When do our family interactions become toxic?
I fell in love with Robert within a month. You can call me crazy, say I’m naïve, or tell me I really ought to be more careful with my heart, but the thing about falling in love—“falling” being the key word—is that it’s not something so easily controlled.
Our first date was coffee at my favorite café in the city, followed two days later by a not-so-graceful, sweaty swing dance lesson, and another two days later, an evening summer stroll through the storied streets of Old Town Scottsdale, where we eventually found ourselves parked at a tiny, historic cowboy bar.
Those early, exciting weeks zoomed by, and we remained happily intoxicated within our chemical-laden, adventure-driven “new relationship” bubble. We hungrily devoured each other’s answers to those 36 questions Mandy Len Catron wrote about in The New York Times’ “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. And we did. We fell in love.
All of that was exactly a year ago.
Things are going well, and through the natural ups-and-downs, through the adventures and the quieter moments, Robert and I have found ourselves quite comfortable together. Comfort is good, of course, but everyone’s familiar with the phrase, “Don’t get too comfortable,” as it relates to any aspect of life. And so, when the electrifying buzz of a fresh relationship settles into a soft undercurrent of gentle pulses, you become aware of the fact that fostering closeness takes real work.
What’s a couple to do when they fall in love, and then fall into the pattern of making nightly dinners, taking regular evening strolls, and spending the weekend (again) with family or friends? Three-day getaways certainly keep the adventure alive, while funny kitchen mishaps or cuddle dates on the couch never get old. Still, I wanted to equip myself with a relationship toolbelt that’d help maintain our current trajectory of intimacy, so I consulted psychotherapist Patrick Wanis, who specializes in human behavior and relationships.
My specific request was to learn about short, simple exercises that any couple could do together to strengthen their bond. Here’s what he recommended, along with my personal experience implementing them. They might come across hokey, but they also worked.
Find a quiet, comfortable, and, perhaps, picturesque location where you can temporarily forget about the world and focus on each other. Sit down and face your partner, holding hands, and then take turns using the following statement: “[Your partner’s name], the beauty I see in you is…”
For example, “Maureen, the beauty I see in you is that you’re always so patient,” or “Jeffrey, the beauty I see in you is that you work so hard to reach your goals.” The list doesn’t have to be long, and the compliment doesn’t have to be revolutionary. Express thoughts that your partner is not used to hearing, and be earnest and sincere in your delivery.
Alternate back and forth for as long as you like—even if it’s only two minutes—expressing the things you find beautiful about your partner. When you’re the listener, says Wanis, just thank them—don’t deny, deflect, or negate what your partner says. Instead, welcome and embrace those words as you hold each other’s gaze.
“It will come off as contrived and cheesy and kitsch the first time you do it,” warns Wanis. “When you’re planning it, you’re gonna go, ‘Oh this is really awful. This is so stupid. Whose idea is this? I can’t believe I have to look in her eyes. I don’t want to hold his hands or say this.’ There is going to be resistance.”
I found that to be true when employing this exercise (and the next one). In fact, it took my partner and I several engine revs before we were even able to utter those first words. It felt awkward, like we were about to force a compliment. But the exchange became easier once we got started. There were some tears, there were laughs, and there were embraces. It’s cheesy, yes, but it’s also incredibly reaffirming, and it simply feels good to make your partner feel good.
This can be a continuation of the previous exercise, or you can do it at another time. Again, you want to face your partner and hold hands, then take turns saying the following: “[Partner’s name], I’m grateful to have you in my life because A, B, C, D, E.” Then choose one item from that list to elaborate on.
For example: “Amber, I’m grateful to have you in my life because you’re reliable, you’re trustworthy, you’re nurturing, you’re funny, and you’re patient. Because you’re patient, it’s taught me to be more patient and as a result I’m less reactive, I’m much calmer and less stressed out.”
“It’s a variation of the first [exercise], the difference is that you’re elaborating on why you’re grateful for this person,” says Wanis. In other words, you’re not just listing the other person’s qualities, you’re explaining how your partner has positively impacted and benefited you.
Note that both exercises begin by saying your partner’s name. Wanis explains that this makes it a more personal exchange, and that it reconditions the mind to associate saying your partner’s full name with love instead of, say, anger or irritation. Think about situations where we use someone’s entire name—it’s often uttered in a strictly professional setting, or when someone is being scolded. When you use it to foster love and connection, it can be quite powerful.
There are several variations of this exercise, so employ it however you prefer. In any scenario, you’ll want to reach into your stash of movie or concert ticket stubs, little love notes, receipts, photographs, or any tokens you’ve collected during your relationship.
Option one is to purchase a scrapbook or journal and reminisce together about each memento as you stick it to the pages. Consider it a living, breathing memory book that you add to every couple of months. Another (easier) option is to simply go through the items together and talk about them. For both methods, discuss why these moments were meaningful enough for you to save a tangible reminder.
A third option—and one that feels more spontaneous—is to take a photograph of one of the items and email the picture to your partner. You can say something along the lines of, “Look what I found. I kept this because I wanted a reminder of X, Y, Z.” Wanis says to use email over a text message because it feels more deliberate and official. A text works for quick, convenient interactions, but taking the time to write out a subject and format an entire note shows that you took the extra effort and time to think about your message and share the memento.
“[In this exercise] we are reaffirming and reinforcing the significance of all the little things that happen in our life that have great meaning,” explains Wanis.
I chose the second option: to simply go through our collections together. My partner and I agreed that this exercise was the most fun, and lighthearted and natural feeling. (Maybe because we have a tendency to reminisce often, anyway.) Seeing that receipt from the time we found a worm on our pizza or rereading that silly love note he mailed when he went out of town helped us relive those moments and remember how much fun we have together. It was also touching to see what things were kept, especially since they’re often saved without the other knowing.
This final exercise seems the simplest, but it may actually require the most vulnerability from both partners. For this one, sincerely ask your partner: “What can I do that would make you feel more loved and more special in our relationship?”
Wanis says you may be met with resistance when you ask this—or with, “I already feel loved and special”—but go deeper and insist that you really want to know the answer. You must also be prepared to act according to your partner’s response.
This exercise promotes communication and combats the false idea that, if your partner actually loves you, they should be able to instinctively know what you need without you saying it. Wanis says that isn’t a realistic mindset; communication, which he defines as “sharing” with each other, takes real, conscious effort.
One morning, a couple days after doing these exercises, I got a text from Robert asking if I thought they’d went the way I thought they would. I had gone in without any expectations and told him that. We both expressed that, yes, we did feel somewhat closer, but the important takeaway was that those acknowledgements of beauty, those expressions of gratitude, and that time spent reminiscing, are things we need to do regularly to continue fostering love and connection.
These exercises aren’t about trying to catch that original high. Instead, they’re about looking beyond that high, going further, and falling into each other so you can continue to fall deeper in love.