Cindy and I were married three-and-a-half years ago. Our companionship, intimacy, and love have deepened over that time, and we have developed an extremely stable foundation. This has been possible because we are both willing to grow and to change, and to take responsibility for our emotional reactions, which I wrote about in The Most Important Relationship Skill.
I have been through many relationships, and in the process I have learned what works and what doesn’t work. I have also come to understand how important my primary relationship is. When my relationship is going well, everything else in my life flourishes. When it’s going badly, everything else seems to fall apart.
Having supported many couples, I believe that this is true for everyone. Our primary intimate relationship is a critical foundation to sustainable happiness and success. Selfishly, every day, I take action to deepen and strengthen our relationship. Here are some of the things I do:
I spend quality time with her
Every day, I specifically spend time with Cindy. We sit facing each other on our sofa and we maintain eye contact. I set a thirty-minute timer on my phone, and we dedicate this half-hour to talking about whatever needs to be expressed.
Since we started doing this, I have seen massive improvements in our relationship. We’re more open and honest with each other, and, unable to fester, issues get resolved quickly.
I slow down
I am a cognitive processor, and Cindy is an emotional processor. I am very quick, and Cindy is very slow. When Cindy and I were first together, I often got frustrated by how long it took her to answer my questions. Conversely, Cindy often did not trust my answers to her questions, because I gave them too quickly, without apparently feeling for my deeper answer.
To be a genius usually means having unusual cognitive ability. I believe that Cindy is an emotional genius, having unusual emotional ability. She is able to build rapport extremely rapidly with almost anyone, even people who are very challenging to relate with. She can calm anyone, and she can quickly facilitate deep realization and change in others. I find myself increasingly in awe of her capabilities as I come to understand her more deeply. While her superb emotional sensitivity developed partly as an early survival mechanism, it can now also be seen as a superpower, and sometimes a burden.
It took me a long time to understand and appreciate how slow and emotional Cindy is. From her, I have learned to slow down and appreciate the depth of experience available in every moment. She has taught me the value in saying and doing less and, because of this, my life has become much richer. I now value slowing down and discovering and validating the feelings I have about situations so that I’m able to make more meaningful and effective choices in my life.
Because I can often now speak more slowly, say less, move more slowly, and do less, I am able to mirror her much more effectively than before. I am able to build rapport with her, so that the mammalian part of her brain — her limbic system — is able to recognize me as being a creature of like kind. This enables her to relax, and to finally take a break from trying to mirror me. When I get to mirror her slowness, it’s a gift for both her and for me.
I validate her needs
Every time I go on a long meditation retreat, one of the things I re-realize is how I don’t listen to Cindy with enough attention. On those meditation retreats, and sometimes when meditating at home, conversations with Cindy have replayed in my mind. In my slowed-down state, I have realized how important to me everything she says is. I have felt regret that I didn’t cherish her in those moments.
Her words are not things to be brushed aside or ignored, or even just not fully witnessed. At those times, I remember, deep down, how much I value her words, her thoughts, her needs, and her feelings. I come back from Vipassana retreats with a renewed desire and intention to treat everything she says to me as critically important. I keep re-committing to behaving in a way that is congruent with these deep values. When she talks, I have learned to stop what I am doing and to listen as intently as possible. I have learned to cherish every utterance.
When Cindy mentions that she wants to go to a certain restaurant, or to have a particular experience with me, I now pause what I am doing and ask her more about it: what she likes about it, and what she would like from me. I have learned to be increasingly curious, as if I want to know every detail about her. The more I learn, the more I find that I want to learn. It’s like I’ve become obsessed with a hobby, like an ornithologist (a bird-watcher), except that Cindy is my birds. I am becoming the world-class expert on Cindy.
The more I pay attention to and value what Cindy wants, and what she says, the more she seems to value those things herself. Since we have been together, she has become more vocal, more playful, and more free. Early in our relationship, she sometimes spent days lying in bed in a depressed sulk, often triggered by some perceived slight on my part. She never does that anymore. Now she often prances around our home, doing silly and adorable dances, singing funny songs, and saying funny things in a broad range of comedic voices.
I give her positive messages
One of Cindy’s primary love languages is words of appreciation. She experiences positive words from me as expressions of love and of confirmation of our connection.
Sadly, when I first met Cindy, she found it very hard to hear words of appreciation; positive words made her feel angry. This was because she grew up in an environment of intergenerational abuse, having descended from refugees of the war in Vietnam.
Growing up, Cindy was continually swamped with rhetorical questions poisoned with debasing presuppositions, such as (translated to English), “Why are you so ugly?”, ”Why are you so stupid?”, “Why are you so fat?”, “Why do you waste money?” (when spending money on herself), and “Why are you so lazy?”
Early in our relationship, initially jokingly, I started countering this conditioning by delivering nourishing messages wrapped in this familiar package, such as, “Why are you so beautiful?”, “Why are you so smart?”, “Why are you so sexy?”, “Why are you so wise with money?”, and “Why are you so capable?”
As our relationship has progressed, after witnessing the positive effects of this, I have increased its frequency and intensity. I continually feed her positive, life-affirming messages, out loud and in person, whispered into her ear, and texted to her. I do this while she cooks, while she’s in the bath, and when she’s working. I whisper to her in this way as she’s falling asleep, while she’s sleeping, and as she wakes.
I have witnessed her blossom. She increasingly believes that she is capable, that she is beautiful and sexy, and that she is smart and wise. She tells herself these things, and she doesn’t allow herself to believe the old internal messages anymore. She can now receive and digest compliments, positive feedback, and constructive negative feedback.
I touch her
Cindy’s other main love language is touch. In her early years, she was not touched lovingly very much, and, as with words of appreciation, as a young adult she found it challenging to receive loving touch.
Now, she responds extremely positively to my touch, cooing when I sneak up behind her, slip my arm around her belly and kiss the back of her neck. I love doing this of course, but being very goal-oriented and busy, in the past I did not do it often enough. Because I now know how powerful touch is for her, I have consciously trained myself to get in the habit of hugging and kissing her throughout the day.
As a consequence, she has started to take better care of her body and her health. Now she is much more gentle with herself, and she advocates for her physical needs.
In a nutshell, I put my Cindy before anything else. I do this because when my primary relationship is solid, the rest of my life works well. It’s selfish, but in the deepest sense of the word. Ultimately, if Cindy was unable to give to herself what I have to offer, then my efforts would be wasted. Luckily, Cindy is willing to fully utilize everything I give to her in order to recover from, and integrate, her early life experiences. In return, I have a devoted and content partner who I greatly enjoy spending time with.
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This article has been republished on The Good Men Project.