As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, it’s only appropriate that we tell our loved ones just that: that we love them. But not all of us are used to saying those three little words.
Love is implied, you might say. But there’s good reason to say it, too.
“It’s the oxygen for the relationship,” says alumna and relationship coach Lisa Arango M.S. '96, M.S. '01, Ph.D. '03. “Telling somebody you love them feeds the relationship, keeps it alive.”
It reinforces your feelings and helps remind your loved ones – whether your spouse, sweetheart, child or parent – that you are there for them and that they matter to you.
“What people are really looking for is emotional presence,” explains Arango, who previously taught psychology courses at FIU. We can physically be standing right next to someone and yet be miles apart emotionally.
‘Are you there for me?’ is a key question we ask ourselves, according to psychologist Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused couples therapy. This lies at the heart of how we function.
Humans are made for connection, Arango says. “We are constantly turning toward or away from each other in relationships.”
According to renown psychologist John Gottman’s theory, one person in a relationship will “reach out.” This could be anything from an invitation to have dinner from a prospective sweetheart to an 80-year-old man starting a conversation with his wife and suggesting a TV show might be fun to watch.
This isn’t just how romantic relationships work. This is how all our relationships – particularly the bond we form with our parents – work.
“There’s so much research that says secure attachment [to parents] forms the basis for the child’s self-worth, autonomy and emotional intelligence,” says Arango.
It’s important to offer words of comfort, help – or a hug – when a child comes to mom or dad after having a bad dream or after skinning his knee on the pavement.
This will help establish in the child’s mind that their parents are someone they can turn to for help – it will establish that sense of love.
If the child senses that parents are not willing to offer support, they may either try to seek their attention and earn their support – or withdraw, trying to rely solely on themselves. These attitudes could follow the child later in life and may impede their desire to connect with others, says Arango.
But don’t be intimidated. If you realize you’ve ignored – or been oblivious – to some of your child’s or partner’s attempts to connect with you, there’s still hope.
According to Arango, we need to get it right and turn to our loved ones about 70 percent of the time for them to feel secure about our love. If we miss a few cues, it’s ok. We just need to reverse that trend and clearly establish that they can count on us.
“What Gottman suggests,” Arango explains. “Is actively working to create an environment with our partner where there is positivity and responding when our partner is looking for connection.”
Ways of expressing love
Saying ‘I love you’ – and other statements of affection – is a great way to create that positive environment. Some people might feel a little awkward confessing their love. Part of that reason, Arango says, is because they might be wary of showing their vulnerabilities. What if your loved one doesn’t say it back?
“It’s risky,” Arango explains. “Inherently, that’s what vulnerability means. I put myself out there without any armor. The risks are that I could get hurt. But the reward is, I could feel really close and connected. That’s what intimacy is, that I let you see all of me knowing that you could reject me and abandon me but hoping that you won’t.”
If you’re an actions-speak-louder-than-words type of person, Arango says, there are many other ways of saying ‘I love you.’
Referencing “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, Arango explains that we can show our love for someone through acts of service, affection, quality time and even gifts.
For example, if you know that your spouse values a clean kitchen and you decide to tidy everything up after dinner, that would be a sign of love.
But if your spouse doesn’t care about a spotless kitchen and you clean the kitchen, there’s no impact. You might be left frustrated – thinking they didn’t appreciate your gesture. That’s why it’s important to understand what your loved ones value.
It’s also important, Arango adds, to make sure that your words are consistent with your actions. If your words or gifts are empty – not backed up by actions proving your love – your partner will not believe your affection.
Feeling the love
How can we deepen our relationships this Valentine’s Day?
“Create time together where there are no distractions or other things that are going to take you away from each other,” Arango says.
Communication is crucial, she explains. You need to continuously re-discover the person you love. You do that by asking your relational partner open-ended questions periodically: What are your goals? What are your dreams? What’s your ideal vacation spot? Do you still want to own a small business one day?
This Valentine’s Day, Arango recommends couples check out the “Love Maps” card deck on The Gottman Institute’s app. This is a digital stack of index cards that provides open-ended questions to ask each other.
Ultimately, the biggest thing to keep in mind on this day of love: Embrace love. Say it, show it, mean it and celebrate the people who’ve shown you that you too are loved.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect Arango's new job as the founder of her relationship coaching company.