“Giving to your partner gives you power—not over someone, but a power to grow your bond.”
We often confuse something important about love. We tend to see it as a state of enthusiasm. But ‘To love’ is a verb, and verbs are dynamic. They imply action, intention, and responsibility. By focusing on these five verbs, people can very concretely improve their current relationships and their ability to be successful in a future relationship. You don’t have to tackle all five at once. Which ones don’t come as easily for you? Focus on muscling up those first.
True giving is the ability to be attuned to someone else’s needs, to make that person feel special, loved, and like they matter. If you feel like you could be more giving, it could be because you grew up feeling that nobody ever defended your needs so you had to become a fierce defender of them yourself. You may feel that when you give, you lose out. If that’s the case, practice being comfortable with giving; even when you don’t have something tangible to gain in return. (Giving to others is also a powerful anti-depressant. When you give, you feel like you have.) Giving to your partner gives you power—not over someone, but a power to grow your bond. You don’t have to give big, expensive gifts. The little things
actually mean more when done regularly: stocking the fridge with your partner’s favourite wine, giving a back rub if he or she has had a long day. It can be about giving your time, your attention. And let’s think about giving sexually. It shouldn’t be a matter of giving in order to get—ideally, giving to someone should come from a place of confidence and generosity, not insecurity or obligation. Think about how many acts of giving you’ve done in the last few weeks versus every other kind of interaction. It should be in balance. And it should go both ways.
You know those people who can’t receive a compliment? Many have never really been given to unless
there was a condition, and they have a hard time trusting that someone would want to give to them, not as a front for asking for something but for no other reason than to do something nice for them. If receiving something—a compliment, a gift, a kind gesture—makes you feel as though you owe someone, you might have to practice at it. Receiving means trusting somebody cares about you simply for who you are. And receiving is particularly sensitive in sex: letting go, not faking it when someone is trying to make you feel good. A relationship can’t be totally honest unless both parties are comfortable receiving, especially when what you’re receiving is pleasure.
Men are taught to take what they need, to be sexually assertive. Women have been trained that whatever pleasure a man gives you is what you’re going to get. But that doesn’t work. Sometimes he doesn’t know how to please you. Sometimes only you know, and sharing that knowledge and taking what you need is how you will evolve together sexually. Assertiveness helps you land jobs or promotions at work, and it’s important in the bedroom as well. I tell women that taking doesn’t have to be aggressive. There’s a difference between being assertive and aggressive. The first involves a healthy sense of entitlement. The other is using power over somebody to get something. Think about the phrase ‘Taking your time’. When I ask women what could be better about their sex lives, many tell me they want their partners to slow down, to hold and touch them more. I tell them taking their time means giving themselves permission to feel deserving of that time and gently asserting themselves. Tell him: ‘I like it when you touch me here. Keep doing it. It feels really nice.’ Taking and asking are neighbours of each other. Sometimes they need to be practiced together.
Sadly, some things don’t change easily. Women are doing a sh*tload of stuff they don’t like in bed because they struggle with how to say no. But in order to feel like you can consent, you also need to feel like you are allowed to refuse. Women often go along with things to avoid hurting a guy’s feelings. To that, I say, he may like you if you do these things, but you won’t like yourself. One key to a pleasurable sex life and relationship is to learn to say no in a way that doesn’t close the door completely. ‘I’m happy to try certain things, but if it doesn’t feel good, I don’t want to continue.’ ‘The way we’re doing it now isn’t pleasurable. Maybe we could try something else.’ It pays to learn to say no in a way that doesn’t make the person feel rejected or unloved. Saying no—and establishing boundaries—is an essential dimension in a relationship. Sometimes it’s no for now, sometimes it’s no to doing it this way. But in every relationship, you need to know where you can’t go.
The ability to be silly and playful together is so important to a couple’s bond. From the moment we’re born, we bond with people by playing. It’s how we learn to trust and take risks. And we find out a lot about a person and how compatible we are by how they play: Who bends the rules? Who’s a good sport? Playing lets you be creative and dream together, circumventing the hardships of reality. We’re walking down the street, and suddenly, I’m taking your hand and walking backwards, and we’re laughing. It’s a big factor in sexuality as well—to keep things interesting, you need to have the ability to be playful, mischievous, unpredictable. The freedom to be unself-conscious around someone is powerful. When I hear couples complain of being bored, it’s because they stopped playing. Laughing and being silly together are how couples make memories and create adventures. It’s the cherry on top of every good relationship.
Esther Perel is a sex and relationship therapist, the bestselling author of Mating In Captivity, and a consultant for the hit showtime series The Affair. Her Ted Talks on desire and infidelity have been viewed more than 14 million times.