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The 3 Little Words That Will Rekindle Desire in a Long-Term Relationship

And, no, they aren't 'I love you'.

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Domenic Bahmann
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I used to address my husband with two toxic words: “you should.”  

“You should meet your deadlines.” “You should get that done by Friday.” “You should make a plan.”  

Why did I think a grown man needed my instruction? Because I was a type A editor who ran a newsroom, that’s why. I suffered from the “curse of the competent woman” — I was so good at my job that I didn’t know how to stop doing it when I got home. In my frazzled haste to care for my children and my career, I sometimes spoke to my husband like he was a child.  

My “competence” led me to therapy, and my therapist opened my eyes. “Avoid starting any sentence to your partner with ‘you should,’” said my wise counselor, Connie Ingram.  

“You should” is perilously close to what therapists call a “harsh start-up.” It’s an indicator of disrespect. Consider a more respectful start-up, Ingram suggested. Instead of saying “you should,” say to your husband, “I trust you will do what is best for you.”

It turns out I had a control problem — my husband’s behavior was never my responsibility — and I had a communication problem. My “shoulds” blocked me from connecting with my husband. 

What’s the number one relationship killer? It’s not sex and it’s not money. It’s bad communication. We push, we pout, we punish each other, and all because we lack the tools to articulate our needs effectively and to engage our partners so that they feel safe enough to share theirs. Listen to psychologist John M. Gottman, best-selling author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and many other books. He has studied couples for 40 years and can predict with 94 percent accuracy which ones will get a divorce. Here is some of his wisdom: 

“The big secret to creating love that lasts is simple: Make dedicated time for each other a priority, and never stop being curious about your partner.”

As it turned out, my husband of 18 years made dedicated time for another woman. My divorce devastated me, and ripples from it still affect me and our four daughters 15 years later. In my heartbreak, however, I read dozens of books on making meaningful connections. I came through it wiser and more loving, and I use what I’ve learned to fuel my bond with my current partner.  

Here are five quotes from experts that can help you find a deeper love connection, too. 

“Be as passionate about listening as you are about being heard.” — Brené Brown, best-selling author and professor

Listening is a skill. It’s good to state up front if you’re looking for “empathetic listening,” as in “please just hear me,” or “problem-solving listening,” as in “help me fix this.” Many men often go to fix-it listening, while women tend to want an empathetic ear and a hug. Brown’s definition of connection: “The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Connection is the emotional equivalent of oxygen — without it, our souls suffocate. Connection is the ultimate turn-on, too. 

“The greatest aphrodisiac ever invented is love itself … and nothing will diminish desire as quickly as anger, hostility or resentment toward a partner.” —Dudley S. Danoff, M.D., urologist and author of The Ultimate Guide to Male Sexual Health

Danoff’s prescription for great sex is not oysters, ginseng or Viagra — it’s great communication. How we express our emotions is the tricky part. Avoid “shoulds” if you want the goods.  

“A good relationship is not one in which the raw parts of ourselves are avoided. A good relationship is one in which they are handled, and a great relationship is one in which they are healed.” —Terrence Real, therapist who counsels couples in what he calls “fierce intimacy”  

In Real’s book The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work, he explains the process of effective communication. We need tools, Real says, because all relationships “are a cycle of harmony, disharmony and repair.” Effective communication provides the repair. Telling the truth should be easy, but fear often shuts us down. All it takes is one eye roll or smirk or silence from our partners — Gottman calls this “stonewalling” — and even the bravest of us will crawl into our emotional closets, our needs unheard and our resentment building.

“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed, and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.” —Mark Nepo, poet and author

Nepo’s poignant and powerful best seller The Book of Awakening kept me sane during my divorce. We’re born whole, Nepo writes, “though no one can escape the journey of trauma that undoes us. Yet, in time, we can be put back together, if given the chance to know and be known thoroughly.”

How can we engage each other in a way that reveals our hearts and empowers our partners? Let’s ask one of the world’s best interviewers, NPR’s Terry Gross. 

“Tell me about yourself.” —Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air

Gross uses this simple icebreaker to get conversations rolling. Curiosity fuels every connection, she says — whether you’ve known a person for five minutes or 50 years.

You may think you know your partner. But are you still curious? Do you know how he or she became who they are today? Ask questions that prompt deep connection: What do you need in a friend right now? What do you want your life to be like in three years? What was one of your happiest childhood moments?

Perhaps the three little words to rekindle a relationship are not “I love you” but “tell me more.” 

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