The ecstasy we feel when our love is returned is greatly based on the feeling that we are fully accepted, approved of, and free to be who we are. This is what, as children, we needed most from our parents, but rarely received, whether due to parents’ lack of communication skills, lack of time, normal adult – child conflicts, or other circumstances. The longing for that absolute, unconditional acceptance by parents later becomes the core of the longing we feel in romantic love. We want to get as much of this feeling as possible, and keep it going.
In the very beginning of a new relationship, this feeling of being loved and recognized as who we are pushes everything else in the background. But with time, as misunderstandings, conflicts and incompatibilities accumulate, this feeling we long for slowly dissipates. If partners lack compassion and communication skills, this process is faster. In abusive relationships, the passion is fed for a while by unpredictability and childish hope, but this is unhealthy passion which leaves many scars and demands a high price. Hopefully you are not in that kind of relationship.
But even with good intentions, most people in relationships eventually find themselves feeling not appreciated enough and not really understood. They might start dreaming of a new relationship that would fulfill the original longing, they might focus on children as substitutes for the love they need (which is also not healthy, if the parent is the needy one), or they might lose hope and resign themselves to a dull marriage. They might be resentful of their partner for not accepting them unconditionally, not recognizing the fact that a partner is not a parent, and they have the right to some expectations, needs and conditions. Yet, it’s a good idea to give your partner as much understanding and acceptance as you can, as long as it doesn’t mean neglecting your own needs and boundaries.
After several years of relationship, most couples start taking each other for granted and stop doing little things which helped their partners feel appreciated and approved of in the early stages of the relationship. How to avoid all this as much as possible? (My advice here presumes you are both responsible, unselfish and have good intentions, otherwise at least one of you is wasting time.)
In the first place, take care to think about your partner in the way you did in the beginning, as much as possible: notice qualities you like and be compassionate to their faults which do not burden or threaten you. If you feel some parts of the partner’s behavior upsetting, consider if those are irrelevant details that just remind you of your earlier unpleasant experiences, or is it true irresponsibility and neglect.
Think about how you can show your partner approval and deep understanding. Listen carefully to what they say and perhaps for the things they don’t quite say. Imagine how they feel and what they long to hear. Communicate from your heart rather than from your old, automated habits. Show interest and ask relevant questions. Be sure to show you appreciate your partner’s efforts and express your feelings verbally and non-verbally. Also, take care to be genuine when doing these things; doing them as a chore would feel more manipulative than anything.
Keep your individuality and freedom
Now, some people claim that if you are “too good” to your partner, (s)he will not appreciate you and will go on looking for some “jerk” or “bitch”. This can happen in two cases:
- either you are choosing immature people to fall in love with (which might be based on your own childhood experience), or
- you don’t take care to preserve your own individuality, identity, self-esteem, and boundaries in a relationship. A strong, independent person with their own goals in life is an attractive person. Don’t try to be like siamese twins with your partner. Passion is built on respect and admiration too; codependence and trying to please too hard indicate lack of self-esteem and are not attractive.
It’s in human nature to not appreciate what is predictable and safe. You have probably experienced wanting something for a long time, only for it to lose a lot of its appeal a few days or weeks after you acquired it. For us humans, if something is less available, we are prone to appreciate it more. Some unpredictability, insecurity and time apart prevents taking each other for granted and reminds us of the importance of the relationship. I don’t condone playing manipulative games, but true, authentic independence and a wide scope in life.
It can feel counter-intuitive, but it’s real – some freedom and possibility of choice makes a relationship more stable and intense, not less. It motivates people to keep investing in it. Children of such a couple can therefore receive more real safety, as well as better role models.
That’s why I generally wouldn’t recommend marriage. While I believe in and live the quality of a long-term monogamous relationship, when I was still a child of 10 or so I decided I wouldn’t ever get married, as I’ve already seen how easy it is for married people to take each other for granted. Years of experience working with people and their relationships only confirmed that conclusion. Marriage is in essence a promise of control: control over life, control over emotions, control over choice. What we feel is under control, we can easily label as “low priority” in our minds.
I’m not saying it’s wise to change partners and not take relationships seriously – that would be shallow and you’d lose the chance of experiencing the deep connection and understanding most people long for. But you can preserve your individuality and sense of freedom even in a stable relationship. For example, continue to practice your hobbies independently, go out with your friends, keep challenging yourself and trying new things. Occasional periods of separation such as separate holidays usually remind us to appreciate each other. Being able to say no, to keep your dignity in a conflict, to negotiate in healthy ways, make your decisions and keep them, are the signs of a strong character. On the other hand, nagging, accusation, yelling and insults are expression of feeling helpless, feeling you depend of the other person to change so that you can feel good.
I know that this kind of relationship is not so easy to create, either because of social pressure, or financial obstacles. But at least do your best in that direction, and it will mean a lot. Start to save for your financial independence as soon as starting your adult life if you can, so that you’s never feel dependent of someone else.
Keep those hormons going, too
Besides out of respect and delight with a partner’s qualities, the passion in a relationship stems from sexual attraction. This kind of attraction is often lost after the birth of children: the woman will then usually focus on children, and even if she tries to be attentive to her partner too, she will often be too tired and lack focus to succeed. In the first few years of a child’s life, you might need to accept the fact that you don’t have too much time for each other anymore. But as soon as the child becomes more independent, it’s important for parents to start putting effort in their relationship again. Keeping the sexual attraction alive, often means encouraging the man to feel masculine, and the woman to feel feminine, in the same time avoiding rigid and burdensome prejudice.
