It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you. —John Updike
Getting past “just tolerating” your partner
John Updike must have understood a thing or two about intimate partner, long-term relationships, and about the notion of “familiarity breeds contempt.” All of us probably know someone who spoke negatively and poorly about their spouse while that person was still alive, but once that person and relationship ended through death, the living partner is known to suddenly and vocally be extolling the beautiful virtues of their spouse.
If we could only keep those virtues and feelings about our partner at the forefront when “they are there in front of you,” as Updike so beautifully expressed. It shouldn’t take something like the death of a loved one to remind us that we need to be doing more than “just tolerating” our partner. So how do we survive and thrive in long-term, committed relationships, and still maintain that interest, presence and engagement with our loved one while they are still there in front of us?
Ways to Nurture Love & Acceptance
Relationship researcher John Gottman’s (The Marriage Clinic; 1999) work speaks to the nature of long-term relationships and how over time, they can become rigid along with our increasingly negative perceptions of our partner. In order to maintain and support a long-term relationship and emotional connection while still liking, loving, and wanting to be with one’s partner, Gottman proposes that couples engage in the relationship with intentionality and purpose. A few ways to get past “just tolerating” your partner include:
- Paying attention to the presence of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – feelings and behaviors such as defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling (withdrawing, shutting down), or contempt – are important to pay attention to so that they can be addressed and reduced. Long-term, persistent presence of one or more of these indicators (contempt in particular) is corrosive to any relationship, and undermines couples’ feelings about themselves and each other.
- Paying attention to the “magic ratio” – research shows that for every one negative behavior or interaction you experience in intimate relationship, you need five positive behaviors or interactions to balance or counter the negative experiences. This is a useful experience to pay attention to in relationships; the more persistently negative interactions and behaviors exist in our relationships, the more likely it is that we will develop increasingly negative attitudes and perceptions of our partner and thus have less tolerance or acceptance for him or her.
- Creating cognitive and emotional space for your partner – Gottman speaks to the concepts of “cognitive space” and “the emotional bank account” – these are ways for partners to develop flexibility in thinking about, and feeling for their partner/spouse. In particular, when people are engaged in a conflict that is emotionally charged and escalated, we feel emotionally flooded and over-whelmed, and less likely to be able to hold multiple experiences of our partner in the moment – thus, our partner becomes “a jerk,” or “hateful,” or just plain “intolerable.” When flooded with emotions, especially difficult ones, our minds tend to become more rigid and our perceptions tend to narrow. Therefore, we tend to “stereotype” our partner and have difficulty seeing all of their other qualities that we liked and loved in the earlier phases of the relationship. Being able to quickly recall our partner’s better characteristics and the love we have for them, even in the midst of feeling angry and flooded, provides an opportunity to be more gracious and fair in our in-the-moment assessment of our partner.
While these are just a few strategies for continuing to accept and “tolerate” one’s partner over the long haul in a relationship, they remind us of how to “love not just in memory,” but more importantly to love our partner when she or he is “right there in front of us.”
If you could use some support in creating more appreciation and love in your relationship, call us! We’d be glad to help. Call Today: 720-468-0101