Valentine

There are so many ways to tell your sweetheart that you love him or her. You can buy a card that expresses your deepest feelings, go out to dinner, make heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast, give flowers or a special gift. These are fun and important ways to say, “I love you.”  There is, along with these hands-on gifts, one more very important action that will seal you forever in your true love’s heart. 

To help you discover this gift, we’ll start with a few questions.

  • If you were to die today, what loving words did you say to your spouse that will be fondly remembered forever after?
  • What compliments did you give your spouse today?
  • What words of thanks did you express to your spouse today?
  • What did you say about your spouse to family or friends that would please him/her?

In response to a survey we conducted a few years ago regarding causes for marital unhappiness, we received several comments about mates being self-absorbed and unaware of their spouse’s needs. Here are a few of these comments:

“She focuses on my faults.”

“Selfishness, always thinking of himself instead of me and the family.”

“I’m never good enough on my wife’s scale.”

“She’s always keeping score — counting up how many nice things she does for me, compared to what I don’t do for her.”

        “He’s in a rut of fault-finding.”

“My husband only notices and comments on what’s wrong.  I clean and he points out the fingerprints.”

“Always criticizing. There’s no such thing as ‘constructive criticism.’  Being critical all the time is just plain being negative.”

Happy couples look for and build on the positive.  It’s true that criticism in marriage is rarely constructive.  You need to notice the good in your companion and cease focusing on the bad.  This can be one of the most important ways you can say, “I love you” to your spouse.

talking

Turn Things Around

In the newspaper column “Dear Abby,” a letter was submitted from a woman whose marriage had been in need of repair.  She and her husband were continually fighting, and she had spent many nights crying herself to sleep.  She wrote:

One night I couldn’t sleep because I was so upset with him.  All I could think about were all the things that bugged me about him.  I knew that if I didn’t banish these negative thoughts from my mind, it would be a long time before I fell asleep.  I decided to think instead of all the things that I loved about him.  I wrote them down on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and placed it in his briefcase.

The next morning, he called me from work to tell me how much he loved me.  When he came home that evening, he put my “list” in a frame and hung it on the wall.  We hardly ever fight anymore.  I get love notes weekly and kisses daily.

President Gordon B. Hinckley gave us a promise regarding this principle when he said, “If husbands and wives would only give greater emphasis to the virtues that are found in one another and less to the faults, there would be fewer broken hearts, fewer tears, fewer divorces, and much more happiness in the homes of our people.” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, Deseret Book, 1997, p. 322)    

To start turning things around in your own marriage you must change what you focus on concerning your mate.  If someone is told to not focus on something, somehow the forbidden thing becomes the center of focus.  So this becomes an overt act on your part of focusing on something different.  The following activity can help a couple change their focus.

Make a List

We suggest that each spouse, take a piece of paper and write the following statement at the top:

Things My Mate Does That Help Me Feel Happy  

Do this next part alone — no discussing any of it with your spouse at this point.  Each of you take your paper and start to list the acts, both big and small, that your mate does that help you feel happy.  Notice that it isn’t what makes me feel happy; no one can make you feel happy.  Happiness becomes a conscious choice, and we each choose how we will feel about the things that go on around us.  Still, certain things do help us feel happy and our mate can definitely make a significant contribution to our happiness.

The success of this part of the exercise hinges on your willingness to acknowledge the positive things your mate does and says.  This is a time to get specific and avoid generalizations.  Instead of saying something like “my mate is kind,” write down exactly what he or she did or said that was kind.  Each of us likes to be recognized in specifics.  So let your mind wander over the past, both near and distant, and see what you can write down. 

There isn’t anything that is too insignificant.  Emphasize those things that were said and done to and for you.  Also, recognize things he or she has done for family members and friends that generated a happy feeling within you.  Remember how you like to have the little things you do honored and acknowledged.  Now is the time for you to do the honoring.

