We all know that Valentine's Day, like Mother's Day, is a holiday largely manufactured by Hallmark. While there's nothing wrong with a frilly card and teddy bear, you might instead consider giving that special someone a makeover. No, I'm not talking about taking him for a facial or replacing his ripped college sweatshirt with some new ones from the Gap (a previous gift of mine). How about treating Valentine's Day like New Year's and resolving to improve your relationship?
This makeover, developed by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, may require some serious effort on your part—as in taking the first step even if you're, say, still mad at him for getting stuck with his guy friends in Miami just before the big blizzard or for all those annoying offenses attributed to the fraternity of men: leaving the toilet seat up, throwing dirty socks on the floor, drinking directly from the orange juice container, ignoring an overflowing kitchen trash can or empty roll of toilet paper. OK, perhaps it's easier to plan a romantic dinner, but those candles won't last more than a few hours.
To invest in a gift that keeps on giving, what's required is the discipline to develop some new habits, says Hanson, who outlines his relationship principles, based on Buddhist beliefs, in his new book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. These include some obvious things like shutting up and listening and some not-so-obvious ones like being less intertwined with each other, more autonomous individuals. Hanson says some basic practices of Buddhism, such as loving acts of kindness, can actually help establish and reinforce pathways in your brain to strengthen emotional bonds with the one you love. If you practice them enough, these makeover tips will eventually become automatic.
1. Be compassionate with yourself. The more power you have over someone, says Hanson, the greater your duty to use that power benevolently. Of course, the person you have the most power over is yourself. "If you're feeling hurt and truly unloved by your partner, call up a person in your mind who has always loved you unconditionally—a parent, grandparent, best friend—and remember that there are those out there who do love you and respect you," he says. Having a strong sense that you're loved and deserving of being treated well will help you create a secure sense of self that will actually enhance your romantic relationship. "I imagine I'm an oak tree with deep roots," Hanson says. "My leaves and branches might get blown off by rough winds, but ultimately I'm still standing."
2. Practice virtue. This means doing your best not to harm yourself or harm your partner. The key here is to act with unilateral virtue, treating someone nicely without waiting to be treated nicely—which can be tough to do when you're in a fight. "But it gives you the moral high ground," says Hanson, "and you're much more likely to get good behavior from that person, interrupting the vicious cycle of tit for tat." Think of yourself as having a moral code of conduct. Maybe you vow not to scream or curse when you're angry. (This may take practice if your personality veers more toward White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel than "no drama" Obama.) Another tactic: "Imagine being in the body of someone you deem to be virtuous," says Hanson, who envisions Nelson Mandela. "Adopt that person's stance, body language, voice patterns, and remind yourself of the wonderful rewards of a long-term committed relationship." This will develop connections in your prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain responsible for decision making and correct social behavior. "You can actually train your brain to feel rewarded by doing the right thing," Hanson says.
3. Empathize with your partner even when you disagree. Speaking from personal experience, this may seem nearly impossible when you're convinced you're right and he's wrong. But it will help strengthen your relationship and, heck, might even get him to feel a little empathy for you. The best way to feel empathy is, oddly enough, to feel a bit of detachment from your partner. Recognize that the two of you are separate people who aren't intertwined in every way. "If you're so close that every little wobble in his mood rattles you," Hanson explains, "then it's hard to feel empathy for him." Once you establish a sense of boundaries—it's OK if he doesn't share your views on global warming and health reform—you can really tune into your partner's emotional state. "Pay attention to him for a full five minutes," he recommends. Listen to his words, stare into his eyes, take note of his jaw (is it tightening?) or whether he's slouching on the couch with his arms crossed or open wide as if anticipating an embrace. Be aware of his thoughts and gestures without judging them—a practice called mindfulness that actually ignites feelings of connectedness and empathy. It can also be a relaxing form of meditation.
4. Apply a dash of wisdom when communicating. While it may give you satisfaction in the moment to hurt your partner after he has hurt you, it sets you back in the long run. As Dr. Phil says, "How's that working for you?" Tuning into yourself—using the same mindfulness techniques you used on him—can help you communicate more effectively. Pinpoint the emotions you're feeling: Are you sad? Disappointed? Frustrated? Hurt? Ashamed? In a blind rage? Be mindful of the complexities of your reactions: Are you screaming one minute and pleading the next? How are you gesturing? Are you looking at him or turning away? What are your deeper needs and wants—to just be listened to or to make sure something in particular never happens again?
Now use that knowledge to communicate effectively. Hanson recommends the following: Stay focused on one goal, and keep coming back to it. It really hurts me when you come home two hours later than you promised. Try to communicate for yourself rather than to elicit some reaction from the other person. Keep coming back to your own feelings and experiences rather than his shortcomings. (The hope is that he'll hear you and respond accordingly.) Also, take responsibility for any actions of yours that have hurt him (which requires you to give him a turn to air his grievances). And remember to stay guided by your own personal code of conduct. Think Mandela.
5. Savor the positive. Dwell on those positive interactions you have with your partner. Make those small compliments about your hair, cooking skills, or money-saving ideas last for longer than the moment by thinking about them for 10 or 20 seconds before letting your attention drift to something else. Stare at that vase of roses you received for Valentine's Day at least once in the morning and once at night. Really pay attention to the sensations you feel when you hug him. "Focusing on these pleasures increases the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which makes it easier to derive even more joy from the experience and to store those experiences in your memory," says Hanson. Those memories will help keep the bonds resilient the next time he gets home late or leaves the toilet seat up.
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