True Love

True Love

“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.

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.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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