The week following Valentine’s Day offers us time to reflect on that highly touted weekend celebration. Valentine’s Day. 150 million cards are given – 2nd only to Christmas in popularity of card exchanges. Wow. Did you get a card? I know only a few couples that actually “do” something to “celebrate” (dinner out, theater), but it certainly heightens everyone’s awareness of its theme: Love.
Love is everywhere. It is universally human. I remember an older, curmudgeonly mentor of mine telling me that relationships and love are the one thing that is important to everyone, at every age.
So what is love?
To answer that, I did a brief informal study of a convenience group of employees at Spurwink – finance, quality improvement, training, IT, development, and clinical personnel. I walked around my office complex and asked people individually, “What is love?”
The responses were beautiful, simple, and powerful.
- My kids
- Enjoying and laughing and connecting and relaxing with someone
- My husband cleaning the snow off my car
- When you see the person and can’t stop smiling and don’t want to stop
- Letting my girlfriend have the last piece of bread
- Commitment and passion
- My spouse walking the dog in the middle of the night in the rain, so I don’t have to
- Seeking the well-being of someone else more than you seek it for yourself
- My husband caring for our kids – when we’re from a culture where fathers don’t do that
- My puppies
- When you don’t need to say anything – your eyes have the conversation
- Trust and honesty
- My spouse vacuuming the house (my job) without being asked or making me feel bad
- Someone that has your back. Feeling safe. Contentment
- Being married to the same person forever….and loving it
- Unconditional acceptance
- My family
A quick qualitative analysis showed that virtually every response was rooted in comfort, acceptance, emotional warmth. Features included kindness and generosity.
Social scientists began studying love in relationships (by observing marriages) in the 1970s (when the divorce rate began to climb), and found that those that lasted were sustained by 2 basic things.
John Gottman, psychologist and co-founder of the Gottman Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle, reported about a habit that successful couples possess, “They are scanning their social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” Unsuccessful relationships are “scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
Contempt is the #1 reason for relationship failures. This “minimal responding” or “ignoring” one’s partner communicates worthlessness and de-values that person, and any “contempt” or “criticism” further damages the relationship. And these couples could not connect over each other’s good news.
Kindness is the #1 predictor of satisfaction and stability. Kindness promotes feeling understood, cared for – loved. Gottman explained, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.” Kindness may be more natural for some people, but Gottman says that it is not something some people have and others don’t. It is like a muscle that can be strengthened and successful partners know that they need to exercise this muscle – work on the relationship – to keep it strong.
Gottman found that partners who are both kind and Generous are the happiest. Generosity isn’t just about exchanging small, thoughtful gifts or doing favors. It includes having a generous spirit and noticing a partner’s intent. Many times, one partner is trying to do the right thing but doesn’t execute it well. The husband who is “always” late is late again, but this time it is because he stopped to pick up flowers. This is the work of relationships – being invested in someone’s happiness and acting upon it. When a partner expresses a need and you are tired or distracted and don’t allow your generous spirit to turn toward him or her, this slowly chips away at the relationship health. Neglect creates distance and eventual resentment.
Other social science research has found similar results and noted that in the happiest relationships, being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality than being there when things go wrong.
How does this factor into our work at Spurwink?
The truth is that we don’t love our clients. Love is not the therapeutic process to emotional health. Instead, love – defined as caring and generosity – is at the root of our work and treatment with clients and families. This honest caring about human well-being is what brings us to this field and motivates us to help. What we offer along with the spirit of caring are evidence-based practice treatments. This ensures studied and skilled treatment methods to be offered with support and sensitivity.
As far as love is concerned, I’m pleased to have found that our office staff who don’t treat client and families “get it”. And if you didn’t pony up on Sunday for Valentine’s Day, I think that you can still get a great deal on boxes of chocolates in red hearts. Remember that your intent is worth so much in your relationship.
By Linda Butler, Ph.D., LCSW
Director of Research & Outcomes