How to Love, Part 2: Why COAL in your Holiday Stocking Is Good News

How to Love, Part 2: Why COAL in your Holiday Stocking Is Good News

Having curiosity and openness allows you to see what’s really going on for your partner.

In my previous article, I introduced the key step that masters of “the dance” of loving relationship sum up as turning toward. In part two of this series, l invite you to consider what this might look like, and offer one way to do it.

When I was a teenager, I read Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. This was the first time I’d heard someone describe love as bringing attention to someone. Decades later, the research is proving this to be true. By loving our partners this way, we are in a position to dance with them. In relationship there are countless behaviors that “turn toward,” just as there are endless things that we can do once we engage in anything with our full attention.

However, if you’re like me, you want to know specifically what to do here. What’s the quality of that attention that I turn toward my partner? And what do I do now that I’m facing my beloved?

What I can do is show my partner that I want to “see” them at this moment.

Dr. Daniel Siegel offers a simple yet useful map for turning toward your beloved in The Mindful Brain. Since we’ve all survived the recent holiday season, I want to offer you this neuroscience-informed map in the form of a relevant (if silly) acronym that Siegel uses to describe the behaviors of secure bonding: COAL.

Unlike the stuff Santa puts in your stocking when you’ve been bad, this COAL may actually be the best gift ever:

Curiosity,
Openness, and
Acceptance equals
Love.

C = Curiosity

Start by being curious. Then, see what happens.

For example, say you notice that something’s bothering your beloved. You say with sincerity, “Hey, you look a bit down. Want to tell me about it?” Your partner deflects with, “Well, I might be just a bit tired.” You do not defensively say, “OK, take a nap!” That’s you turning away from an opportunity to know your partner better. (You may actually verge on turning against them with that tone.) And you certainly don’t say, “You’re always tired! I want a partner who’s vigorous and energetic!” This turns against your partner’s experience, hurts them, and can quickly erode your bond.

What to do instead? Get curious—not because being tired is an exciting topic, but because you can connect with your beloved’s experience by bringing your attention to it, or turning toward your partner. You could say, “So, you might be just tired. Is that all, or did something happen today?” You will probably come up with many ways to show curiosity as you practice this.

O = Openness

Next, we need to practice openness. Say your partner replies, “Well, it might be that I feel bad about something you said yesterday.” Be careful. You could say, “If you’re going to make this about me, I would rather not talk about it.” That’s turning away. Or worse yet, please don’t say, “What do you mean? You said 10 things that bothered me and I didn’t blame you!” This may be true, but it is not going to do much except hurt your partner and block the possibility of repair.

Openness can simply be, “OK, please tell me what I said that bothered you. I want to know.” Now you’ve shown interest and curiosity, and your partner may feel like telling you what’s going on since you’re open to hearing their experience.

Now your partner says, “Well, you were talking about what a great job opportunity you might have if you lived in another part of the country. I thought you might be thinking of leaving.” Having curiosity and openness allows you to see what’s really going on for your partner. This takes courage and practice, but the payoff is worth it.

A = Acceptance

The next act of turning toward, and practicing COAL, is acceptance: we accept that our partner has their own experience, for whatever reason. You can reply, “Well, I see now that it could look like I was thinking of leaving. I’m sorry you thought that. I wish I’d mentioned I wouldn’t leave unless you wanted to go with me. I see that what I said scared you, and that makes sense.” We don’t have to agree with their experience; we just need to accept that this is the unique experience our partner is having. We choose to be curious, open, and accepting because it is our beloved who is having this experience.

L = Love

This part happens because you’ve done the first three parts! In The Mindful Therapist, Dr. Siegel writes that curiosity, openness, and acceptance are love. This way of attending to someone is characterized by feelings of affection and compassion, results in attunement, and contains the key qualities of a secure relationship. Siegel presents extensive neuroscientific evidence that these behaviors are correlated with both the development and resilience of the brains and nervous systems of people in secure attachment.

All this can take some getting used to, especially if in the past we didn’t see our loved ones practicing COAL. Don’t give up—if you didn’t get COAL in your stocking this Christmas, you can make your own! But seriously, if you start practicing turning your attention toward your beloved with curiosity, openness, and acceptance, you’ll carry the spirit of Christmas into the new year: love!

Robert Gardner, couples therapist in San Francisco
Robert Gardner, MFT

As a licensed MFT, teacher, and lifelong student of loving relationship, Robert is devoted to supporting your relationship and its safe development. He offers a balance of attention, welcoming, and empathy along with reflective feedback, skills education, in-session experiential process, and homework. Robert’s work as a therapist is informed and inspired by four decades of daily Buddhist study and practice.

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