Early in a thriving relationship, we all savor those three little words from our romantic partners: I love you. Upon the realization of love, whether it be a slow crescendo or a clanging epiphany, we long to share our hearts with our partners and have such tenderness returned. “I love you” holds intense power in moving a romantic commitment into deeper, more intimate territory.
Over time “I love you” can lose not only its exuberance but also its meaning as it takes its place on the shelf of other common experiences in life. Or conversely, “I love you” may seem too common a phrase to fully communicate the depth of one’s feeling, connection, and commitment to another.
In her pioneering work with adult attachment theory and the development of Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), Dr. Sue Johnson focuses on the necessary components of active and thriving attachment connections. Love and the communication of love is important, yes, but so to are additional behaviors that create security and maintain passion in a relationship over time. In her book “Hold me Tight” Dr. Johnson discusses the qualities of what she calls ARE relationships – that is, relationships where partners are Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged with each other.
Being accessible, responsive, and engaged are the hallmarks of secure attachment. When our partners by and large respond to us in this way, it tells us we are important and can count on them. It also keeps the spark alive, for it is within a trusting connection with another that we feel and risk intimacy and passion.
Much like an infant who cries for a parent to hear the cry, respond to the cry, and soothe the cry, in couples we look to our romantic partners to show us they don’t just care through words, but are truly available in action. The child whose parents didn’t hear his cry or responded with hitting, ignoring, or shoving a bottle in his face without notice that it was actually a dirty diaper that needed changing may grow up to experience relational connections as unsafe. So, too, do we learn to feel unsafe with our partners when we have the sense that they don’t really see us, aren’t really there for us, and can’t be counted on to sit with us through life’s difficult storms.
In addition to “I love you,” meaningful ways to communicate deep care and commitment include:
- “I’m here for you”
- “What you’re saying/feeling makes sense to me”
- “I believe in you”
- “You are most important to me”
All words must be followed up by actions, in this case the actions of being deeply present:
- Making yourself available in times of need, and making quality time with your partner a priority in the never-ending competition for your energy
- Giving your partner your undivided attention while s/he shares of her/himself
- Listening and validating your partner before jumping straight to “fixing” it or shifting topics
- Offering big and small gestures of support for your partner’s dreams or through his/her fears, including affection
- Showing up with your own vulnerability
If you want your partner to really know and feel what s/he means to you, “I love you” isn’t enough. If you want a relationship that anchors and inspires you each to be your best self, you will have to reach deeper inside and offer each other accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement.
Sometimes when we did not grow up with models of this type of relationship, when our current relationship is stagnant from conflict, betrayal or distance, or our inner child is still hurting from lack of attunement from when we were young, seeking the assistance of a couples therapist can be helpful. Consider finding an EFT therapist in your area who is specially trained in how to strengthen the attachment between romantic partners to create secure and lasting bonds.
Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in providing Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) in helping couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships as well as helping women create deeply meaningful lives. All written content and images owned by Amanda Carver.