Your list needs to be original, in your own words, stating your feelings.  Give yourself a little time and think, not only with your mind but with your heart.  You might be interested to see, as you begin to write, how your list grows as your memory is jogged by focusing on the little acts and expressions of kindness.  This happens because you go inside and find the feelings of your heart that allow you to get outside of your self-absorption.

The Together Time

letter

Now comes the fun. This is, again, a time for just the two of you, not a family time.  If possible, farm the children out with grandparents or trade some babysitting with a neighbor.  Or you could bring a sitter in while you go to a nice motel.  Find a comfortable and intimate place to be — maybe sitting on your sofa or bed where you can face and touch each other.  You might consider having some soft romantic music playing in the background (no TV!) to give some additional warmth and intimacy to this sharing time.

You let your mate know what has been meaningful to you.  How you do the sharing part is up to you.  Some couples have had one read the entire list and then the other read his or her entire list.


Others take turns reading one item from each list as they go along.  Remember, doing this involves a risk for each of you, and just as you want your list to be accepted, so will your mate.  Be appreciative of the things that are shared.  One caution: Do not remind your mate of other things you have done.
 
Accept those things that your mate recognizes with no additions or critiques.  If his or her list is longer than yours, that’s okay.  Just enjoy it and don’t make comparisons.   This is a beginning.

Many couples have reported that doing this exercise became a wonderful intimate time — one that they have not experienced for a long time.  During one of our marriage retreats, three couples who attended were contemplating divorce.  After the first session and that evening time of sharing, they arrived at the next morning’s session with arms around each other and an obvious tenderness exhibited toward each other. 

Focus On What You Have

Ashley, who has been married for twenty years, describes a similar experience:

I was once so caught up with feeling sad that my husband didn’t join me in attending church that I wrote my brother, saying, “It’s so hard to be married to a man who doesn’t believe as I do.”  He wrote right back with a long list of things my husband and I both believe in.  It was a great letter.  I still have it. 

Whenever I tend to look at the 20 percent I don’t have, instead of appreciating the 80 percent I do have, I think of that letter.  Now I often say, “I’m married to the best man far and wide.”  And I believe that with all my heart.

To feel of worth in the eyes of the most important person in your life gives meaning and added zest to everything you do.  It takes so little time and effort and pays such great dividends. 

Keep It Alive — Make It a Habit

To help keep this feeling alive, give the paper you have written to your mate so it can be referred to again and again.  Now that you have started the recognition, make it a habit.  Each day look for the things that have helped you feel happy and tell your mate — even if you said something like it yesterday.  Suzanne describes how she and Mark have made this a habit:

Every day we consistently tell each other what we appreciate about the other.  We talk about the little things we did for each other that helped us feel happy.   For instance, Mark said to me, “I appreciate your picking me up from work today.”  I added, “And I appreciated the way you made me laugh when I lost the file on my computer.”   Recognizing the caring day-to-day actions and comments keeps us focused on the positives.

This is a process every couple needs to continue throughout their life together.  Make it fun and then it will spread to your children.  As they hear you acknowledge each other’s good points, and they are also acknowledged, who knows, they might start doing the same for each other.  And one day, they will know how to do it in their marriage.

Now You Know           

By now you should know what the action is that “will seal you forever in your true love’s heart.” To reiterate, it’s simply this: Notice the good things your mate does and tell him/her every day.  President Hinckley summed this up when he said, “I hope that each one of us will be a better husband or wife, kinder to one another, more thoughtful, more restrained in criticism, and more generous with compliments. (“A Time of New Beginnings,” Ensign, May 2000, 87)

We often become what others believe we are.  Think of the possibilities as you apply this concept to your marriage. Let this become your habit. This can be the Valentine gift that will last forever.

 

[Gary Lundberg is a marriage and family therapist in Provo, Utah.  Joy, his wife, is a writer and lyricist. This article contains excerpts from their book Love That Lasts: 14 Secrets to a More Joyful, Passionate, and Fulfilling Marriage.  To order or learn more visit https://www.garyjoylundberg.com/store/love-that-lasts/]