The semi-regular request from your partner goes something like this: “Why can’t you be more affectionate?” Your response, internal of course, is, Why don’t I learn to speak Mandarin? It would be easier.
It’s not that you don’t care. You love your partner and feel you show it in the ways you know how. But obviously, they crave more and you’re stuck because their particular love language of words of affirmation and physical touch might not be one you speak very well.
Being a parent doesn’t help with motivation, either. If you are a stay at home dad or work from home, your day is moving from task to task, with kids constantly making demands and hanging all over you. When the night comes, you have little-to-no reserves for anything but sitting and being silent.
That’s a temporary state, but there are bigger factors that play into difficulty giving the affection your partner craves. Maybe affection wasn’t shown growing up, so you never got a script. Or perhaps your culture didn’t celebrate expressiveness as a group trait. Running through it all is the implicit, or even explicit, message of, “Suck it up.” All of this conspires to put you into “emotional jail,” says Orna Rawls, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Stratford, Connecticut.
But it’s not your destiny. “We are not cardboard cutouts of our parents,” Jill A. Stoddard, licensed psychologist in San Diego and author of Be Mighty. “We can grow, change and do things differently.” You can look to other role models and copy them. You can have an intent and make another choice simply because it matters to your spouse.
It might not start off smoothly, and it can feel foreign for a bit, but it’s far from impossible. As Rawls says, people move to a new country and learn the language. You could get by without doing so, but it leads to fitting in and having a richer experience.
This is how to learn your new language.
1. Start with a Talk
The first step is to have an honest conversation with your partner. Open with, “I love you more than anything,” to remove the big doubt that your silence and inaction can feed. Then explain, “I want you to understand something. I didn’t grow up with affection being shown, so I’m not good at it.” Being vulnerable, not defensive, brings understanding, Stoddard says, and it also takes some pressure off because your partner isn’t constantly scrutinizing, waiting for you to “just get it”, and becoming resentful when you don’t.
2. Work Together
You’ve admitted you don’t know what to do, so ask your partner for help, says Diana Wiley, licensed marriage and family therapist, board certified sex therapist, and author of Love in the Time of Corona. Since writing can be less threatening, she suggests that each of you jot down your own lists of seven things that would make you feel more loved. It allows you to get small-scale and specific, and it gives you both a starting point.
Nothing needs to be big. Stoddard and Wiley say to begin with “baby steps.” It can be, for example, a 15-second conversation where you’re face-to-face, which rarely happens anymore with young kids. The key is you’re making eye contact. “It’s connection,” Stoddard says.
There are other gestures that take no words and only a few seconds. Graze a shoulder when you walk by. Brush your partner’s hair back. Tap feet under the dinner table or squeeze a leg in the car. You don’t engage with anyone else in this way. It’s reserved for only your partner. “Touch is a way to say, ‘I’m here. I know you’re here. We’re in this together,’” Stoddard says.
3. Lock In
Affection primarily comes down to paying attention and being in the moment, another thing that can be lost over time.
“Couples get really familiar with each other and stop noticing,” Wiley says. She suggests to take a few seconds, look at your spouse, who doesn’t have to know, and notice five things that are different from the last time you looked.
If it helps, write them down, but share at least one. If you’re stuck on how to say it, pluck out expressive words that your spouse uses, like “thoughtful”, “ adorable”, “thrilling”, and drop them into your comments. “It connects on a cellular level,” Rawls says.
While there isn’t one best approach, Wiley suggests having a book that’s kept in a specific spot and where you write notes to each other. Whenever it appears on the shelf, it signals there’s a new message. Reading can be a personal experience, and you’re also creating a record, which you can revisit and which can call up good feelings and memories. “It’s a way to shore up romantic emotions,” she says.
4. Take in Your Dimensions
The entire prospect of opening up can feel like you’re being forced to give something up, and that can make you resist. But Rawls says you can keep your vulnerability and you should. It’s a needed part of the fight-or-flight response. What you’re doing is adding to your toolbox. It helps to visualize yourself like a pyramid with different facets that all play a role. It also helps to remember that not every situation requires affection. You’re just going to bring it out when your partner is calling for it.
5. Accept the Pace
What can help lower the stress is knowing that nothing requires 15 steps, or even five. It’s a process that will shift and evolve over time as you keep taking in bits of feedback. The upside is that as long as you’re engaged and trying, there are wide margins and lots of ways to be successful.
“There’s not a right or wrong way with this,” Stoddard says. “You just have to find a way that works for you and your partner.”