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No, this is not about sex. It’s about love. Everybody loves. Everybody except psychopaths, who pretend. You don’t need a love license to go have a relationship. You just do it, or it happens. But not everybody is good at love—or skilled at loving. Sometimes, love gets stuck, like words caught in the throat, and the feelings in our hearts don’t convert into actions embodying those feelings. Because while love is a magical, mysterious emotion, it’s also a consistent, predictable way of acting and something you can learn to get better at with time. As with any art or science, discipline or practice, there are amateurs and professionals, neophytes and masters. The measure of success is in impact, not intent. You may be madly in love with your partner, but the intensity of your love may not translate into your partner feeling loved by you. But you can change that. You can stop having that frustrated conversation that goes nowhere, the one that starts with your partner saying, “I’m not happy,” and you responding, “But I love you. Leading with but means you’re already backpedaling. Instead, you can lead with strength and start seeing the gift of your love reciprocated and increased as it flows joyously between you and your partner.
It takes tons of practice, and megatons of humility (a character trait essential to mastery), to become a skilled lover, a person who brings out the best in your partner and makes him or her keep coming back for more. There are many things skilled lovers do better than those we’ll call less skilled, but the ones below are the big five.
1. Skilled lovers listen better. The only way to meet a partner’s needs is to be aware of them, and the only way to be aware is to listen. Most of us talk about what we need all the time (though we may not directly ask for it), and if you learn to be a keen listener, you will hear your partner’s desires and be able to respond to them. Listening means tuning out your own inner noise, not worrying about what you’re going to say next, and taking down the wall of dismissiveness that often precludes us from hearing and processing words, especially when those words have to do with us and our behavior. We’ve all seen kids plug their ears when parents try to lecture or discipline, and we often do this internally (without using our hands) when our partner expresses an unmet need or takes us to task for something. Skilled lovers take out the invisible earplugs and listen, because they know that hearing is the key to understanding.
2. Skilled lovers are more consistent. There are few things hotter than being able to count on someone—to be somewhere, to act a certain way, even to consistently surprise and delight us. Being consistent means setting your ego aside, because your ego will tell you what you want to do in the moment. That impulse may be aligned with your best interests and your partner’s needs, but it also may not. Asking yourself, does this thing I am about to do serve the relationship or bring you and your partner closer together is a healthy discipline and a great way to avoid serious relationship mistakes. Consistency is especially important during “sliding door” moments, those times when your choices determine the fate of the relationship. Skilled lovers pause, reflect, and align their actions with their love for their partner before moving forward.
3. Skilled lovers are more respectful. Respect is easy in theory but sometimes excruciatingly hard in practice. It comes down to the golden rule of treating your partner the way you want to be treated. If you like to feel recognized, recognize your partner and don’t ignore him. If you like to feel valued, value your partner and don’t demean her. If you like to feel special, make your partner feel special instead of replaceable. If you like to be treated with respect, be respectful—of your partner’s needs, requests, pet peeves, and limitations. Skilled lovers treat the small things as big things, because everything counts when it comes to love.