Under the press of everything you have to do as a parent, combined with feeling tired and frazzled, it's only natural to feel a little distant from your mate. But as the saying goes, "love is a verb," which means that an intimate relationship ultimately rests on how we act toward our partner. Often it's very small things that make a big difference.
Let's assume that you and he are not doing negative things toward each other, such as yelling, calling names, threatening, hitting, belittling, or being cold and mean. On that foundation, here are four things you and he could focus on.
If either one of you does them, that will improve your relationship - and if both of you do them, all the better! It's perfectly alright to directly ask your partner to give you emotional support - and perhaps even read this column - and of course that will go better if you are being supportive yourself.
This is as simple as the desire that your partner be happy and content, rather than distressed or suffering. This is good will, the opposite of ill will. It's the attitude of compassion, kindness, and caring - the expression of the heart that says, "You matter to me, and I want things to go well for you."
When we find this attitude, this wish inside ourselves and bring it to conscious awareness, our partner can sense that - and can see it in our eyes and hear it in our tone of voice. At the end of the day, this is perhaps the most important thing we want to from our family members: not so much whether they will give us this or that, but that they CARE how it goes for us.
This is the emotional understanding of what it's like to be another person. Empathy is not agreement or approval or a waiving of our own rights. For example, imagine a political figure you dislike: it's possible to open up to a sense of what it might be like to live inside his or her skin with wanting to vote for that person!
Empathy is a natural ability that every normal person has. It rests on three simple skills:
- Paying attention - You know when your mind wanders to what might be on TV tonight, and so does the other person . . . Instead, try to remain fully present; if you need to, let the person know how long you're available to talk so you don't feel antsy about the time.
- Looking beneath the surface - This means wondering about the softer feelings beneath the other person's anger or stony exterior, about what might have happened to make him feel the way he does, or about the material from previous life experiences (especially childhood) that have gotten stirred up. You are not playing therapist to do this, just being a good listener.
- Checking back - As we develop a sense of what is going on inside the other person, it's often helpful to check back to make sure we got it right. For example, you could ask simple questions like: "So what really bothered you was _______ , right?" Or: "You wished _______ had happened, yes?"
This means actively relieving the other person's anxieties and giving encouragement that he or she will get through whatever challenge is being faced. Some of the great ways to do this include:
- Touch - Just a simple pat can make a huge difference, and there is a remarkable body of research showing the beneficial effects of touch on everything from soothing infants to recovery from surgery.
- Acknowledgement - Reminding the other person of his true strengths both boosts his sense of worth and gives him reasons to feel confident about dealing with the challenge, whatever it is. Acknowledgement is about the truth of his abilities and good qualities and past successes; it's not mere flattery. Consider trying to say at least one true thing before going to bed each night that acknowledges your partner. No matter how peeved you might be at dishes undone, diapers unchanged, or bills unpaid.
- Calm facts - Sometimes it helps a lot to say what you think the facts are in a worrisome situation. You've got to be careful with this one, so that the other person doesn't think you are diminishing her concerns. But when the moment is right, a cool dose of reality can be very relieving.
- Perspective - When a person is upset, the whole world tends to close in, so it's useful to get a wider view. You might ask the other person to scale the problem from one to ten, or to put it in a larger context, or to consider if it will make much difference a month or year from now. For most problems, time is on our side: wounds heal, grass grows back, we usually make more money the older we get, and all children eventually sleep through the night.
We all know what it feels like to be loving - even when we have to use our own will to bring up and express some lovingness that was not the first thing on our mind. For example, every parent has brought love to a child who was being stressful or irritating. We can certainly do the same for our mate. It's just a matter of deciding to do so. Some people do this as a matter of spiritual practice; all the great religious teachers have talked about loving those who irk or wrong us. More conventionally, you can recall something that makes you appreciate or care for your partner. Or bring to mind a sense of his or her suffering, struggles, and yearning like all of us to be happy. Then act on that loving feeling in some appropriate way: often just a small gesture, maybe a back scratch, or a smile or gentle look. Those small moments, adding up day by day, help knit a relationship together for a lifetime