Nov 21 • 7M

7 ways to be better at love

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Bhekani Khumalo
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.
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When you assess yourself do you think you’re good at love? When your loved ones think about you, do you think they get visions of rainbows and unicorns or blood and toil? If it’s somewhere in between which side is it leaning? Whether you’re good or not, where did you learn to love? Where do any of us learn to give and to receive love and why is there so much variation?

We all have different perspectives of what love and intimacy are and we all have different responses to that love and intimacy. According to renown relationship therapist Esther Perel, research seems to agree that the way our primary caregivers related to us when we were children has a lot to do with how we view intimacy. However, an interesting thing I learnt from her this week is that language has an influence on us even before we can understand it. Here’s how Esther Perel puts it.

Language shapes our lives before we even know how to speak it. Verbs such as “to begin,” “to grow,” and “to be” describe our entry into this world. Verbs such as “to grab,” “to smile,” and “to resist” aren’t far behind. Ideally, “to learn” and “to love” and “to be loved” fill our days from that point forward but we know these are the ones that carry the most complexity. We learn to love and to be loved from the responses of our caregivers. They form an internal compass that guides us—inward and outward, toward and away—often without our conscious knowledge. — Esther Perel

She says that in the language of intimacy, basic fluency comes down to seven verbs; to ask, to take, to receive, to give, to refuse, to share, and to play.

To learn how we can be better at love, we need to examine each of these verbs in relation to how we were loved. Perel encourages us to go through each verb and see how we can improve our relationship with it. So let’s go through them.

To ask.

What do you need? Do you ask for it? How comfortable are you asking for your needs and wants to be met? Rather than telling people what you don’t want or being hurt when they don’t meet your needs – are you able to request what you want and need? Some of us may think we know what feels good to us, what pleases us, and what is meaningful to us, but we don’t feel entitled to these things. Maybe we weren’t raised to feel we could ask. Alternatively, some of us have no problem asking for what we want and it might drive us crazy to guess what our partner wants when it comes so easily to us.

To take.

Do you allow yourself to fully engage in pleasure and feel deserving of it? Do you feel that you’re allowed to take affection and attention? When we allow ourselves to take pleasure in something, we permit ourselves to engage fully, to be immersed, to feel deserving, and to experience healthy entitlement. In this mindset, we feel that we’re allowed to ask for attention and affection. For those of us who struggle with this, practice reframing phrases such as “I don’t want to take your time” to “may I take some of your time?” 

To receive.

This is arguably the most vulnerable of the verbs. Do you let others give to you without fear, scorekeeping, or feelings of inferiority? Can you acknowledge that someone genuinely wants to give to you and make you feel good? It demands that we feel good about ourselves as is, that we acknowledge that someone can like and accept us, that they want to give to us and make us feel good. It’s much easier for many of us to give than to receive when it comes to intimacy. Receiving requires connecting with our senses of helplessness, exposure, and vulnerability more so than when we give. When we receive, we allow another to see us. We allow ourselves to be known. “To take” and “to receive” are not the same, but they are connected.

To give .

Can you give without strings attached? Do you notice opportunities for giving and then take them? What is giving anyway? On the positive side, it’s appropriately giving gifts, time, attention, money, help, etc. On the negative side, it’s what we do to avoid conflict. Are you bad at giving? Do you give purely to avoid conflict or to cover a mistake? Do you over give or are you really stingy in some categories of giving? What do you need to give to yourself and to your partner?

To share.

Sharing comes from a sense of mutuality and reciprocity. If we grew up with an abundance mindset, sharing may feel totally natural. If we grew up with a scarcity mindset, or if we were raised in poverty, sharing may feel depriving and unfair or threatening to one’s safety.

To refuse.

Some of us have a big difficulty with refusing, so we say yes to everything. We self-betray, over-commit and harbour resentment. Maybe we learned that saying “no” is unkind. Do you understand that saying “no” to your partner can help them understand your boundaries and needs? Many of us have a complicated relationship with our own right to refuse. Where did we learn that if we say “no” there will be consequences? What is the story behind our experiences of saying “no”?

To play.

Do you feel safe enough with your partner to engage in creativity, imagination, and exploration? Diane Ackerman says “in deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles.” Can you lay aside your self-consciousness and be silly, sit quietly in each other’s presence with no distractions or problem-solve together? When we play, we can become any version of ourselves—the superhero or the villain or anyone in between.

Behind each of these seven verbs are the answers to how we learnt to love and be loved. Did we learn to not expect too much? Did we dare to not be afraid? Was pleasure celebrated, tolerated suspiciously, or dismissed? Did our caregivers monitor our needs or were we expected to monitor theirs? Were we taught that we could trust others or not? Did we learn to hide when we were upset? The answers to each of these question give us a template for our emotional scorecards.

Which of these verbs are you weakest at? Which could use improvement and which are you currently excelling on? The experiences that revolve around these seven verbs shape our beliefs about ourselves and our expectations of others.

We didn’t have a choice of how we learned them, but we have some say in which ones we prioritize in our relationship with ourselves and each other. And to show up in a more loving way is fully within our control. Challenging yourself to show up in these verbs, even though they make you feel vulnerable and scared and intimidated, is how we develop true intimacy. Every time we practice them, we learn to give up some of the unhelpful coping strategies we developed that were once meant to protect us. That is how we become more comfortable with intimacy.