Creating passionate relationships is a lot like creating a wonderful meal: plan, act, and enjoy.
I am continually shocked and frustrated that dinner doesn't magically appear in my kitchen at 6:30pm every night. I don't mind cooking, but I'm not very creative or imaginative when preparing food. I have little patience for preparing a meal and having it turn out bad, or even mediocre. I want to enjoy amazing food, but I don't really want to put any effort into shopping or cooking.
I know I'm not alone here, and I know a lot of people who have the same expectations with their relationships. They don't really want to put any time or effort into creating healthy, thriving, passionate relationships, but they tend to get pretty annoyed and frustrated when the relationship they've neglected doesn't magically feel warm and fulfilling.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I spend everyday thinking about relationships and what makes them work well. Sometimes, working on your relationship means paying attention to yourself; sometimes it means paying attention to your partner; sometimes the work isn't really work, it's play. In the same way that I can read 1,000 books on nutrition and not become a better cook, you can read 1,000 articles or books on relationships and not get better at building a healthy one.
For starters, I'd be better off reading cook books. Theory is fascinating, but a recipe is a to-do list. It inspires, and there are pictures. Sometimes, a picture is so clear you can almost taste the dish. There's room for me to take a recipe and tweak it to make it exactly the way my family will like it (for us, no onions, please).
So, my to-do list for making meals magically appear every night is pretty simple:
- Plan out meals
- Buy the food
- Prep the food
- Cook the food (consulting a cook book if necessary)
- Enjoy the food
- Clean up the mess
- Try again next time, changing something if we didn't enjoy the food all that much
The same goes for the to-do list for your relationship:
- Envision what you'd like your relationship to look like and share that vision with each other until it becomes a clear picture you both agree on.
- Acknowledge you are two different people, with different brains, needs, perspectives, and preferences. This is sometimes annoying, but ultimately a very beautiful thing to embrace.
- Explore your professional, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical interests.
- Support and encourage your partner to explore his/her interests.
- Find interests that overlap and make time for them. Experience each other as co-adventurers in life.
- Remember #1? Do one or two things each day that contributes to the picture you created.
- Try again. When your efforts fall on deaf ears, or backfire, try again next time and change something so you get a different result
Yes, both of these lists take time. My friends who are wonderful chefs approach cooking very differently than I do; they see it as a time to express themselves, a time to experiment, and time to unwind. Chopping vegetables is meditative, and stirring sauce is a stress-reliever. They enjoy the smells of their dishes coming together, even if the taste or texture later leaves something to be desired. They offer up their meals as an act of love and they read their partner's responses with curiosity, instead of braced for criticism. They look forward to the time they will spend in the grocery store and the kitchen.
I approach cooking like a chore—it feels like a waste of time. I'm pretty sure it won't matter how hard I try; my meal will only be mediocre, so I put off planning, preparing and cooking until it's too late and we have to scrounge in our pantry for some old pasta.
My husband is the same way, so our family has accepted that our dinners will be less than exciting, and we expect to be disappointed (and maybe even a little hungry).
If you're doing the same thing in your relationships, I urge you to flip that switch. Decide to approach your relationship with joy, passion, and excitement. Give it the time it deserves. Experiment, try new things, and be content with the effort, not hung up on the result.
We should all have high expectations. We shouldn't settle for sad, depressing experiences that leave us hungry. We should strive to find ways to fill ourselves up. I picture us literally and figuratively leaning back in our chairs, breathing sighs of satisfaction and rubbing our bellies in delight.
I'll make you a deal: I'm going to approach cooking like my chef friends. When I hear myself call it a tireless chore, I will respond by reminding myself it is a wonderful opportunity to love myself and my family, a great way to unwind, and a fun way to express my creativity.
I challenge you to do the same. Approach your relationship like a therapist—when you hear yourself thinking it's too hard and too time consuming to give your relationship what it needs, respond by reminding yourself it is a wonderful way to actively show your love and appreciation. Buying flowers, writing a poem, steeping a cup of tea, making the bed, and listening to your partner without distractions are a few ways you can de-stress, express your creativity, and create a rich and delicious relationship feast.