Covid has tested our relationships, and while reports of divorce are up, so are reports from people saying they've grown closer than ever before, even among couples who've been together for decades.
What accounts for the relationships that last through severe stresses like Covid, versus those that fall apart in the face of such a challenge?
Much of it boils down to a simple question that couples almost never think to ask each other: "How do you know that I truly love you?"
Most people think they know the answer to that question - and most are wrong.
Therefore, "How do we each get the experience of being loved?" is perhaps the core, the kernel of the question.
The problem is twofold.
First, we can never really know what another person is thinking or feeling: we can only observe their behavior and draw inferences and conclusions from that.
The only opportunity we have to vicariously experience what it's like inside another person's mind is well-written fiction, which is one of the reasons novels have such an appeal: they give the reader a vicarious sense of being inside the mind of another person. But beyond that, we don't have that available to us, because we don't know how to read minds. It's not a human competency or capability.
The second is that we judge others by our own standards. If I'm a person who feels loved when somebody hugs me me, I'm most likely going to try to show love to another person by hugging them. But what if they experience the feeling of being loved when somebody brings them an unexpected gift, or are served a special meal, and hugs are relatively meaningless to them?
This isn't an abstraction: it's a very real problem of communication, in relationships ranging from those with our spouses to those with our friends or children.
And people tend to think that they know the answer, "Oh, I know it when I see it; I know it when I feel it; I know it when I hear it." But how do you know that the other person is experiencing being loved? "Well, I can tell by their behavior." But how do you really know?
We all experience love differently, and what we want to do or give to express it is often quite different from what we should be doing or giving to make those around us feel that we love or care about them.
The challenge for all of us is to pay attention closely to the signals others give about how they want to be loved, and then express our love to them in the way they will hear/see/feel it, no matter how odd or counter-intuitive it may seem to us. But how do we do this?
I remember the first time I really "got" this: my wife Louise and I were taking an NLP Practitioner course from psychologist Dr. Leif Roland at the NLP Center of Atlanta three decades or so ago.
We were sitting with other people taking the class, and Leif turned to me and said, "Thom, how and when do you know, with a strong element of certainty, that Louise loves you?"
And I said, "When she touches me." I didn't add it out-loud, but thought, "Isn't it that way for everybody?"
Leif said, "OK, that's interesting," and turned to Louise and asked her, "Louise, how and when do you know that Thom loves you?"
I was sitting there waiting for her to say, "When he hugs me" or "kisses me" or something like that, which is the collection of stuff that makes me feel loved. But, instead, she said, "When we have coffee in the morning and talk about our day, discussing the big issues of our lives together and digging into really meaningful things."
It completely rattled me. I'd lived with her for a long time at that point, fifteen or twenty years, and I hadn't realized that coffee and meaningful conversation, for her, was the key trigger that made her feel loved.
Of course she likes to be hugged and kissed, but conversation over coffee was the time and place where she got her sense of "I am loved." And I'd been trying to get out of that for years, even protesting at times, "I don't have time to drink coffee with you in the morning!"
We could psychoanalyze it and say it goes back to our childhood and I was more frequently hugged by my parents and she had more dinner-table conversations with hers, and maybe that's the case, or maybe it's just the way we're wired, maybe it's genetics and temperament: Who knows? But it's what's so, and we're not going to change things that make each of us feel loved by the other.
She's wired the way she's wired and has the experiences she has, and I'm wired the way I am and have the experiences I have. And rather than try to make her feel loved by frequently touching her, now I know that if I want her to feel loved, all I have to say is, "Let's sit down and have some coffee and talk." And she gets the sense that she's being heard, and that's very important to her in a relationship, and the quality of our relationship improved, making her more likely to give me the affection that I wanted because it makes me feel loved.
So now, the way that I get what I want out of our relationship is to either give her what I know she wants, or explicitly ask for what I want, saying, for example, "Hey, I need a hug."
Unfortunately, most couples don't ever go through this process, don't ever ask each other this core question. In fact, a lot of couples actively avoid asking the question or giving the information, particularly when their relationship is under stress like being locked into a house for a year to avoid dying from a pandemic.
We're instinctively wary of telling others, especially our intimate partners, what the things are that make us feel loved because of power dynamics in relationships. It's a terrible double-bind.
If I tell you how to make me feel loved, then I'm handing you the power to withhold it from me. And if you tell me how I can make you feel loved, then you're handing me the power to withhold it from you.
In intimate relationships where people haven't figured out that if they don't explicitly say what they want then they aren't going to get it, very often they play out this story of "protecting" what they want, what they need, so that the other person can't use it as a weapon against them. Then they "mindread," imagining reasons why the other person isn't "loving" them, when in fact the partner is simply being themselves.
Not revealing how you feel loved will protect you from your partner playing "withhold," but the price is terrible: you'll rarely get what you want in this regard, and your relationship can disintegrate as a result.
I was startled decades ago when Louise and I asked each of our children what made them feel loved. One said that she felt loved when she was hugged, or told "I love you." Another said he felt loved when we took him to a restaurant without his siblings and shared a meal, spending special alone time with him. A third said that she felt loved when we taught her things.
I'd always assumed that when I told any one of them that I loved them that they'd then know that I loved them - but those words were only meaningful to one of the three.
This concept also applies to less intimate relationships.
It's like asking the boss, "Exactly how do you want me to do this? What's the outcome that you want look like? How will you know that I've done this job correctly?"
Or with a friend: "What are things I do that help you know that I've really been here for you?"
There's a variety of ways to do this, but they all basically have the same essential core concept.
Learning to ask people how they experience things is the best and most effective to turn relationships of all sorts from apathy, competition or adversity to collaboration, caring and win-win.
Only then can you consciously know you did a good job, are a good friend, and are truly loved.
Originally posted on thomhartmann.medium.com.