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“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” — John Lennon

Lennon was right. Relationships don’t thrive on the basis of just those lovin’ feelings. Like all living things, relationships take some attention and work if they are to grow. There are times in every relationship when they even take a lot of effort. But for those who love, it’s worth it. With time and work and play, the relationship grows and strengthens and becomes a solid part of each partner’s very soul. To love and be loved with true commitment is one of the greatest gifts of life.

It’s February. In America, February 14, Valentine’s Day, is big business. There’s expectation in the very air that the day of love will be celebrated with roses and chocolate, wine and candlelight. That’s fine. Wine and candlelight are lovely.

But with some extra thought, Valentine’s Day can serve a deeper purpose than an excuse for a special night out. It can also be a time for an annual relationship check-up; it can be a time for talking about how you are doing as lovers and as a couple. Why not take a few minutes during that candlelight dinner to do a health check on your relationship? Are there things you could be doing more often or differently that would make it better?

As John Lennon said, love requires nurturing. Fortunately, research gives us some practical guidance about what “nurturing” means. Here are elements that have been found to be essential for a healthy and strong marriage or relationship. The more the two of you can answer “yes,” the healthier you are as a couple.

____ Are you committed to your commitment? When partners agree that their relationship is a given, problems become things to solve, not a signal that the relationship is in jeopardy. Energy is devoted to solving the problems rather than on debating whether or not to stay in the relationship.

____ Are you giving 100%? There is no place for score-keeping in a love relationship. Both people need to give freely and generously with the conviction that, over time, things always even out. If you are both always doing more than your share, you will never worry whether either of you isn’t doing enough.

____ Do you spend regular time together? Couples who last make sure that at least a few times a month they go out without children and friends to just be together and talk. Although an occasional night out on the town can be wonderful, it doesn’t have to be complicated. An evening walk, a coffee date or a few hours set aside without interruptions in your own living room will do fine. The point is to see each other as individuals and to keep up with each other’s growth and changes.

____ Do you make time for play? It’s true that a great deal of time in mature relationships is devoted to the serious business of building and maintaining a life. There are endless chores when maintaining a home. There are multiple responsibilities when raising children. But successful couples don’t lose sight of the fact that all work and no play is a prescription for a dull life. It doesn’t matter how you define “play”. It’s important that you do things you both enjoy that lightens and brightens your days.

____ Do you express your love verbally? People need to hear that they are loved, valued, appreciated and cherished. Perhaps we all should be sufficiently nourished by hugs and teamwork on chores. But it’s just human to need words too. Whisper sweet nothings in your partner’s ear. Tuck a love note in their bag lunch. Leave an “I love you” on their cell phone. Words of love do matter.

____ Do you touch each other tenderly and often? The language of love also includes touch. Although sexual intimacy is certainly important, all physical contact doesn’t need to be overtly sexual. A touch during conversations, a caress while walking by, holding hands while taking a walk or watching TV or a kiss hello or goodbye are the gestures that maintain connection and affirm that the couple relationship is different from other friendships.

____ Are you interested in what your partner does? Couples who last are truly interested in how the other spends their day. You may not be particularly interested in your partner’s job or profession but you do need to be interested in the fact that they probably spend more time doing it than they do with you. Part of supporting the person you love is to be engaged when they talk about job victories and frustrations and coworker and boss issues. Support their ambitions. Encourage their growth. Be their biggest fan – especially if they don’t get appreciation on the job.

____ Do you allow for imperfections — in yourself and your partner? No one is perfect. Once the haze of new love fades, we quickly discover our lover’s flaws. Committed couples develop a sense of humor about their own and their partner’s less than perfect qualities and less than perfect moments. They make peace with the fact that a relationship that is made up of two imperfect human beings is bound to be imperfect but that their brand of imperfect is good enough.

____ Are you willing to accept help when you need it? When a problem persists, healthy couples look for guidance from trusted family and friends or professionals. For them, there is no shame in looking for outside encouragement and advice when they feel stuck.

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. Renew your commitment to nurture your love. Celebrate and maintain the elements that got a “yes.” If necessary, resolve to make changes so there are more yeses next year. The commitment to cherish and care for your relationship is worth far more than one of those heart shaped boxes of chocolates.

Valentines photo available from Shutterstock