It turns out that love is really what you make of it.
The word “love,” according to the dictionary, can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it can mean “an intense feeling of deep affection” and “a great interest and pleasure in something” within oneself. As a verb, it can means “to feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment” that is directed externally at a love interest or object of attraction.
This range of interpretation means that everyone, single or attached, can engage in and enjoy the experience of love in many ways. Every year we celebrate love on its designated holiday, which in the United States is February 14th, but what if we expand our ability to experience love, for ourselves and others, by finding ways to celebrate love every day? How would feeling love every day change how we experience ourselves and others in our world?
There are thousands upon thousands of articles, books, and magazines that offer ideas and lists for expanding love rituals for couples and married partners, and many resources for the single soul navigating the day of love solo. But how of many of these apply for you right now, and how often do you regularly integrate any of these wonderful ideas into your life?
Personally I love extending Valentine’s Day and always extended the holiday’s activities for as long as possible: at first by taking the day off, then by planning and enjoying a whole week of activities, and now to finding small ways to make it last for the whole month. Professionally, as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is also trained in play therapy, I offer you these ideas, among others, to bring back more of that love magic into your life:
Part I: Loving Yourself
Get reacquainted with yourself, and attend to your mind, body, and spirit.
Take a look at your daily regimens.
- How much sleep are you getting?
- What is your diet like? Are you feeling overworked?
- Do you feel good about your living space and the room you sleep in?
- When was the last time you had all your medical exams done?
- What relationship do you see between all of these and your overall emotional state and physical functioning?
Spa days and yoga classes are great, when you can have them, but it’s your daily care of you that will be the foundation for everything you do. So take that day off, clean out the junk in your fridge and pantry, and print out some easy healthy recipes. Go ahead and make those doctor appointments while you get some fresh air into your place and pack up all the laundry that needs to be done. Can’t get to the spa or studio? Squeeze in time at the salon or barber; a fresh cut and blow can work wonders to boost your look and self-esteem too.
Do an inventory of all the thoughts and feelings that you are having lately. Take out a blank paper and pen for this one or, if you really want a mental workout, a CBT thought record chart and fill in the sections. It might be time for a mental spring cleaning, or at least sorting out what you’re still holding on to and what you can let go of.
- What helpful and unhelpful beliefs do you have about yourself, and where did they come from?
- Do you spend a lot of time alone, or with other people? Who do you spend the most time with?
- Do you feel good when you are with them, or belittled, ignored, or drained?
Guard your mental and emotional space; what you let in there is what you carry with you, and if it’s negative it can really weigh you down. Put distance between yourself and any toxic people, and reconnect with family and friends that make you smile every time you think of them. If nice and supportive people are pretty scarce in your life, consider joining a community group that has a lot of group activities (arts, sports, religious or school organizations, volunteer groups, etc.) to grow your social community and also develop positively reinforcing experiences with other people.
If there are things that you are really struggling with, contact a local therapist and invest the time to sort it out with a professional that has the training and resources to sit with you and help you. This is an opportunity to learn coping skills and relational skills to improve your life, and think about the plentiful possibilities to create the life you want and would like to share with other people. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us that before we can attend to others we need to attend to our own psychological, physiological, and security needs. As I said at an event recently, internal self-regulation is the key to external peace and happiness.
Update your passion checklists about what you like, what attracts you, and what turns you on. Get to know the subtle differences between these too. This one is best done as a solo activity, so you’re not tempted to adjust your current settings to accommodate anyone’s preferences but your own. What gets you revved up, and what turns you off? As Emily Nagoski says in her book “Come As You Are” get to know your sexual accelerants and brakes. Embrace and immerse yourself in your senses:
- In any given environment, what stimulates you more? What do you find not appealing, or ignore?
- What do you enjoy seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching?
