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Responsiveness and The Life or Death of Love!

Mini-Love-Lesson  # 267

Synopsis: Everything from responsiveness ping-pong to the five types of love effecting responsiveness is usefully covered here, along with perhaps some love relationship saving ideas for improving one's own love responsiveness can be found in this mini-love-lesson.

On To a New Birth of Love

Jaden looked and sounded as heartbroken as he said he felt as he sat across from me in a first counseling session.

Choked up and shedding tears he stated, "I just learned too late to be really responsive to my sweetheart and now she's left me for someone who is way better at that than me.  At first when she told me I wasn't responsive enough I argued with her but I didn't really know what she meant.  For a while I thought she meant sexually but we were pretty good there.  She called me a robot and a stone face and said I just didn't get it and now I admit I did not.  She finally explained I seldom spoke back to her when she made a comment unless she asked me a direct question, I seldom smiled back when she smiled, touched back ( Link “Touching Back - A Surprisingly Important Love Skill” ) or showed any feelings when she showed her feelings.  I read up on responsiveness and was surprised to learn that it meant to quickly, positively, and often appropriately, emotionally reply to someone or show my feelings back to them when they demonstrated their feelings.  I really hadn't been doing much of that, if any.

In the family I grew up in, we were obediently quiet or mostly just critical of each other.  You know, I didn't even say I love you back very often when she said it to me.  So, Dr.C., Is there hope for me, can I learn?”

In time and with work, Jaden unlearned his family's ways and did far better with a new love.  However, first it cost him a lot of heartache and then a bunch of self-work to get to the good love life he had achieved when I last saw him.

Responsiveness Ping-Pong

Lots of people say and do things just to get a response.  Sometimes what they want is a response with some love in it.  That might be simple and delivered by an upbeat tone of voice or a happy grin, a factual reply with an affirming smile, or by a curious question with a positive quizzical but kind look, or maybe even by a playful teasing reply -- just so it is rather quick and positive in some way.  What is said more often is not as important as the positive interplay it starts.  It sort of is like a friendly game of ping-pong. It is not a serious table tennis kind of game where winning is what is so important, instead it just is a mutual bit of back-and-forth pleasantness or fun happening.  The dictionary meaning of the words going back and forth do not convey the real communications that are occurring, instead the facial, tones of voice and other expressional behaviors do.

For many people trained and in the habit of focusing mostly on the meaning of the words being said and maybe missing the rest, this can be quite hard and confusing.  It also is difficult for the cautious who may have gotten seriously hurt when they made spontaneous, quick replies.  That happens a lot in certain kinds of dysfunctional families.

Five Types of Love-Related Responsiveness

Love relating depends on responsiveness.  Without responsiveness there is no mutual, interactive, love relating.  With good love responding, the relationship thrives.  With negative, or non-responding, or fake responding, a love relationship diminishes and then may die.  Here are five types of responsiveness effecting love relationships for you to know about and work with.

1. Unresponsiveness  A non-response frequently is perceived as a negative response indicating rejection, an insult, an expression of anger,  an attack or some other form of a negative inner response.  Remember, sometimes silence screams the loudest.  Especially in love relationships, nonresponsive reactions often trigger hurt, defensiveness, retaliatory actions and/or emotional and physical distancing.  A nonresponsive person may not have felt or meant any of these negatives.  They just may have been distracted, preoccupied, deep in their own inner concerns, doing rehearsal thinking about what they want to say next, or just not hearing well due to congestion or some other physical issue.  Quickly negatively reacting to an unresponsive loved one with anger, or accusatory complaint, or by guilt-tripping them usually makes things worse for some time.  It also can be quite unjust.  With tolerational love and kindness, checking to see if they heard you, or asking for a reply in an up tone of voice, or saying something like “I think I'm being non-responded to and that's bothering me a bit, so help me with that please" can often work much better.

2. Neutral responsiveness  In love relationships, neutral responses sometimes can work fine but sometimes not.  Neutral responses are things like saying "ah", "oh", "humm", giving a  nod or gesture, etc..  They are better than unresponsiveness because they indicate having received a sent message and usually being sufficiently okay with it.  This also conveys that the speaker is being listened to, at least to some degree, is not likely to be having a strong negative reaction and is okay enough for things to continue.  Too many neutral responses soon can begin to seem negative.  Neutrality in response to high emotionality can be interpreted as a lack of understanding, being uncaring or feeling restrained disapproval.

