewise, you'll see more opportunities for "bids" and will become more attuned to one another.
Sidenote: there is a particularly common obstacle to awareness of others—our phones. It's relatively easy to get caught up looking at the news, googling a quick question, or scrolling social media, all of which are not inherently evil. But if you are losing connection with people in front of you because of a cell phone, there's a word for that—phubbing (phone + snubbing). Either include the person in your technology use, set aside a distinct time to use technology (like an hour of work you need to catch up on before bed), or set the phone down. Long story short: look up, pay attention, stay connected to those around you.
Rituals of Connection
Many couples have habits and patterns that they may knowingly or unknowingly fall into. Families often have traditions surrounding important holidays or events. One of my favorite interventions for couples is creating rituals of connection within a relationship. Most of us agree that we should have a regularly occurring date night, and I agree. That is an important priority. But just like we can't wait all week to feed our bodies, you can't wait all week (or month…or longer) to feed your relationship. It requires daily nourishment. Making small rituals such as coffee together on Sunday mornings before the kids are awake, making the bed together, folding laundry together, cooking, cleaning, singing in the car, kissing before you say goodbye, greeting each other when one of you arrives---these are all patterns, habits, rituals of life that nourish your relationship in small doses. Not only is it easier to find 2 minutes in a day to connect over mundane chores, it's more important. Because if you don't show up in the small moments every day, the big moments won't matter. Another way of saying it is, "wherever you go, there you are." If you're not connecting regularly, most of the time, on most days, when you finally make it to date night, you'll be just as disconnected.
Last, but certainly not least, of my recommendations from Gottman is expanding your "Love Maps." Love Maps is another concept that is essentially a working knowledge of your partner's life. What are their current stressors? What kind of goals and visions do they have for their life? What hobbies or interests are they currently into? What's their most embarrassing memory? Who do they get along with least at work? Who is their best friend? These kinds of questions lead to enriching conversations and help partners know and be known by one another. This is the kind of stuff that can make you feel like the other person "gets" you. Like so many wonderful things, Love Maps is also available as an app called Gottman Card Decks. One of the first assignments I give couples in our sessions is to go home and start using the Love Maps questions to get back into a different, more stress-reducing, friendship building kind of conversation. When you have a good idea about your partner's Love Maps, you build emotional intimacy, which is often a prerequisite of physical intimacy, by the way, if you needed more motivation to try these out ASAP. If you have experienced some distance between you and partner, or if you have toddlers and haven't finished a complete sentence or thought with your partner in the last little 3-5 years, you may think that asking these questions could be discouraging; that finding out how much you don't know about each other is a bad sign. In reality, you are reconnecting when you ask these questions. It's a win-win game—either you know the answer for your partner—YAY!—, or you don't, and they tell you and you learn something, growing closer as a result—also YAY!
So you see, who needs Bora Bora, diamond jewelry, or other expensive gifts? Well, I mean, if you're giving them away, I'll take them. But know that those things will be meaningless and will not achieve your real end goal unless you've taken care to tend to the small things. When you rejoice in the mundane and make much of the mediocre, everything else, the big and small alike, tend to take care of themselves and fall into place. Steward the little, everyday moments, and it will yield a lifetime of love that no grand gesture can match.
Rachel Innerarity, MA LPC