Most relationship research, therapy, and coaching focuses on how to give love. It assumes if we give more love, more respect, more kind words, more of our undivided attention, more help, more nurturing, we will receive more in return. For most couples, this is true.
However, giving more to get more can feel like work, hence the common wisdom that a good marriage requires hard work. Giving more because you’ve already received more feels joyful.
Is it possible to receive more before you give more? In most marriages, yes.
We can become more skillful at receiving love. We can learn to recognize attempts at giving love. We can learn to set aside our judgments long enough to recognize when we’re not being threatened or harmed or disrespected, so we won’t bristle at the kiss or hug or words of endearment that follow. We can master the words for expressing gratitude openly. We can learn to stop a habit of saying, “Yes, but…” and savor every moment of loving.
I believe the key to all of this is to assume love, to stop whenever we feel a negative reaction rising within us and ask, “If this husband or wife of mine still possesses the good character I recognized when we fell in love and if he or she still loves me as much as ever, what might explain the words or actions I’m reacting to right now?”
There may be no answer, and when there isn’t, it’s not good to pretend love. When there is an answer, we’ve got a choice to make: believe the explanation we started with or believe the one we just thought of. Neither is a justification offered by our spouse; we came up with both explanations. We know either could be accurate. And now, before we speak or act, we can choose our reaction: receive the love or receive the harm or threat or disrespect we fear might be have been intended.
If we choose to receive the love, we’ll probably be wrong some of the time, but not dangerously wrong. If what happened was unequivocally ill-intentioned, we’d find no answer to our what-if question, and there would be no choice to make. Being wrong would mean only feeling loved when it wasn’t intended.
If we act as if there is no choice to make and don’t ask the question, we’ll probably be wrong some of the time, too. We’ll react in anger when the situation justifies none. We might react with disrespect or ingratitude or resignation and baffle our mate, who intended only love. With both spouses feeling wronged, which will choose to do the hard work of giving love while feeling wronged? In many marriages, neither. When we’re wrong because we fail to ask the question, we’re dangerously wrong.
I encourage everyone to learn all the ways to give love, not in hopes of working hard to increase the amount of love your spouse shows you, but to joyously give back some of the love your spouse already shows you, love you’ll discover when you assume love before you react.