3. Negative responsiveness  Responses of anger, aggravation, exasperation, reluctance, disappointment and the like may just be a cathartic release, a defense against interruption or being talked over, or being diverted from a desired path or goal.  Some people tend to interpret almost every new input coming at them as some sort of negative or critical remark including even the most neutral and laudatory statements.  Likewise, they interpret informative, neutral and general comments as criticism or complaints aimed at them.  They often had one or more highly critical parents.
Then again, the negative response may indeed be a personal attack indicative of very unloving feelings and disapproval.  It even could be a subconscious expression of hate or a marked undervaluing of another's importance.  But sometimes it just is a habitual poor way of responding.  The thing is, with only one negative response to go on, unless it is severe and prolonged, you can't know for sure why it was made or how to accurately interpret it.  That is why a response of pleasant equanimity to the perceived negative response usually is best.  Pleasantly say something like "Honey, you sound unhappy, are you?”  That way you give your loved one a chance to reflect, explain and reorient themselves while not letting yourself get into a not okay reaction.  Being quick not to take offense or get trapped in sending negatives back to where perceived negatives came from is usually a better way.

A negative response often is not as bad as a nonresponse.  That is because it indicates at least some attention is being paid and some interaction may have begun.

4. Fake Positive Responsiveness  This has some value sometimes.  It may help keep the peace, give time for thinking things through, avoid destructive exacerbations, help us not sweat the small stuff and best of all allow for the emergence of tolerational love.  It, however, can have a high cost.  Fake positives can grow distrust and generate emotional distancing along with tendencies toward passive/aggressive relationship sabotage.
5. Real Love Positive Responsiveness  Just about anything said to you by a loved one actually may be a bid and/or an opportunity for some love interaction.  It also could be a tentative start to a loved one revealing personal, intimate and important feelings.  Then again, it could be any of 1000 other things.  More likely, it could be a little chance for a mutually pleasant and rather nice bit of joint, love-bonding experience.  It might be playful, affectionate, romantic or even a bit sexy and/or fully sexual.  In any case, it is an opportunity for something positive to happen; so why not use it and respond in a pleasant, positive way (see “Love Bids and Their Astounding Importance”).

We all miss these opportunities from time to time.  We all respond negatively or not at all sometimes, and fake positive is the best we seem occasionally to manage.  If we respond with other than love positivity to our loved one’s offerings too frequently, we may do serious harm to our love relationship with that loved one (this includes children, parents, friends and other loved ones).

It is a love positive when we respond with a smile, a loving up tone of voice, a love pat, a little affectionate squeeze, a bit of appreciated humor or wit, or with anything else that helps make a friendly smile or laugh occur.  Even better is when your usual demeanor around your loved ones is one of happy and/or caring receptivity and loving responsiveness (see “A Best Gift of Love”).  By making positive, expressional responses to most inputs from a loved one, you show the loved one that you respect them, value them and feel a loving positivity toward them.  Not only that, you also are sending the message that you enjoy their presence in your life and you find their influence to be worthwhile and wanted.  That, of course, helps build relational harmony and teamwork which is good for kids, friends, family and even strangers to see happening. ,Responding positively even concerning negative things helps a loved one feel safe with you and that can assist deep bonding.

Loving responsiveness and especially happy, loving responsiveness is good for all concerned.  That is because our brains produce more happy making and health making neurochemistry when we respond to one another with love and especially when it is happy love.  As love goes back and forth between people, both giving and receiving love causes a broad range of health creating brain reactions in both the givers and receivers simultaneously.  That is the biological equivalent of loving another as you love yourself.  It also is a form of doing what the Buddhists and Hindus call Mudita love which has to do with choosing to be happy and sharing your happiness with others (see  “A Best Gift of Love?”  and Teachings on Love by the acclaimed Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh).

Learning to Do Better, Positive Love Responsiveness

To make ever improving quick positive love giving responses, often takes some doing.  It frequently requires unlearning relational sabotaging habits of unresponsiveness and negative responsiveness picked up in childhood.  Have you ever noticed that there are quite a few people who start most of their replies with the word "no" followed by whatever they want to say.  That speech habit is sort of self-defeating because starting any statement with a negative word like "no" seems to increase the chances of hearing a return negative reply.  Then there are other people who habitually start to frown whenever others start talking.  That too can cause communication self-sabotage.  Responding with unfriendly gestures, distancing movements, power posturing, speaking in gruff and or winey tones and a host of other expressional language factors all can be done non-consciously but, nevertheless, can have some subtle but considerably destructive effects on love relationships over time.

Good loving responsiveness is best done by being amply attentive to what loved ones are feeling and are dealing with currently in their lives.  Being able to tune in to a loved one’s emotional, overt and covert feelings is useful for every interaction with them.  That emotional tuning in to a loved one enables us to make appropriate and effective responses.  Also, learning to lovingly ask directly how or what a person is feeling usually is very helpful but not always reliable.  So, keep looking for emotional indicators to make your responsiveness replies spot on (see  “Listening with Love”and “Communicating Better with Love”).

One More Little Item.  May I suggest you try developing your own thinking about responsiveness by talking it over with others, perhaps loved ones.  If you do that, we would very much like it if you would mention this site and its many mini-love-lessons about the better how-to's of love.  Thank you.

As always – Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question:  What do you hope to see yourself do the next time someone, perhaps a loved one, does not respond to something you say, or makes only a neutral sort of grunt noise, or takes what you innocently said and interprets it as some kind of put down, criticism or other negative?

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