A Couples Therapist’s Guide to a Loving Valentine’s Day
You’ve spent more than a few nights dreaming of a Valentine’s Day to swoon for. With the chaos that is December/January now over, you’ve allowed yourself to indulge in some fantasies of what your Valentine’s Day could look like: flowers, a classy dinner, a deep and renewed sense of connection, maybe lingerie. Finally, the fog of the holidays has passed and you and your partner can focus on some “we” time. This relief is short lived as you reminisce on previous Valentine’s Day discussions and how they have progressed in the past… ugh.
This year feels different, though. You’ve given your relationship so much time and attention, and you’re ready to level up your connection with your partner. So, with a big deep breath and tremendous bravery you walk into your partner’s space to make a declaration of what you are hoping for this Valentine’s Day and yet… your guard is up and you cannot get the words out. You flash back to previous Valentine’s Days when you and your partner (this one or a different one) were on totally different pages in terms of communication. You did your best to explain your needs, but an argument arose, and your partner feels attacked for not doing enough. After all, he or she was planning on an expensive dinner and flowers. Alas, you feel guilty and underwhelmed, and your partner feels inadequate and confused.
So. This year, lets avoid this feeling of epic failure in communication all together. We are here to help you get your message across without having your partner feel prepped with defensiveness. We’ve put together three ways for you to organize your needs so both you and your partner can communicate openly and effectively.
Step One: The Pre-Date
Have a self-date! You are worth the time to gain a better understanding of what you are looking for and why. Spending time recording (journaling, self talk/Siri) and really fine tune what you want to say. Begin by brainstorming all of the conversations you’ve already had with your partner in your head, and write them down. Re read this over to see if you can find some central points. Instead of neglecting some of your needs, just modify it to make it organized and digestible. Go back to grammar school: an intro, three main points, and a conclusion. This will allow your partner to understand what you are looking for without feeling overwhelmed, and without he or she honing in on just the last part of what you said because the rest feels like too much.
Practice! I know this may feel silly. After all, you’ve gone over this about a hundred times in your head. But how many times have you rehearsed a conversation in your head (and had it gone beautifully, by the way) only to enter the scene and totally feel lost and confused?
How you communicate, specifically your tone and word choice can make or break your interactions- not only with your partner, but also in general. This can be the difference between being heard through understanding versus being heard through emotion, and entering into a blow out argument. I mean, try to think about informing your board, your boss, or you clients that you want more money, and phrasing it in a way you would frame something to your partner, “honestly, I’m sick of this damn salary and I want ten million more because I do everything for you guys and it’s not fair.” Not a chance! Instead, you know you need a strategy with carefully selected words about your contribution, your value, and what you provide to help everyone in the room understand that you are worth that raise (OK, maybe not ten million, but the point stands).
As you know, this requires some prep work. The stakes are high here too, as your relationship is one of your biggest investments- of time, of emotions, and how it impacts the trajectory of your life and your energy. Take a beat to rehearse what you want to say in the mirror. Imagine hearing your partner say what you are rehearsing. What would sting? What would you value as good mix between logic and emotion, and would you be receptive to? What helps you both move closer to your needs as a couple? What makes you want to just grab your partner and smooch ‘em?
Step Two: The Date
Set the mood. Just like with advocating for yourself at work, my guess is you’re not sashaying into the office and beginning with generic and forceful statements. As a driven, hard working professional in Manhattan, I am confident you are warming up the room and making the people around you feel comfortable and relaxed so they can absorb what you have to say. This is similar to your conversation with your partner. If you are both on edge and ready for an argument, chances are slim that you will be able to have a warm and productive conversation about how to spend your Valentine’s Day.
Therefore, this piece of getting comfortable does not just apply to your partner. It applies to you, too! Rather than focusing on what you’re anxious about, take a beat to enjoy your partner, the beauty of where you are, and the time and intention you both had to make to have a special moment together. Sink in and enjoy the company and warmth that comes with having a secure partner.
Now that you have enjoyed this moment, lets focus on your segue into the desired conversation. It is so tempting to make a sharp left and go straight into what you’ve been sitting on and anxious about. Unfortunately, the immediate relief of unloading your thoughts onto your partner is short lived due to their likely response of confusion/frustration. Instead, a slow start up will help them tune in with more ease. Using the “sandwich” technique can be really helpful here! This sentence structure looks as follows: compliment/gratitude, pause for your partner’s enjoyment, your concern, and finally more compliments/gratitude. For example: “I am so thankful to be sitting across from you, my sexy, amazing, incredible partner. I am so grateful for everything you give me. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ve been struggling to find quality time together, and I am hoping that we can carve out some date nights (bonus if you can add in your own solution). I feel so lucky to have found you, my partner, and I know we can find this time together as a team.”
Next, give your partner some space to feel and react. Remember, you’ve been prepping for this. That means you’ve been thinking about this often, while your partner may be caught by surprise. There may be some time before a successful action occurs, that’s okay! Again we can go back to that work example, and remember that it takes time to actually see a pay increase at work as well. Your partner may need a second to understand what you are asking for and how to make that possible. And, with both your hypothetical pay raise and with your partner’s response, it is essential to be patient and to give the other party the time and space to figure out what is feasible.
A caveat: If you are already at a boiling point and all of this sounds like way too much to handle on your own, this is a great place to incorporate reinforcements like a couples therapist, a couples communication class, or guidance from any third party that you trust.
Step Three: The Post-Date
It is always helpful to express appreciation for being heard, such as, “I know you were not expecting me to go there, but I feel so grateful that you heard my needs and gave me space to express what I’m yearning for.” This may feel silly, especially if your partner’s reaction was not as perfect as you’d like it to be. This being said, research shows that saying “thank you” makes both you and your partner feel better, more connected, and your partner feel appreciated.
After expressing your gratitude, highlight the takeaways of what you agreed to, or of what you hope the two of you can do to move this topic forward instead of allowing it to stall. Stalling creates conflict, and while conflict is healthy and necessary for relationships to grow, the whole purpose of this is step out of defensive mode, and to help both you and your partner feel respected and heard. To further the example of shared quality time, “I know that our lives are really busy, so finding extra quality time may feel impossible, but I am really excited to prioritize our needs and find the small windows to make them happen! Even the small stuff we talked about, like saying ‘I love you’ right before turning off the lights at night.”
A warm, connected Valentine’s Day
Don’t allow yourself to suffer another minute with the burning message that you’ve wanted to share with your partner, and don’t lose your audience by splashing the message across them without preparation. Gather yourself and your thoughts prior to your date, have techniques for communication during your date, and have a post date plan to solidify what you and your partner discussed. You deserve to have your needs met, and can make this happen with just a little preparation!