Valentine’s Day is a Christian holiday, so, growing up in America, we Jewish kids were affected culturally, rather than ritually. Just as the M&Ms turned orange in late October, mid-February meant chocolate treats shaped in hearts and wrapped in red foil, authorized of course, by the OU.
And just as my mother told us that Jews don’t celebrate Mother’s Day because “for Jews, every day should be Mother’s Day,” so too, Valentine’s Day, with its heart-shaped greeting cards, was not meant to provide us with Jewish values about passion, love and relationships. Yet, the subject matter of love and romance aroused curiosity about dating, love and marriage.
Fast forward a few decades and I find myself still fascinated by romantic love, but even more so, by the maintenance of passion in long-term, committed relationships. I am often called upon when passion and desire fade and when couples are engaged in power struggles. More often than not, the intimacy issues often have less to do with any specific organic dysfunction or hormonal change and more to do with a loss of vitality in the relationship itself. So while Valentine’s Day may be “for the gentiles,” the following ten tips are for all monogamous couples, Jewish or not, 365 days a year:
- Be nice and be respectful. It may sound obvious, but I often hear the words “I just want him/her to be nice to me.” Remember to say please, thank you, and treat your partner at least as politely as you would a friend or colleague. Saying things like “That’s stupid,” “I don’t care what you want,” or “You are a liar” are likely to trigger your partner negatively and distance them.
- Don’t take one another for granted. Providing acknowledgment and appreciation to one another goes a long way towards creating positive energy in the marriage. Don’t make assumptions that your partner will make lunch, provide a ride, or want to engage in sex without asking or inviting him or her, and remember to express appreciation for even the most mundane tasks.
- Be curious, not defensive. If your partner seems upset, anxious or depressed, and snaps at you for no apparent reason, you may become re-active and angry, and assume he/she is angry with you. While this may be an understandable response, your partner’s mood may have nothing to do with you. Staying non-reactive and curious, even when the other is upset, annoyed, or anxious, will allow you to provide the space to really listen.
- Provide empathy. When your partner is feeling down, you may be tempted to judge, analyze, provide a solution, or try to rid your partner of his/her negative emotions. If your partner comes home from work upset because of a conflict with his/her boss, we may say something like, “I know you feel bad that you boss was upset with you, but you may have deserved it,” or “You shouldn’t be upset, just look for a new job.” The best thing to say may just be “I am sorry you’re upset” followed by “What can I do?”
- Fight fair. All couples fight, but it’s how you fight that matters. Do not threaten or blame. Take time away from one another to calm down then come back together to discuss your feelings. Use “I” statements and talk about your feelings rather than blame your partner. Try to be specific rather than use words such as “always” or “never.” Express remorse authentically and make sure to recover from the dispute with a concluding hug or words of affirmation.
- Be honest and authentic. To engage in the type of fair fighting described above, you need to be able to be vulnerable and honest with what you are truly feeling. When you express your feelings openly and without defenses, your partner is more likely to hear you, as no one can disagree or refuse to accept what it is that you feel. This helps to create safety and security in the relationship.
- Be direct. As the Irish poet Thomas Moore said, “Intimacy begins with oneself.” Bring your self and your needs to the relationship and don’t hesitate to invite your partner to hear what you want and what you need. If you are passive and not assertive, you may end up becoming passive-aggressive in ways that can subvert positivity and vitality in your marriage. It is far more effective to say “I would like it if we can have a meal together without looking at our phones” rather than “I’m sure you didn’t even hear what I said, since you are always on your phone ignoring me.”
- Be aware of each other’s triggers. Be sensitive to your partner’s sensitivities and what may make her/him reactive. For example, if your wife’s parents divorced and her father moved away, she may be particularly vulnerable to feeling abandoned. Therefore, you should make sure to call her if you are running late. If your husband’s parents were particularly critical of him, be aware of how you sound when you comment on how he has washed the dishes or set the table.
- Stay un-enmeshed. Remember that you are two separate people and you don’t have to share emotions, or opinions, or always want to do the same things. Healthy boundaries, autonomy, and the space necessary for developing outside hobbies and friendships keep the relationship infused with vitality and interest.
- Spend quality time together. Turn off your devices. Take walks, hold hands, make a weekly date, and go out to a movie or concert, and talk. Make sure that your conversations are not only about who is picking up the kids or this week’s shopping list, but engage in the type of discourse that made you interested in each other in the first place.
Intimate relationships thrive on compassion, caring, friendship, and basically just really liking each other. I invite you to share your tips as well.