I confess. I hate Valentine's Day. Yes, it's supposed to be a celebration of romantic love, but it has always felt contrived and formulaic. TV ads escalate to a pinky-red fever pitch, pushing flowers, candy, cards, jewelry and lingerie. After 35 years as a marriage and family therapist, I've concluded that the hype is a set up, and most couples are left with a sense of either disappointment or failure.
Because, bottom line, what we crave cannot be found in once-a-year flamboyant gestures or gifts. What we most deeply yearn for is to be known. To be known and accepted and valued for who we are.
So, here is a new way to celebrate, to acknowledge, our commitment to our partners in life. Use Valentine's Day to make your relationship stronger. Show your lover some respect by asking these seldom-asked questions, then listening to what they say, and honestly sharing what you experience, feel and desire.
Think of it as a "State of Our Union" conversation, in which you address the state of your union. From habits to behaviors, attitudes to aspirations, this is your opportunity to focus on how to love each other better. And while every couple will go about this in their own unique way, here are some questions that can be used, year after year, to begin or to structure that conversation. Have both partners respond to each question before moving on. Most important, this is not a time to justify or explain, but to listen and learn.
1) Tell me something that I did for you or with you this past year that made you really happy.
2) Tell me something I did for you or with you this past year that made you sad or frustrated.
3) On a scale of 1-to-10, where 1 is really bad and 10 is where you hope someday to be, where do you feel our relationship is right now? How does that compare to a year ago? What needs to happen for you to move up even 1-2 numbers on that scale? (With this, it is important to identify specific behaviors and not say "Show me you love me," because that's a set-up for miscommunication and failure.)
4) What do I do that makes you feel loved? What do I do that undermines your affection for me? If I could do one thing differently each day that would make you feel more appreciated or loved, what would that be?
5) What do you observe that we do differently when things are good between us? What do you think I do differently? What do you think you do differently? What stops us from doing those things more consistently?
6) What compliments from me do you most value or enjoy receiving? What do you wish that I noticed more? What kind of compliments, or validation, do you secretly long for but feel foolish admitting? (This can actually be tough as it lays bare our vulnerabilities.)
7) What kind of touch do you crave more of? What kind of touch does not work for you, does not make you feel more connected or intimate?
8) If we could have one almost-perfect day together, what might that look like from your perspective?
9) Since we live messy and complicated lives where we do not get to control a lot, what can I do differently that would make an ordinary, messy and complicated day a little bit better?
10) Is there any question that I have not asked that you wish that I had? Is there anything that you feel is important for me to know, that might help me to better understand you and what you desire from me and our relationship, but that you've been hesitant to share?
And that's it... "The State of Our Union" -- A Valentine's Day tradition that you can use year after year to build a stronger, more honest, relationship.
So send the link and say, "Hey, babe, I love you. Let's do this. Let's make us even better."
And while this conversation can obviously happen anytime, making this your Valentine's Day ritual could be the best gift to give your relationship.
No hype. For real. Trust me on this.
Susan Kraus is a therapist, mediator and writer. Her novels tackle challenging social, political and relationship issues. Her latest novel, "All God's Children," centers on a custody battle over a child in the funeral-picketing, gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church... what happens when faith divides families, and when beliefs are more important than the people we love.