Would you be my Valentine?
When February comes around, most of us have no option but to think of our love life. The multiple red hearts at every store, the specials in restaurants, the roses everywhere, the delicious chocolates at every cash register, etc. Let’s face it, the commercial aspect of this celebration gets our attention one way or another. I used to be very annoyed with the materialistic focus of this day. I always wondered what happened to the days in which this celebration was a simple opportunity to show our genuine love to a special someone. I still remember the morning I went down for breakfast (I might have been 6 or 7 years old) and found on my plate a little handmade heart with a note inside saying “from your biggest admirer, Love, Dad”. Despite my young age, I knew how special it was to have received a love note from my father. I sure remember smiling the entire day, feeling special and proud. And as I am writing these words, I can’t help but smile.
I also know from personal experience that as an adult, this holiday has caused me to have some “poor me” self-conversations and pity talks. It is never fun to see every couple around you getting ready to go on a special date and all you have planned for the day is your same old routine… One year after my divorce, I decided that I was going to give this holiday a whole new meaning, and from that day on, I will think of Valentine’s Day as the day to celebrate the health of my heart and all the healthy relationships in my life. That year, my Valentine’s Day celebration was to go for a run with my father. Since then, I have gone for a run every Valentine’s Day. Years later, I decided to host a party for all the single Valentines and let me tell you, we showed those couples that singles can also have fun!
For the past four years, I have spent Valentine’s Day in the company of a man I love and admire very much. On our first Valentine’s Day, he sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with a chocolate box and a beautiful note. While I thought the entire scene was romantic and special, the one thing that has survived throughout the years is that note. I still have it, and like my father’s note, each time I read it, it brings a big smile to my face.
So, these memories and experiences got me thinking about the importance of celebrating healthy relationships as we are approaching the big “V” day. This day does not have to be about spending, or about thinking what you don’t have in your life, but rather on reflecting what constitutes healthy relationships and how to nurture them. Below, I am sharing five points that I stand by when it comes to the cultivation of healthy love!
#1. Don’t compare your relationship/partner to others
We have all been victims of this bad habit at some point in our lives. But tell me, when has a comparison ever come back in your favour? It is easy to think that the grass is greener on the other side because our imagination can make castles out of thin air, but we all know that is just an illusion. I have noticed in my private practice as a counsellor and in my personal life that when we compare ourselves to others, we end up having a pity party. When it comes to relationships, comparison is never healthy and opposite to what we may believe is true. Comparing your relationship to that of someone else’s does not help improve yours. Let me explain this better: when you compare your relationship, you begin by noticing what you do not have in yours and by imagining what others may have. Your focus centers on the “lacks” and flaws of your imperfect relationship, creating an underlying sense of dissatisfaction. While this may be productive and healthy in some cases (like if you notice your partner’s behaviours are not normal but abusive), the majority of the time you are holding your partner and the relationship to a standard of what you think others have. This perception often comes from our romantic ideas of love and the illusion Hollywood has sold us about “the right match being perfect in every way”. But let’s get real, relationships are complex and that is what makes them interesting. They have ups and downs, growth, learning and honeymoon periods, but they are never perfect. Why you asked? Because you and your partner are human beings and as such, you come with a bundle of emotional dynamics and beliefs that make you unique, complex and imperfect!
When you find yourself comparing your relationship to others, ask yourself this simple question: What am I insecure about? This habit of comparison usually comes from a fear and it is important to face that fear itself instead of creating a problem where none exists. Rather than comparing yourself and your mate to others, keep your attention on what is working well for you guys and if there is room for growth, a conversation that does not involve “so and so are doing this but we are not” or, “why can’t you be like my friend’s husband?” can be avoided by simply stating what your needs are and how you think those could be met with your partner’s support.
#2. Don’t bottle your feelings up
I know this is easier said than done, but the real secret to any healthy relationship is proper communication that it is based on honesty and openness. I often hear my clients telling me that the reason they were not honest with their partners, friends or relatives is because they “did not want to hurt them”. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that by being honest and authentic, by expressing our sincere feelings, we will create hurt and conflict. So instead, we opt to not say what is bothering us, to not be fully honest and to keep up an appearance that all is good until the tank is full and we explode. How does that not create hurt and conflict??? It doesn’t make sense, right?
Even though I think my communication skills are very good, upon reflection I noticed that even I leave things unsaid and feelings unexpressed for the sake of “avoiding conflict” (don’t get me wrong, sometimes you have to pick your battles, but there has to be a good balance) and thus I’ve decided that I no longer bottle feelings inside. I make sure that I find the right words and the right time to express them, but keeping them in is not an option. In a recent conversation with my husband, he expressed that for him, it is easier to bottle things up than it is to express them right away. He is not a man of many words and he can definitely use some pointers on clear communication (shhh don’t tell him I said that) yet he tends to be a straight shooter and has no issues saying what’s on his mine. But when it comes to our relationship, this habit of bottling things up becomes his way of dealing with frustrations and it ends up creating the exact scenario we both try to avoid: conflict!
