What we give gets returned—we all know that. So when we aren’t feeling connected in our relationships, we often don’t give much, which is precisely why we don’t feel connected.
Sometimes people will say, “Why should I have to be the one who nurtures the relationship all the time?” and this is true—it is not one person’s responsibility to provide all the emotional caretaking and quality time in the relationship. It’s a joint effort.
Some partners, however, are just not capable of or willing to provide for our needs. For example, some people just aren’t physically affectionate; they never have been, and their family of origin wasn’t affectionate. Perhaps for the first four years of the relationship, there hasn’t been much cuddling, kissing, or handholding, and even though there never has been (except for perhaps during the first six months together), you’re sick of it and want your partner to be more affectionate. Well, is it possible?
One of the main features of a healthy relationship is the ability to listen to each other and accept each other’s influence. This means that when one person in the relationship voices a concern or makes a request, even when it doesn’t feel important to the other person, they take it on board. They do this because they have a level of awareness and understanding that it’s not actually about the request for more hugs—it’s about giving to their partner, the person they love. They understand that at times we all make compromises for the people we love. We do it out of love, and we also do it because there is a massive payoff.
In my experience, people are amazingly resilient and have the capacity to adapt and change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. With the potential payoff of having a happy partner and a great relationship, why wouldn’t you want to learn to be more affectionate, if that’s the issue?
Mark and Renée had been growing apart for a number of years and felt as though their relationship had been reduced to that of flatmates and co-parents. They felt little intimacy; in fact, in recent months they had only felt resentment. A kind of “tit for tat” pattern had emerged in the relationship, and neither of them could remember when it started. At first, it wasn’t even conscious—they just started withholding small things from each other, like hugs on the lounge and cups of tea. Eventually they began withholding more important things in the relationship, such as support and sex.
They came to the realisation that their relationship was not going to survive much longer, and neither of them knew if they really wanted it to. However, they could remember happy times together, so they knew it was possible, and they wanted to try everything they could before deciding to separate.
When they tried to discuss what was happening between them, their attempts usually ended with blame and silence, which created more distance. Then one day Mark said to Renée, “I feel like everything I do is wrong. I’m just so angry all the time, and when I operate from that place, nothing good can happen between us. I feel like I’ve lost my ‘love radar’ and it’s been replaced with a ‘resentment radar’—I only notice the negatives. In my attempt to improve things between us, and because I feel like I can’t trust my emotions right now to make the best choices for us, I’m going to take a leaf out of George Costanza’s (Seinfeld) book and do the opposite of everything I think I should do”.
Renée thought this was an interesting idea, but it didn’t really make much sense to her. However, she didn’t say so because she could see that Mark was trying to make a difference.
The following week, Mark made a small change. Renee plays soccer every Wednesday night, and Mark and the children hadn’t watched one of her games for over three years, mainly because the games were played at 7.15 pm, which was a bit late for the children. However, this week Mark decided that instead of saying what he normally said to himself every week—“I can’t be bothered. Why should I, since she doesn’t bother coming to anything of mine.”—he would do the opposite. He and the children packed up a flask of hot chocolate and surprised Renée by showing up just before the game started. Mark said she looked so happy to see them. She gave them a big wave and acknowledged them throughout the game when something good happened.
It was a great game, and all the spectators were excited. In fact, it was the talk of the house for the next two days. After the game, Renée told Mark she was really happy they had come to watch. Their presence at the game had made her night.
Three nights later, Mark was making dinner and realised he was missing a vital ingredient. He was annoyed because he had already started cooking. It was raining, and a trip to the shops would take 10 minutes. When he mentioned this to Renée, she said, “No problem—I’ll go” and jumped in his car to go and get some pasta. When she got back, she told him she had noticed that his fuel tank was below empty, and because she knew he had an early start in the morning, she filled it up for him. Mark felt that this was a really generous and caring act on Renée’s part. He decided then and there that he would ask his mum to look after the kids on the weekend so he could take Renée out to her favourite restaurant for dinner. After dinner on Saturday night, Mark and Renée had sex for the first time in over 18 months, and they thought it was great. The next morning, Renée got up and made Mark his favourite breakfast of pancakes with strawberries. After breakfast, Mark cleared out the spare room, which Renée had been asking him to do for 12 months. Then all the family went to the beach for the afternoon.
You can see where this is heading. In one week, Mark and Renée turned their relationship around by paying it forward. This is not really the same goal that George was trying to achieve in Seinfeld—in fact, instead of leaving things to chance or operating from resentment, Mark and Renée both showed that they were thoughtful and considerate of each other. Instead of withholding love, affection, and acts of service, they decided to give. In return, they got back what they had given and much more, which then encouraged them to continue the giving. It may have started out as a Seinfeld experiment, but it turned their relationship around.
In this example, you can see how easy it is for partners to become resentful and stop doing things for each other. However, the alternative feels so much better because when we give we feel good, and when we receive we feel good. It’s a win/win—the opposite of what happens when we withhold.
Dr. John Gottman, whilst undertaking relationship research at his ‘love lab’, identified that for relationships to last, they needed a ratio of 5:1—five positive thoughts, comments, actions, or expressions to every negative one—for the relationship to stay afloat. A great relationship has a 20:1 ratio. When you think about this, you know it to be true because it requires much more effort to counteract and overcome a hurtful experience.
What’s your current relationship ratio?
- How often do you pay it forward?
- What difference would it make if you had a 20:1 ratio?
- What can you do today to improve your relationship ratio?