Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Hillary Geffner gives us advice on how to best nurture relationships with others and yourself. Hillary specializes in therapy for relationship issues, life transitions, and anxiety for people of all ages. Below are her answers to some of the most pressing relationship questions we have:
There's so much that goes into a relationship, but what do you believe are the most important building blocks of a successful relationship?
"I get asked this question a lot from people and my clients and I think so much could really be said for what the components of a successful relationship are. In my opinion, I believe that trust, respect, empathy and commitment would be 4 fundamental pieces of the foundation for a successful relationship. Those 4 aspects of a relationship are so important to the stability and overall health of a relationship. They also can be interpreted in many ways and actually I think they all are interwoven and dependent on one another. We need to trust that our partner is there for us, not just trust that they won’t betray us. Trust looks like creating safety in expression, feeling okay to share the good and the bad with someone. Trust is being reliable and accountable to the person and the relationship, which is also commitment to showing up and being present. It is hard to trust without respect and it is hard to respect someone without trust. Empathy is the willingness to hear the other person, really hear where they are coming from and how they are feeling. Empathy fosters understanding and deep connection. Empathy shows respect by saying “I care enough about you to genuinely want to understand you”. Ongoing empathetic connection requires a commitment to the space and trust is needed to feel safe enough to be vulnerable with the thoughts and feelings occupying the mind. Commitment sometimes requires future thinking and that would be hard to do if you lacked respect, empathy, and trust in a relationship. So really, I think these four building blocks feed on one another and make up the foundation of a solid relationship."
Sometimes it's the little things that count... What are ways in which you recommend people can show more acts of love to their partner?
"It is absolutely the little things that matter- I think that we are all conditioned to pay attention to the big stuff but really it’s the little things that make up your day and therefore make up your relationship to someone else. I recommend that people show love by staying present, being in the moment with someone is really powerful- even if that moment is sitting on the couch after a long day, are you on your phone scrolling through Instagram or are you tuned in to what your partner is saying, are you touching on the couch or are you worlds apart? In addition to staying present, I really think it is important for people to have fun together; be silly, make time for fun and games. Sometimes we forget to have fun in the stress of daily life but the ability to be silly and have fun with someone is so intimate; play is definitely a key but often overlooked way of showing love and creating intimacy, especially because the ability to be playful requires a level of vulnerability and authenticity and really creates an intimate bond. Another small, yet important thing that can demonstrate love is just simply getting curious. Asking questions is so powerful; we all really want to be seen, heard, appreciated, and understood. Asking questions and getting curious with your partner really demonstrates that you care about what they are saying and what they are experiencing."
Do you think knowing your love language is important? How do you recommend finding out your love language?
"Yes- I think knowing your love language is important because it expands on the idea that we are all unique and that something like the definition of how we give and receive love can vary from person to person depending on their life experiences, family, society, cultural context, etc. We often hear the phrase “treat others as you want to be treated”- while I understand the basic level of respect in this phrase I actually think it sets a lot of people up for misunderstandings. It is really important that we all know what it is that we want/need from other people AND what is it that the other person wants and needs from us. If love to one person is taking care of day to day stuff and love to the other is physical connection, those people may miss each other’s attempts to show love. One partner may be showing that their love by giving a kiss when they get home from work but not recognize that the other was showing love by stocking the house and picking up the dry cleaning.
In addition to the work from Gary Chapman on the 5 love languages, one way to find out your love language is by getting curious with yourself and your partner. What does love mean to me? How do I show my partner I love them? How do I want to be shown? What are my values in partnership? What are the stories I have heard about how to show love and how have those influenced me? We often overlook the fact that we are all a collection of stories and experiences that shape how we interpret and share our feelings. Perhaps you are someone who subscribes to “actions speak louder than words” you would be more likely to show love through action and also want your partner to show you love through action. In contrast you may be someone who deeply values communication and really needs to hear “I love you” or compliments; if that is the case you probably do that for your partner and also want it in return to feel loved. Finding out how you understand what love means to you and then how you need it to be expressed and experienced is instrumental to forming strong connection and deep understanding of yourself and your relationship."
What do you recommend people do in long-term relationships to keep things spicy?
"It is so normal to experience a lull in your relationship. Things can feel stale or predictable when you’ve been with someone for a long time. Desire often requires elements of excitement and novelty, which can feel hard in long term relationships. But novelty in a long term relationship doesn’t actually look like doing something you’ve never done; it just means creating a newness through small shifts in different experiences with this person than you’ve had before. It can be making time for the romantic couple by making date night a priority. It can be sharing fantasy with your partner, this can look like dirty talk and sexting or just telling them one thing you’ve been thinking about doing in the bedroom next time; communicating is important and being able to share your wants and desires is hugely erotic and connective. Keeping things interesting also requires a level of play; coming up with games or adventures you can go on together allows for the novelty and excitement, you can play sex games or incorporate toys. Having fun keeps things spicy."
The wellness world has been preaching a lot about self-care and self-love. How does self-love affect the success of a relationship?
"That’s very true and I am so glad that we are making this shift to highlight the importance of self-care and self-love since historically we have viewed things like self care as selfish endeavors. I view self-care as the ingredients towards cultivating and maintaining self-love. Self-love really impacts a relationship because it impacts how we see ourselves as worthy, how we see our value, and what we expect/tolerate from others. If self-love is low, typically our self talk is destructive and tells us that we are undeserving, we are less than, we are inadequate. It would be hard to be your own advocate, set boundaries, and honor yourself in a relationship if you don’t love yourself. Self love requires patience, kindness, permission, and understanding of the self; this extends in the relationship because it is almost impossible to hold space for someone else if you can’t hold space for yourself. It would be hard to show up for someone if you continuously abandon yourself. It would be hard to believe that someone wants to show you love if you can’t show love to yourself. That is why the practice of self love is so important to the maintenance of a healthy relationship."
Everyone's different, but what advice do you give people to help them focus on loving themselves?
"Building and maintaining self love is an ever evolving process. My advice is to practice daily ritual and habits that show them they are valuable and deserving of time, love, attention, and appreciation. Really self love is about seeing yourself as worthy and important; making yourself a priority. The process for everyone looks so different because there are so many unique reasons for why people abandon themselves or haven’t cultivated self love, so while you explore those in deeper ways I think one actionable way to create daily ritual- whether that is daily journaling, or a nighttime routine, lighting a candle, making time to go to the gym, or creating time to savor the cup of tea you just made. It is about being intentional with your time and showing up for yourself in small ways that prove to yourself you are worthy. Self love is the deep connection to the self and it is not just something that happens one time, it is a practice that takes works. Practicing self love leads to a deeper understanding of self awareness, allows room for self kindness, provides more opportunity to feel empowered, and above all have the permission to be imperfect while you experience the ups and downs of life and relationships. So as you embark on the journey of developing self love, be patient and kind to yourself, you’re on a challenging but worth it journey."
Thanks so much Hillary for sharing your expertise with us! Check her out here: