Couples trying to revive the romance they felt in the early stages of their relationships sometimes turn to big, headline strategies to demonstrate their affection for their mate. They take exotic vacations, buy expensive gifts, or make elaborate Valentine’s Day or anniversary efforts in the hopes that with intensive, regularly scheduled maintenance, love will trundle on. Alternately, if relationship stress has reached a saturation point, they count on efforts like these to solve problems.
While these activities can send a jolt of joy into a relationship, their results don’t last long. By the time a couple reaches the airport back home or the fancy bouquet wilts, the old lackluster feeling usually returns.
It’s hard to sustain love through the day-to-day grind of full-time jobs and the needs of children, pets, or aging parents. At times, tending to your closest relationship can seem like just another duty in a long list of weekly chores. Without trust that your partner will reciprocate your efforts, it can also seem like a risk to be the one to make the first attempt. From years of leading workshops with thousands of couples with my wife of more than 25 years, Helen, with whom I created the Imago therapy movement, I can say with certainty that a little investment (from your heart, not your wallet), small changes in the way you treat your spouse will not only lead to his or her happiness, but to warmly returned, mutual support that will cushion you from your own life’s daily blows and demands.
Instead of lavishing money and attention on your spouse a few times a year, my suggestion would be to lavish curiosity on them throughout your time together. Adopt an approach of open, engaged interest. When you’re curious, you learn new things about your mate—his desires, fears and struggles. You’ll hear secrets, wishes, regrets. You’ll learn practical things, like what she really would like to do on her birthday. Even if you’ve known each other for years, you’d be surprised how much there still is to know about your partner. In the hundreds of workshops Helen and I have presented over the years, we continue to be amazed at how frequently we hear, “I never knew that about him!” or “I just heard this amazing story!” from spouses who have been married for 1, 10, or 50 years.
One of the best strategies I know to achieve a ‘state of curiosity’ is to spend a small amount of time each day simply listening to your mate. That is, really listening. What do I mean by this? Think truthfully about what “listening” typically looks like for you. Are you watching TV on the couch half attentive while your wife unloads about her pressures at work? Are you busy playing with the dog while your husband tells you excitedly about an interesting conversation he had that day? We all do this. But this kind of passive, distracted listening offers little benefit, and can damage your relationship in the long run.
With our partners, it is sometimes easy to notice, and sometimes easy to forget, that we frequently behave towards each other the way young children do with their parents. Just as a child tugs on her mother’s skirt to get her attention and tell her about the fascinating things she saw in school that day, we are constantly seeking affirmation from our significant others. We want to know that they notice us. We want to see that they are interested in us. At the core, we want to feel that we exist by having the person we care about witness our own lives. Many of us can remember viscerally moments when we felt tuned out, shut down, or criticized by our parents. Subtle things that we do in relationships can mimic these moments, and inadvertently dredge up childhood pain. When a spouse appears repeatedly distracted, harried or dismissive as you attempt to tell them things that feel important to you, memories of childhood pain, administered again and again by the person you love, add up to a level of fear, resentment and anxiety around him or her.
Change can only come through replacing frequent inattentive communication with less frequent, but more thoughtful conscious, curious communication. When you do connect, really take the time to listen before responding. Reflect on what your partner says and relay your understanding back to her. Don’t jump immediately to dispensing advice or bringing up your own related ideas. Demonstrate with your body language, your attentive gaze, and the questions you ask that you have really heard her. Being empathically curious doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’re innately interested in the topics she is discussing. As a comparison, you may not be terribly interested in the Disney TV show your five year old son loves. Of course, however, you are interested in his experience, his life, and his ideas. You take care when interacting with him to mirror back his enthusiasm and excitement. In the same way, it’s much more important to your spouse to see that you are eager to be a partner to their experience—to hear their impressions and motivations for feeling or thinking the way they do—than that you like or care about the exact same things.
I have also experienced that this process is kind of, well, sexy for couples. Something about re-experiencing that your partner is really present and there with you reignites the feelings you had when you were new to each other. So don’t be surprised when this technique leads to new techniques between the sheets.
Whether you implement curiosity expressly, or do so without mentioning it to your spouse, you will quickly find that the care, attention and interest you display towards her will naturally be returned to you. This is a process that softens two hearts at once. Really demonstrating curiosity toward your partner, and seeing it returned to you, will remind you of the early days of your courtship, when finding out new things about each other was a constant thrill. Over time you will find yourself feeling more open, supported and supportive. Your relationship will become—rather than another stress—a reprieve from all the stresses in life. A soothing retreat—and not one you have to take an airplane to get to.