Three-word sentences are the lifeblood of households. “Wear your hat,” “Time for bed,” and “Please, please stop” likely fall among the Top 10. “I love you” is another that’s said multiple times on a daily basis, but it’s usually to the kids. For your partner, the sentiment may be more exception than rule.
Chances are, you used to have no problem expressing your feelings. You’d leave written notes on windshields and in jacket pockets. You’d send an afternoon text. Maybe you’d write well-meaning yet awful poems that created tears.
These feelings haven’t gone away. They’re just not prioritized. Assumed instead of actionized. The problem isn’t unique, the reason far from shocking. “In part, life took over,” says Lindsay Jernigan, licensed clinical psychologist in Burlington, Vermont.
When you started dating, everything was about being together. There were no bills, homework or worries about strep throat. The two of you could create a seemingly endless amount of time for each other, what Jernigan calls a “container for the relationship.”
You want to get back to saying loving things to your partner, and Valentine’s Day is putting the thought in your head. It’s an obvious move, but it can be the needed kick to make a year-round change. And it’s important to recreate that space for just the two of you, because life on its own makes grownup time feel like an unaffordable luxury, says Diana Wiley, a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist.
You can almost feel deflated by needing to make a conscious effort, but here’s a reminder: You were still purposely carving out time pre-babies by making dinner reservations and buying movie tickets. It just felt more impromptu, Jernigan says.
When you make that private setting, good stuff happens. You get to be non-parents for a short spell. You both relax, have fun – possibly some sex – and come back as happier parents for your kids, Wiley says. In this relaxed state, you also start saying nice things to each other and that becomes the overriding norm in the house. But it hinges on what to say.
There isn’t a script or all-purpose words. But that’s good news. You have wide margins to succeed. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want to say.
The Sentiment: “I love you and you make my life better.” In addition, underlying message you want to send to and model for the kids is: “We have fun together.”
How to Start The Process
You have to announce your intention to be more expressive, but, before you can say anything, you have to pick the right moment – when your partner is trying to make dinner or answer work emails would not be it, Jernigan says. Set a time, most likely after the kids are asleep, giving a heads-up that you want to talk, but also letting your partner know that it’s for a good reason.
Since you haven’t been expressive with your feelings, you might be worried that the concept will be out of place and land awkwardly, which could understandably be scary.
“Intimacy by nature is vulnerable,” Jernigan says. But think about what you want: to be closer, happier, more loving and feeling more loved, and that can help push through your hesitancy and fear.
How to Express Love to Your Partner in Words
Now it’s time to actually talk, and Wiley says that another way to reduce your anxiety is to directly address any past shortcomings. Open with, “I want to express myself more, and I know I haven’t always had the words.” Even if you fumble, your effort will be recognized; that itself makes someone feel considered.
After that, you want begin the exchange. Propose making an adoration list of five, seven, or 10 non-material things that make you feel loved and special. You do one; your partner does one. And close your offer with, “I want to hear yours because I want to do more of them.” Set another specific date, the sooner the better, like the following night, to share them.
As for how to figure out your list, both Jernigan and Wiley suggest starting with, “I love that you …”
- I love that you make coffee for me every day
- I love that you greet me with a huge hug
- I love that you listen to my old stories like they’re new
- I love that you have seemingly boundless energy when playing with the kids
- I love that when you smile, you really, truly smile. It’s a whole face thing.
While it might feel uncomfortable at first, the truth is that you’re saying good things, and people always respond to that, Wiley says. And your partner is giving you an instruction manual by saying, “I like this. Do more of this.” It’s also an emotional warm-up where you get more comfortable and end up saying what you find attractive in your partner; people respond to that as well. “You’re moving towards what’s good instead of what’s bad,” Wiley adds.
How to Follow Up
This is a doing thing, followed by a saying thing. At any point in the day, give each other a 20-second hug. By holding each other that long, you make a deeper connection – you can’t not make one – and it helps calm your central nervous system, says Jernigan, adding,
“The stress falls away,” and then you don’t have to say anything more than, “I love you.”
And for one weekly exercise, sit with each other, holding hands, knees touching and making eye contact. Alternate saying sweet things to each other. Think about answering, “This is what I like and appreciate about you.”
This exercise is a close relative of the adoration list, and another way to share. As Wiley says, “So often, your partner hasn’t heard enough positives.” Doing this shifts your perspective, creates more intimacy, and that grows with the regularity.
“Appreciation begets appreciation,” she says. “It builds a reservoir of goodwill.”