Most men feel particularly masculine when they can actively support their partner and make her happy, receive her gratitude and feel wanted and needed. Most women feel feminine when they feel understood, supported and safe to relax and let go. (For obvious reasons, this principle cannot be applied to people with more fluid gender identity.)
Through millions of years of evolution, a woman was mostly focused on children and vulnerable in a dangerous environment, while the role of a man was to physically protect and help her. Many women in modern society feel that too much responsibility is on them: professional job, children, housework… – they can’t relax and don’t feel supported, so they stop feeling feminine. This creates a sense of unfulfillment and resentment which some women cannot easily explain to themselves.
This kind of resentment usually motivates traditional “nagging”. A woman who feels that she can’t relax and that the man’s support is lacking, might not be able to find words to explain it to him, so her tension and frustration might come out in criticising small details in the man’s behavior. On the other side, men, in the civilization which enables them to be lazier than before and reduces the traditional ways of male support to women, can lose their sense of masculinity and become passive, or confused in front of women’s demands.
New solutions for old needs
I’m certainly not trying to say that we should return to traditional life-style and reduce the possibilities for women (and men) to explore the other aspects of their personalities besides motherhood (or traditional “manly” activities). We are not just biological reproduction machines, but much more complex than that. To focus on only one aspect of existence while neglecting the others, is never healthy. In the same way, we should use our biology wisely, rather than being its slaves. One of the big advantages of the modern society is the physical and material independence of women, which gives them more choice and opportunity than ever before. Giving that independence up, avoiding responsibility, is not only unhealthy for a woman, but reflects on her partner too.
Instead, we need to create new models of behavior, through which a man can feel that he has an important role in his woman’s life and can help her relax. As the modern way of life is more diverse and complex than ever before, it makes no sense to give detailed advice. The best thing is to… talk to your partner. Ask your partner what helps him or her to feel more masculine/feminine and explain what kind of behavior encourages complementary feelings in you and triggers romance. What is important is to avoid rigid demands and focus on playful exploration instead.
Again – don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate rigid gender roles, which created so much suffering and humiliation in the past and often still do in the present. Even with all the negative aspects of modern society, we do have much more physical security, freedom of choice and opportunity to explore more subtle aspects of our lives and personalities. Still, the instincts developed through evolution are still within us, and while – luckily – they can’t control our behavior, we can use them wisely to increase romance and passion.
There is no need to emphasize your gender in other aspects of life – business, hobbies, parenthood, friendships etc. – unless that’s what you want. But when it comes to romance, try using the more “gendered” aspect of you. You might not be used to doing so, but you might end up liking it. Just make sure the way you express it is genuine, your own, rather than following other people’s models.
Apply playful attitude instead of rigid demands. Flexibility is the foundation of good relationships – at least when it comes to details, rather than important life values. We meet so many people who fight bitterly about details like how to cut butter, or the famous toilet seat… sometimes you need to think about if those details are really important enough to endanger the quality of your partnership. Perhaps your partner, against all your reasons and pleas, will never make it a habit to put food back into the fridge or dirty dishes into the sink… but it doesn’t mean that he is not a good partner. Many relationships fail because people attribute bad intentions to each other, on the basis of petty details in behavior. Can you show understanding and compassion to your partner, give them space when they are in a bad mood, irritable, and all together not at their best? Then you can earn their trust, respect and motivation to put effort in the relationship with you… if they are emotionally healthy.
Differences in the way we give love can often create misunderstandings. Some people express their feelings through words and conversation, while others want physical touch or doing things together. Some regard gifts to be an important expression of love, while for others gifts are quite secondary. If you don’t notice the way your partner expresses love to you, because this is just not the way in which you want to receive it… explain it to your partner. Try to notice good intentions, even if the behavior is not quite what you would prefer. In this way, you can prevent unnecessary conflicts.
When is it enough?
On the other hand, there are people who don’t trust their own instincts enough, so they allow themselves to be manipulated into accepting neglect, humiliation and control. Some women believe that being independent and giving space to their partners means accepting their lack of responsibility and respect, or their promiscuity. Some men are manipulated into thinking that they are selfish, uncaring and irresponsible if they don’t fulfill every wish of their partners. Some couples just don’t recognize that they are not compatible, so they waste time accusing and trying to change each other.
If you are a man and want to make your partner happy, but are not sure how to distinguish between healthy support and acting like a father, consider the questions that follow. The same questions can help women who are not sure if they demand too much, or their partner is really just acting like a fragile plant in a sensitive process of bonding to a couch:
- Is your partner generally independent and responsible, or does she expect others (that is, you) to take responsibility for her needs, feelings and desires?
- Is she flexible and tolerant if not everything is her way, or does she criticize and belittle you for not reading her mind?
- Does she express her expectations and complaints in a calm and relaxed way, or through playing a victim, manipulation or aggression?
- Do you feel that there is balance in sharing work and responsibilities, or do you feel that almost everything is on you?
- Is it pleasurable and fulfilling for you to do things for her, or is it a burden and obligation?
- Does she express pleasure and appreciation when you help her, or do you feel that nothing is enough?
If you’re used to rational analysis only, instead of hearing what your intuition has to say, it might be very difficult for you to find an answer. Listen to your feelings – not those superficial and often defensive ones, but deeper feelings, which are usually calmer and more comprehensive. It’s important to recognize that partnership is not symbiosis; you are still two individuals. You are still adults and responsible for your lives and your needs. Partnership means cooperation – but preserving a sense of personal space and boundaries. Only then can we feel a healthy passion.