So, if you tend to bottle things up, make it a new habit to set 30 minutes a week to talk to your partner and express what has bothered you that week. While this may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, think about the long term benefits: you will always know where you stand with your partner as you take away the “guess what is wrong with me” games as well as avoiding a buildup of emotions that create resentment and other not-so-fun feelings. When you are both done talking, close the conversation by stating what you have been grateful for during the week!
Word of advice: for this exercise to work, not only must you be willing to be fully honest but you must also be able to hear your partner share with you his/her frustrations without putting up a wall or becoming defensive. Remember, it takes two to tango!
#3 Cultivate independence
The Dalai Lama said it best: “Give the one you love wings to fly, roots to come back, and reasons to stay”. It took me a long time to understand the concept of love that speaks of individuality within the couple. I used to think that “being attached to the hip” was the only way to cultivate a long-term relationship. And while I am sure this works for some, I have learned over the years that the more individuality a couple can maintain, the stronger their ties. All faiths describe love as freedom, yet in our application of love, we attempt to control and to limit the freedom of our partners. Think about it: do you love your partner in a way that makes them feel completely free to choose their doings, their friendships, their habits, etc.? Or do you have a strict set of rules by which they must abide in order for you to “trust” them? I use the word “trust” because I see it many times mistakenly used instead of control. So, think about the last time you used it with your partner. Was it in a sentence like “How can I trust that you will come home early”? If you think about it, what you meant was: “How can I control that you come home early”. Are you generally uncomfortable when your partner wants to do an activity without you? Or, do you encourage that? Love is about allowing our partners to be who they are. Allowing them to continue to do the activities, sports, hobbies and friendships they had before they met us (if they so choose to). Love is based on security, not control. So, if you want to encourage a healthy bond between you and your partner, cultivate your independence and encourage them to do the same without feeling threaten by it. Know that when we feel free, we feel safe. And if we feel free and safe within our relationship, why would we not choose to remain in that happy place?
#4 Have a date night, free of distractions
It is easy to get caught up in the routine of life where responsibilities seem to carry such a heavy weight. We forget that we came into this life to enjoy it. Life does get busier by the day, and I know that when in a routine, it is hard to break free and do things differently. I often hear couples talk about feeling this way after children or, after many years of being together. Some of us may even think that because we are married or, living together, the going out on dates was something of the past. My husband and I are both entrepreneurs and live pretty attached to our work devices like the laptop I am using to type this, and the phones that keep us up-to-date on the day-to-day functioning of our companies. We have not had the fortune to have children yet, but we have found ways to be so occupied that seeing each other for dates was a challenge. In the last few years, however, we figured that life was only going to become busier and that it was up to us to set priorities and dedicate some time to courting and cultivating our marriage. Without fail, we plan a date night each week. This night may differ from week to week, and sometimes we are lucky to have more than one date night. However, we have consciously decided that no matter what, the night of our date is as precious as any other important meetings and we do not give it up. Date nights allow us to leave the routine behind and reconnect in a fun way. We look forward to this day and plan different activities each week. If you have followed my advice on point #3, then you will really appreciate this quality time spent just the two of you. On date night, leave the phones on silence (yes, there is always the potential for an emergency so check your phone once or twice but that’s it) and leave the children behind; trust me, they will enjoy a night with the sitter and no rules. Be forgiving the things that usually annoy you about your partner (like if you can hear him chewing - just like you did on the first date, ignore it and gazed into his charming eyes), make sure the activities you do on date night are mutually enjoyable (after all, the whole point is to have fun), and be flexible. If nights don’t work for you, then make it a breakfast or a lunch date and be as creative as possible.
#5 Accept and cherish your differences:
Last but not least, and I am thinking I should have started with this point, I am not sure why, as a community, we feel so threaten by our differences. We think that the more similar we are, the better along we will get and the less opportunities to drift away we will have. And obviously there is some truth to that, but what excitement comes from all thinking and behaving the same way? I personally believe that within our differences there is a huge amount of wealth! That’s right! Looking at how your partner differs from you without judgement and fear but rather with openness and curiosity can make you respect, cherish and even encourage those differences. There are some major differences of values, opinions and characters that I would definitely agree is best not to match, but for the majority of couples out there, I think those differences are what makes your partner so unique. These differences, if fueled properly, can be the engine that runs your relationship long term while encouraging some of that individuality we were talking about in the point above. Finding your differences as a source of growth, positive challenge, and as an opportunity to see things from a different perspective will not only make you thrive in your relationship, but it will also make you and your partner become stronger as a couple that is not threaten by diversity. Embrace all those little things your partner does differently. If you did not like their perspective from the start, you wouldn’t be with them in the first place, right? A difference of opinion is an opportunity to grow and to discover new ways. I encourage you shift your perception on differences and embrace it like you may embrace other forms of diversity.
I hope you find this article interesting and I welcome all questions and feedback! Happy Valentine’s Day!