Seven verbs that shape the way we love
I have been following the work of Esther Perel – an acclaimed couples’ therapist living and working mostly in New York – for some time now. (She speaks 9 languages, a fact in and of itself that absolutely amazes me, not to mention all her expertise on relationships and connection!)
In one of her recent blog posts I came across these 7 verbs she names as most important in informing and shaping the way we love. I decided to explore these verbs a little further, which by definition is a private and deeply personal undertaking, so please consider reading on at your own risk…
The first verb on Esther’s list is TO ASK.
How do I go about it? In certain contexts I can ask, no problem. For example I don’t have any problem asking for help, advice, something I need if it’s for work. However, in a private context I am not doing so great. Over the last few years I have learned to ask for hugs from my young adult sons when I feel like I need one, and they are great at giving, every time. I also ask for help at home, I sometimes even ask for me-time, when I need to focus, recharge or unwind. Identifying what my needs are has become much easier since I have built some awareness around it, in my younger years, as so typical in our culture for women, I might have noticed the discomfort but would not allow myself to really become aware of what the need was. That seemed too selfish. Over the years life has shown me the price I had paid for not recognizing some of those needs, so now I try to be better about it. But I still detect some guilt around asking, whereas identifying and serving the needs of others is second nature. I see that there is still plenty of room for improvement here.
The next verb is TO TAKE.
I grew up with the belief, that to take is not polite. It is selfish, and we in my family should not be selfish. In fact I was loved and praised for not being a selfish little girl. That was a fundamental value. At the most you ask, or better yet you wait until you are offered. So, at 50 I still don’t quite know how to take. I do recognize my needs now, but I often find myself looking for a way around, hoping to be offered, hoping the other person will notice my longing and fulfill it without me having to take, or even ask. This naturally leads to numerous misunderstandings and occasional disappointments, not to mention an eternal pass for endless rides on the drama triangle… Yes, I am aware of these but there is no such thing as stepping off the drama triangle. It is a process, more like slipping off, slowly, not very gracefully, but with the occasional sense of success. Again, lots of room for improvement here as well.
Verb number #3 is TO RECEIVE.
Ok, this is a little easier, since I am on the passive end. I have no problem receiving, it makes me feel gracious and worthy. Over recent years, due to conscious effort I have even learned to receive and register some wonderful complements and positive feedback, which previously was very hard. I constantly had to deflate it, redirect it, diminish it – just to mention a few clever techniques many of us who are struggling with allowing positive feedback in tend to develop. Now, for the most part, I can accept it and put it in a place where it is accessible on more difficult days without degrading it – or myself, diminishing the complement with an “Oh, it’s nothing” kind of response or simply not taking any notice of it at all. Being on the receiving end of kindness and tenderness always makes me feel very vulnerable and teary-eyed, but absolutely magical at the same time.
Now comes verb #4: TO GIVE.
Oh, I feel so much more at home now! Giving I know. I can give time, attention, help, love, connection, warmth, understanding, even forgiveness. I can give support, tenderness, nurturing, a sense of belonging, of safety, of joy. What do I expect in return? If you asked me I would probably say nothing, nothing at all. Only after some self-reflection would I verbalize that I want to feel loved and accepted in return. That’s all I want, but if it doesn’t come in the form that I expect and need, I realize I can easily become judgmental, cynical, arrogant and formulate unwanted opinion or advice. This of course is not conscious, but I catch myself more and more frequently when I switch to automatic pleasing mode, thereby allowing me to make a conscious decision about giving. One informed more by the other person and the relationship itself, rather than simply by my own psychological needs.
Verb #5 is TO SHARE.
Sharing is caring, the saying goes, and I like to think of myself as a caring individual, so I would like to think I am really good at sharing. And for the most part I am – except when it comes to sharing my inner experiences. It is difficult for me to share some of those deepest inner needs because I have been hurt and rejected before, so I have learned to stay safe by not becoming vulnerable, by not sharing. However, love and connection strive on true intimacy, which can only happen through letting go of my fears and allowing myself to enter the space of vulnerability, without judging myself or being afraid of the other judging or labeling me. I wish this stuff wasn’t quite so hard!
Next comes perhaps the most difficult one of all: TO REFUSE.
My relationship to this verb is so controversial, I actually completely left it out at first from the list. Only after checking if I had written about all of them did I realize I had actually refused to consider Refuse. Refusing is very hard for me. I feel the pain of the other person immediately, as soon as I even just think of refusing something, let alone somebody who turns to me. I have gotten much better at saying no, especially with work related issues, but also in my private life. And I have found out, that many of my important relationships are not too pleased with the new me. They preferred me not being in charge, not recognizing my boundaries. They are slightly shocked, hurt, sometimes even disgusted at my newly gained strength of refusal, but my internal power has emerged, I have a sense of autonomy and this allows me to recognize and become aware of what it is I really want. Amazing how all these verbs are so interconnected!
The last verb, #6 is TO PLAY, TO IMAGINE.
When I was a little girl I always imagined myself as a mother. I was an only child and I often felt very lonely, so it was my ultimate dream to have many children and give them a safe and comfortable home, a loving family. I played a lot around this phantasy, by myself, with my girlfriends, even with my grandma. As I was getting older I still for the longest time could not really imagine what I wanted to become other than a wife and a mother. That didn’t stop me of course from getting a masters in languages, participating in a Phd program in comparative English and German literature and landing various teaching and interpreting jobs, but when it came to imagining and playing I automatically entered the space of motherhood. Then life fulfilled this dream, I fell in love, got married and had three great kids who now are young adults, and I am very proud of them. As they were growing up a new dream started to emerge and I started playing with a new discovery. I felt it was time to find out who I am – not as a daughter, not as a wife or even a mother, but as a woman, a person, a human being. What are my strengths, where should I develop and grow, where am I strong and where insecure, how do I relate to others without any of my relationship titles, just me, Amina, the one to be trusted, as my Arabic name suggests. This brought me lots of new challenges and solutions, some of which I had and occasionally still have a difficult time imagining. Nowadays however, I find myself searching for ways to play and imagine things that are a lot more connected to who I am than who I think I should be. And when I do, it is not always the most graceful, the most proper, the most pleasing to others – but it feels really me.
As I am talking about this I realize maybe from this present space it is easier, more natural to become vulnerable, SHARE how I feel and ASK for my needs and at times feel free to REFUSE those of others, or maybe just TAKE what I want while continuing to GIVE and RECEIVE. Thank you Esther Perel for this exercise. It helped me explore my roots, deep experiences and beliefs around the way I connect in my relationships and it gave me lots of self reflection and learning around the way I love. I can only encourage everyone to take the time and do this. It is not easy or quick, but most enlightening. And what other topic deserves our time and attention, if not LOVE…?
Here is the link for Esther Perel’s Intimacy Inventory: