Taking Genuine Interest in Your Partner by Building (and Adding to) a Love Map Is Key to a Strong Relationship

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When you first meet someone you’re interested in dating or pursuing a romantic relationship with, you may find yourself intensely curious about them. Perhaps you find yourself doing a sneaky Insta-scroll or wading through old tagged photos on Facebook—you want to know everything, from the seemingly mundane and simple to the complex and more intimate details.

It’s likely if you feel this way that you already like what you know about this person, and the good news is that you’re already unknowingly engaging in a foundational practice that relationship researcher John Gottman, PhD, co-founder of The Gottman Institute, says builds and sustains long-lasting love: creating a love map.

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What is a love map, and why build one?

When you think of a map, you may think of it as a tool to get you from point A to point B—the same idea is at play here. According to certified Gottman couples therapist Laura Silverstein, LCSW, owner and clinical director of Main Line Counseling Partners and author of Love Is an Action Verb: Stop Wasting Time and Delight in Your Relationship, a love map is “basically a cognitive map of how well partners know one another's inner worlds.”

That inner world encompasses whatever knowledge you have about your partner—their wants, fears, favorites, hopes, dreams, things they despise, their core memories. “It's everything from what it was like for you in third grade, to who you get along with at work, or how you get along with your mom, or how you like your coffee,” says Silverstein. Each map is individual, but shared memories, for example how you first met or any trips you’ve taken together, go into each person’s map of their partner. All this information paints a more complete picture of the person for their significant other.

This practice is key to building a bedrock of intimacy, trust, and connection because it shows partners that you have genuine interest in who they are. First introduced in Dr. Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the love map is one of the seven key components that make up what Dr. Gottman calls the “sound relationship house.”

Dr. Gottman believes that a stable relationship is like a house; it needs strong support—and a solid foundation—to stay standing. The first three levels of the house, explains Silverstein, are all about establishing a foundation of friendship. Creating a love maps is the first piece of this friendship-building stage.

Gathering—and retaining—all this information about your S.O. (or a prospective S.O.) shows that you care about them by making them feel seen and not alone, says certified Gottman couples therapist Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT, which boosts and deepens your connection. “The foundation of a strong friendship is knowing someone and feeling known, and being able to open up and share your internal world, and trusting that person will remember those things, ” she says. Knowing someone also helps you be a better partner to them, and vice versa. When someone is in a relationship where their partner doesn't care about or remember their inner world, it can feel isolating, lonely, and hurtful, says Silverstein—these feelings don't lend themselves to a lasting, loving partnership.

This same principle applies to getting to know someone you are considering making your partner. Every time you go on a date, you probably ask open-ended questions because you want to learn more about who they are and to suss out whether they're a compatible match, says Silverstein. This exchange is key to decide if you want to go on a second date.

Think about why it feels annoying and uncomfortable when a date doesn't ask you any questions about yourself—it gives the impression they don't care to know more about you, while someone who is interested and engaged in conversation and wants to know more is appealing and trying to build a connection. Doing the work to learn about someone shows you care, say Panganiban and Silverstein, which builds the foundation your relationship rests on.

How to build a love map of your partner

Ask open-ended questions and retain the answers

Building love maps happens through communication. To learn more about your partner, Panganiban and Silverstein suggest asking open-ended questions that allow your partner (or a person you're interested in) to tell you about themselves. Open-ended questions are ones that can't be answered with a simple yes or no, and that require whoever is asked to give detailed answers that'll help you glean more about who they are. As you learn more about your partner and build their love map, Silverstein says you'll naturally use these answers to inform your relationship. For example, Silverstein says, if you find out your partner is allergic to shellfish you will be sure not to plan a date night at a restaurant where it's served.

Non-verbal communication is also part of building love maps, too.

According to Silverstein, every time you observe your partner and their behavior is a time you add to your love map—it’s all about gathering information. For example, maybe you notice your partners smiles a lot when you cuddle or stroke their hair, so you can add that they like when you do that to their love map. Or, perhaps you notice they like to sleep in soft cotton pajamas—in turn, you could use this information by deciding to buy them a pair for their birthday.

Of course, it's key to remember that you may not know everything about your partner, and that's okay. Save for major parts of who they are or what they want, it's okay if you're not always up to date on what they had for lunch the previous day or can't recall the name of their best friend from college, says Silverstein—that doesn't mean you're lacking connection, or necessarily that your relationship isn't strong. Some people are more observant than others or more detail-oriented, plus each person in a relationship has the right to privacy, and building a love map certainly shouldn't involve interrogating or surveilling your partner, or toppling their boundaries.

If you find yourself wanting to know more or like your knowledge of them is lacking in one arena, there's an easy fix, says Silverstein—ask more questions, and remember their answers! The process of building your love map should feel fun and rewarding, not taxing and tough. "It's important to be really generous and patient as you get to know each other, and not feel pressure to get it right because getting to know each other is a fun activity," she adds.

"It's important to be really generous and patient as you get to know each other, and not feel pressure to get it right because getting to know each other is a fun activity."—Silverstein

Keep in mind: you're never done building your love map, because there's always more to learn about your partner. According to Panganiban and Silverstein, it's key to keep these conversations going and even if you feel you know your partner inside and out because people change constantly. Just like you wouldn’t use an outdated map on a road trip, you don't want to be without the current version of your partner's inner world, either.

Questions to ask to get deeper

So how do you put this into practice? To return to our road trip metaphor, think about what would go into a map: once you have the broad contours of the route from point A to point B sorted out, you can start to paint a more detailed picture of that path—think about the detours, the coffee shops and lunch spots along the way, and the cool sights to see. The same concept applies to building your love map, says Silverstein.

Here's what this looks like in a dating scenario: Let's say you're on a first date, and keen to learn more—you're probably not going to ask about someone's biggest trauma, and you may find it odd if someone did the same to you. According to Silverstein, it's best to "test the waters of vulnerability so you're not putting your heart on a platter for someone you don't know yet," so it's best to ask your questions in phases starting from more surface level to more deep and vulnerable. (This doesn't have to happen in one sitting, by the way.)

What does this look like in practice? You could start by asking someone about what kind of music they like or what their favorite hobby or food is, suggests Silverstein, then if they respond well this could lead to questions with more detailed and intimate answers. The point is to open more doors as the conversation and relationship progresses, so you can add more to the love map.

Not sure where to start? Here are two types of questions Silverstein suggests asking to gain deeper insight into the subject of your love map:

1. Questions about the future:
Examples: What are you dreaming about or aspiring to? What hopes/dreams do you have for our family, or yourself, or our relationship? Where in the world have you visited that you'd want to visit together?

2. Questions about their inner feelings:
Examples: What's been stressing you out lately? What are you proud of? When was the last time you felt truly happy?

All in all, you're already building a love map with someone if you're trying to get to know them. So keep chatting, asking questions, and building that connection—strengthening that relationship by getting to know them better will only lay the groundwork for a stronger partnership.

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