Put on the lingerie and clothes that make your feel sexy. Revisit those favorite passages in your erotica novels, or hold a visual in your mind of your favorite images or photos. Savor your dinner, play some music, or spritz some cologne or perfume in your room before you go to sleep. Expand your horizons in other ways that maintain your privacy and safety. Reacquaint yourself with what makes you feel sexy, how you want to be spoken to and touched. Remind yourself that you too grow and change with time and experience, and like with other areas of life our sensual and sexual tastes evolve. There may be things that are not as appealing as they used to be, and there may be things that you have been longing for and did not realize how much you missed or wanted before now.
The best part is that in many ways this is like redecorating your home: you’re simply refreshing your sensual and sexual perspective and style by repositioning things you already have and like, taking out the parts you don’t, and adding a few new things to bring everything up to date with who you are now before you invite someone in.
Part II: Loving Your Relationship
Be attentive to your partner and to your relationship.
Make sure your partner is managing their own self-care by knowing their daily regimens as well as your own. One of the biggest complaints in couplehood is that one person has become responsible for managing both partners’ personal responsibilities and self-care activities. I would actually consider this a major red-flag; if you are spending more time being a parent than being a partner then perhaps you are with someone who is looking for a parent while you are looking for a partner.
- For those who like to feel in control of relationships and don’t see the problem then consider this: children eventually break away from their parents and move toward other people for intimate relationships. In other words, if you treat your partner like a kid or someone you want to control then they will either cheat on you or leave you for someone else who provides relief from all your demands and criticism.
- On the flip side, if you want to be taken care of like a kid then your partner will eventually get fed up with sacrificing having their needs met and move on to someone else who can provide them with all the companionship and reciprocity you did not provide and they have been starving for.
Start your relationship off right by presenting your best self and making sure your partner respects you enough to bring their best self into the relationship too, so you can both spend your time building your relationship from a basic, healthy foundation that you both laid down into place.
Get to know your new partner or refresh what you know about your longtime significant other. A lot of people wonder what are the “right” questions to ask on dates, or at what point do they know “everything” about their partners. The great news is that there are no “right” or “wrong” questions, and since we grow and change over time there is always more to find out and refresh what you both do know about yourself and each other. The important part though, is for you to listen to how your partner actually answers your questions and not solely focus on the parts that match what you are looking to hear. No two people are exactly alike; what you need to know is where you are both alike and where you are different. This includes the areas of:
- Personal values,
- Family histories,
- Friendship connections,
- Career goals,
- Attitudes about money,
- Expectations for this relationship, and
- Whether either of you can actually picture being married to anyone at some point or if the future is one of eternal bachelor(ette)hood with a string of casual partners for companionship.
Do your best to discuss and agree on what you both want for yourselves and your relationship, and that you both are clear on what kind of relationship you have right now, and periodically check in to update and refine your understandings as needed. Don’t settle for quick and superficial answers; explore each answer by asking follow up questions that connect to the feelings underneath what is being said, such as “what makes you happy about that? Sad? Confused? Embarrassed? Shy? Angry? Was there something that would have helped you to feel differently?” Don’t just learn about the data, learn about how your partner emotionally, behaviorally, and verbally responds to their experiences. There are many online lists of date night questions, card games, and books for conversation starters to help with this, and right now I am loving “The Big Book of If” (McFarland & Saywell) and all of the interesting and meaningful dialogues that it opened up for couples that I have worked with. Remember this: just when you feel like you know everything about yourself and your partner, there are still more surprises yet to be discovered.
Set aside time to work through problems well in advance of any plans for romance, special occasions, and big life events. Nothing ruins plans for love like a recent argument or longstanding resentments. Remember that saying “never go to bed angry”? Makes me wonder if that came about because someone finally made the connection between a marital spat in the kitchen or dining room and the subsequent “not tonight, I have a headache” later in the bedroom. The sentiment though, is important: don’t let fights drag on or stay unresolved. Clear the air to make room for relationship repair before the important events (birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, holidays, events with families, etc.), so that you can both develop new approaches to old problems and fully enjoy the happier moments of your relationship without wondering if there is an ulterior self-serving motive.
