As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, February 9, 2006

We are fast approaching Valentine’s Day. By now, we have all seen its traditional symbol of falling in love– Cupid taking aim at a big, red heart. This time-honored metaphor implies that we are helpless victims. Passion overwhelms us when we are struck by Cupid’s arrow, and sadness smothers us when the arrow gets plucked from our hearts. Unfortunately, we often view our ongoing relationships with a similar helplessness. However, the happy truth is that we can do a lot to nurture and even recapture love.

Below are three fundamental aspects of all healthy love relationships. As you think about your relationship (or the one you are trying to develop), consider each of these aspects in turn.

Enjoy each other’s company. Do things together. Have fun and laugh. Talk. Easy things to do, right? Absolutely… well, it’s easy on paper, anyway. In reality, time has a way of speeding up, chores and work have a way of piling up, and we, in turn, have a way of tensing up.

Because maintaining relationships aren’t on our to-do lists, they often get neglected. Either we don’t allow ourselves time to spend together, or we don’t have the energy to enjoy the time we do have. In either case, our love seems to slip away. Sometimes the relationship itself begins to feel like a drain. All we do is argue or mundanely complete the day’s chores.

Ask yourself about the quality of time you and your partner spend together. Do you meet just long enough to divvy up all of life’s to-dos? Or, has the time you spend together become an empty experience of two bodies sharing the same space? In either case, it is past time for a change.

If your problem is no time spent together, join forces to complete your to-do lists. Or, plan to meet for some fun after you have each had a set amount time alone.

If your problem is an emotional void (or worse) when you are together, refocus on what you enjoy about each other. Have you forgotten what those things are? Then mine the past and search the present for clues to what you would enjoy doing together. If it is not reasonable for you to do these things in your immediate future, plan to do them at a later time. Then, make a special effort to enjoy each other’s company while taking care of business.

Get to know each other. There is no way around it: loving someone requires that you know him. Listen. Ask questions. Learn more about your partner’s hobbies, values, dreams for your relationship, and dreams for himself.

Remember that people change. So, maintaining a relationship requires the willingness of both people to adapt to each other and to grow together. The more informed you remain about what’s important to your partner, the better you will be at continuing to support him.

Have mutual respect for each other. No two people fit together as perfectly as pieces of a puzzle. However, one of the beauties of a healthy relationship is that each person views the other with affection. Even with our differences (and sometimes because of them), we support and respect each other. Those of us who are not perfect can still enjoy a healthy relationship. We simply need to be with someone who values us– quirks, struggles and all.

While there is a lot to be said about how to be respectful, two downfalls are particularly common. These are failing to know and support your partner and undermining your partner. Each of these dynamics is toxic to relationships.

Ask yourself: Do I know my partner’s hopes and dreams? Do I know his fears? And, do I actively engage with him about them? If your answers are a resounding no, you have been neglecting your partner in a fundamental way. Start asking about those things today. Really listen (even if you do not hold the same interests). Let your partner know on an ongoing basis that you are interested in these things and you want to support him.

Ask yourself: Do I prevent my partner from expressing his hopes, dreams, and fears? Do I “help” him along by telling him what to do and how to do things? If so, your way of trying to help is by controlling him. While your intentions might be positive, you are giving a message that you think he is incapable. This is most definitely not respectful. Change your approach. Instead of telling, listen. Instead of insisting he do something your way, support him in his efforts (even if you know exactly the right thing to say to his boss and he doesn’t want to do it your way). He will feel respected by you and closer to you— and he will be more open to your suggestions in the future.

All of the above suggestions are based on the fact that healthy relationships are nurtured and developed. The experience is less like being shot by an arrow and more like being an avid gardener who tenderly cares for a plant. Both plants and relationships wither and die without such loving attention. So, give your relationship the care it needs. Enjoy time together. Be genuinely curious about each other’s experiences. Respect and encourage each other. And, if you receive flowers on Valentine’s Day, remember the care it took to grow them.

On a personal note, and as an example of what this column is all about, I want to say the following to my husband: I love you and greatly appreciate your love, patience, and support.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