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Latter-day Saint psychologist: 3 tips to strengthen relationships

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Consider the following situations: 

A pair of siblings grew up in a home characterized by sarcasm and intense competition. As they have grown older, they are emotionally distant from one another. 

A married couple has a strong love for one another, but their emotional relationship is superficial. They have great difficulty talking about issues of any depth or consequence.

Two friends have grown increasingly close and one wishes to share more personal information about herself. However, she fears she will be rejected as she has been by others in the past.

Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? In my experience as a psychologist, they are very common. Almost everyone wants stronger and more resilient relationships but getting there can be a significant challenge. In many cases, the roadblocks to improved relationships consist primarily of fear. Fear of being denied. Fear of being hurt. Fear of betrayal or rejection. In relationships, and almost any other growth endeavor, fear prevents progress. What is the antidote? The Savior’s beloved Apostle John provided the remedy: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). Not only is love an effective tool against fear, it can also build our relationships. Let’s look at three specific ways to use love in order to grow closer to one another:

1. Love First

“We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Sometimes relationships get caught in an emotional stalemate. Each person wants the relationship to progress, but both are hesitant to make the first move. The first move comes with risk. I had a significant experience with this with one of my brothers. He was going through a difficult divorce and was greatly stressed. He began calling me on a regular basis for comfort and counsel. We had wonderful, touching conversations. Although I had a deep love for him, I had never made a habit of telling him “I love you.” At the end of one of our visits, he told me he loved me. I immediately and genuinely replied, “I love you too.” It was a tender moment that I remember to this day. After that, our mutual expressions of love became more frequent, every call ending with “I love you.” Our relationship deepened. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him before, I was just uncomfortable expressing it. His risk to speak first opened the door for me to react in kind. My brother’s courage has blessed many other relationships in my life, as I have become much more confident in expressing love and affection towards those closest to me. 

Jesus Christ has set the example for us. He loves us. He loves us first. He paves the way for us to reciprocate our love to Him with confidence. We can use this as a pattern in our relationships. Someone always has to make the first move to deepen a friendship, marriage, or family relationship; why can’t that be us? Why can’t we be the ones to first express appreciation, show genuine concern, or say I love you? I believe we can. It takes strength of character and involves risk, but the rewards can be amazing. Of course, we would be wise to carefully choose the relationships where we take such risks. We don’t want to “cast our pearls before swine” (see Matthew 7:6), meaning trying to deepen a relationship where we know the other party is disinterested or ready to harm. But in cases where relationships already have a good foundation and we want to increase the depth and strength of those roots, we can act first. Carefully evaluate your relationships and exercise the courage to “love first” where appropriate.  

2. Love Abundantly

“Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and establish you in every good word and work” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17; emphasis added).

I love the imagery created by Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. The love of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ creates “everlasting consolation.” It is comfort without end. I don’t think such comfort comes from a one-time expression of love from our God. Rather, He pours out His feelings of love and acceptance upon us on a regular basis. There have been many times in my life when I have felt an overwhelming feeling of care and concern from my Father in Heaven. My heart has literally felt full during such times, like it was going to burst with emotion. As we seek comfort from our Savior, He always provides it. We cannot sin or stray our way outside of His love. Not only does He love us all the time, He expresses it all the time. Sometimes it is that “full heart” feeling I mentioned previously. Other times it is in the laugh of a child, a beautiful sunrise, or a fortunate outcome. We don’t have to look far for manifestations of His love for us. They are constant and plentiful.  

How do we follow His example to improve our relationships? It’s simple. We express our love and affection for each other, through word and deed, with great frequency. Expressions through words include “I appreciate you,” “thank you,” “you mean a lot to me,” and “I love you.” Such phrases should be common and regular in relationships we want to improve. 

I have always disliked the sentiment, “I don’t need to tell her I love her; she should already know that.” Quite frankly, that’s a cop-out. If we want relationships to become stronger, we need to repeatedly and sincerely express appreciation and tenderness. In addition, we need to show others how much they mean to us. Verbal expressions of love that are not supported by commensurate behaviors will feel hollow and meaningless. It is important to show our love and concern in ways that are meaningful to the other person. One may enjoy a bouquet of flowers, while another may prefer a back rub. Still another may simply want to be listened to for a half hour. Determining another’s “emotional currency” and regularly paying them in that way is a powerful way to deepen significant relationships. 

3. Love Regardless

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). 

For some time, I wondered why this was a “new commandment.” The commandment to love one another was established in Old Testament times. Why would the Savior say this was a new commandment to his New Testament disciples? Then I realized why. The Savior’s “new” commandment was not simply to love one another, but to love one another as He has loved us. He had to show us, by example, the way to love. His amazing life became a masterclass in how to love others, and He subsequently commanded us to love in His way. The Savior’s love is multifaceted and magnificent.

 Personally, I believe the crowning feature of His love is His ability to love us regardless of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or how significantly we’ve betrayed Him. I think of the woman taken in adultery. She had committed a grievous sin; indeed, one of the most serious sins that qualifies for forgiveness. In light of this affront, considering this clear violation of His holy commandments, how did the Savior react? Surely, He would have been justified in castigating and chastising her, but His reaction was the opposite. After dispensing with her complainants, He said, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, no man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10–11). His love for her, evident through His compassion, was not reduced because of her poor choice. 

Often times, our ability to strengthen relationships with others is hampered due to past experiences. When we have been the victims of the irresponsible decisions of others, we find ourselves at a loss of how to move forward. Perhaps unkind words were said. Perhaps callous acts have hurt our feelings. Perhaps insensitive and damaging acts have left us wounded and betrayed. How do we heal the breach in such situations? As always, healing comes through following the Savior’s example. Learning to forgive is a critical skill for personal development, if only because it relieves us of the burden of hatred and grudges. Developing love for everyone, regardless of race, religion, political persuasion, or past behaviors, is not only an amazing spiritual gift but a commandment to all Christian disciples: “That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34). If you want to improve the quality of your relationships, start with eliminating hate. Drop the resentment. Abolish bitterness and replace it with love and acceptance. Some of us have been through affronts that are extremely serious. Yet even then, we can follow the example of Him who was “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). We can do our best to move past the hurt, start to forgive, and clear the way for love to prevail. 

Love is a significant factor in improving relationships of all sorts. Demonstrating that love involves risk, courage, and forgiveness, but is worth every sacrifice. Following the Savior’s example of love can help us develop a quality and depth of relationships than will fill our souls and provide strength through trials.  

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