In addition, don’t rely on good experiences to resolve bad arguments and resentments. Flowers don’t fix a fight, sex doesn’t erase inconsiderate actions and hurtful words, and avoiding the topic just makes the next fight about it even worse. If you want your partner to believe that you are doing something for them out of love then it would really help if it doesn’t look like you’re trying to placate them after a fight so you can get sex. Resolve the fight first, let the dust settle, then resume your loving relationship activities before special occasions and the big life events, to make them more memorable for all the right reasons.
Special occasions are the ones you can plan for, birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, holidays, events with families, etc., but the big life events are more often the ones you can’t plan for and are a mix of great things (births) and sad things (deaths) that are made bittersweet or outright worse by the concurrent stressors of conflict. Check out Gottman’s relationship repair recommendations and the Hendrix Imago Couple’s Dialogue for more information about how to talk about tough experiences, without repeating the whole fight and with a focus on identifying the underlying issues and repairing the problem by first reframing it and then solving it from a solution-focused perspective.
And lastly, remember that anniversaries and holidays that celebrate your love are a perfect time to reminisce and revisit the story of your couplehood that created your story. This activity that I use with my couples, which is an extension of my activity jar suggestion, is one that perhaps you can use to have fun with and find value in it too:
Create a romantic scavenger hunt.
One of the best ways to deal with relationship stress, or a rut, is to use the power of play to relax and have fun. If you’ve been together for a while, use this as an opportunity to revisit your most favorite joyous, loving, sexy, and cozy memories together. For newer relationships, put a spin on this game to discover and learn more about each other’s passions and interests. Whether you make it a day trip, a night on the town, or a date night at home with well-placed photos and mementos, each partner simply follows these steps:
- (1) On small notes of paper, write down one or two words about each interest or memory you want to lovingly share,
- (2) Hide each one in different places at home (or have them in your pockets when you are at the place the memory was made or the interest relates to),
- (3) Give short, simple, sweet hints about where to look, and
- (4) When found, talk as long as you can about it, what it is that you love about it, and why you love sharing it with your partner.
Pressed for time? Try one note a night for the whole month, or dedicate one day a week for four fantastic days in February! Want to be even more creative? Create a bingo card of all the topics you both want to explore. A beautiful way to tie it all together would be to keep these in a nice box or jar, and have it handy for rekindling those flames again. (Special thanks to Caring Therapist of Broward for featuring this tip in their blog post “Best Tips to Reignite Love in February.”)
Create a photo album of your story.
The places you go and the things you do, and all of your experiences together, make the story of your couplehood. Take those mementos (like the business card of the restaurant, tickets to a movie or show, or photos you took that day, or your own drawing) and put them in a photo album, along with your own handwritten messages about each of your experiences. Keep your photo album handy for revisiting on your special days, or whenever when you want to remember what makes your relationship so special.
For partners that are still struggling with making time for love, seek out a couples therapist in your area. Couples therapy can help support you in making small lifestyle shifts to improve time management and strengthen positive communication styles to increase your connection, and look at other contributing factors to the stress your relationship experiences and introduce you both to a wide variety of activities to enhance your love and life.
Want to read more about the many ways to celebrate love? Check out “9 Love Rituals from Around the World” and see what other cultures do for love (disclaimer: your mileage may vary, as do symbols of good luck). Is there anything that catches your eye that you might want to put your own spin on and incorporate into your own rituals to honor love for yourself and your special people? What do you know about the rituals and stories about how your own heritage celebrates love? Being of Cypriot heritage myself, I can attest that #5. Taking a bath with Aphrodite, is true. For more information about the Bath of Aphrodite, see this link and listen to the narration about the bath and its legends: of Aphrodite and her lover Adonis, her husband Hephasteus’ clever erection of a fence and mystical force that ensures an air of privacy, and the 2 springs, one of water mingled with honey, and the other where water is mingled with poison, and that Eros dips his arrows in both springs and sometimes sends arrows that are sweet and other times bitter.
What we know is that life brings us a mix a sweet and bitter things; too much of either side can be detrimental, but with the right balance of love of self and love of others we can make love a grand banquet of flavors for our palates and pleasures, and propel ourselves forward to engage in a range of activities and delights.
“Love is, in fact, an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life.”
– Thomas Merton
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