How to stay connected to ourselves and our partner
Love yourself. Then forget it.
Then, love the world. Mary Oliver
Intimacy is the ability to be in touch with inner experiences – both ours and others’. It is the capacity to directly experience our thoughts and emotions, and to hold these in a space of mindful, loving presence. The origin of the word intimacy is the Latin intimus, which means ‘innermost’ and ‘close friend’, and most modern definitions refer to a sense of closeness and familiarity.
Intimacy, then, begins with developing the capacity to sense into what is happening for us. It is about making friends with ourselves, with what is most true in the depths of our being, and holding this in a loving, gentle way. Following the metaphor of ripples on a pond, once we become intimate with our own inner experience, we can start to sense into the inner experiences of others, and to remain present and unconditionally friendly toward whatever is happening within them.
In The Dance of Intimacy*, Harriet Lerner describes intimacy as being able to:
“…talk openly about things that are important to us, that we take a clear position on where we stand on important emotional issues, and that we clarify the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable to us in a relationship. Allowing the other person to do the same means that we can stay emotionally connected to that other party who thinks, feels and believes differently, without needing to change, convince or fix the other.”
Being intimate in this way is relatively easy when what we are experiencing is pleasant and when the people around us are being agreeable. But when we are feeling vulnerable or there is conflict, the default tendency is to try to avoid or try to control these experiences. Most people find it hard to remain present and loving when vulnerable or faced with unpleasant experiences.
There are countless ways that we cut off from these experiences. The most common is numbing out with drugs and alcohol. Others distract themselves with food, exercise, pornography, the internet and television. Some people busy themselves with work or projects. Still others attempt to control their internal experiences with positive thinking or intellectualising. And some use blame and anger as ways of directing their attention outward, away from what is hard to be with inside, focusing instead on trying to coerce others, or simply being angry at them.
For the most part, these ‘strategies’ are neither good nor bad, in the sense that eating, exercise and moderate alcohol consumption can be quite positive things. But when done to excess, they cause problems. Especially when they are done in service of numbing out from, or otherwise avoiding, our vulnerability.
When we fall into extremes of feeding or fighting our thoughts and emotions, we set ourselves up for trouble. That is, when we feed the reaction by buying into the story and ruminating, or when we fight against the experience by trying to suppress it, talk ourselves out of it, or negate it in some other way, we create problems for ourselves. What we resist persists, as psychoanalyst C.G. Jung said. Resisting our experiences – or the experiences of those around us – can cause great harm.
The core issue with many of the clients we see in our clinical practices is exactly this. There is some core wound or vulnerability that they don’t want to – or don’t know how to – be with, and they are caught up in avoidance patterns. These avoidance patterns – whether they be addiction, overwork and burnout, the anxiety that comes with trying to control and predict everything, or some other strategy – become the presenting issue that brings them to therapy in the first place. Indeed, symptoms are generally attempted solutions to other problems.
In relationship counselling, we see the same thing: people cut off from their own internal world, lacking intimacy with themselves and therefore incapable of having intimacy with someone else. If we are unaware of what is happening inside us, or unable to remain present and loving when we are, how can we possibly hope to be aware of, and loving toward, what is happening in our partner? It’s just not possible.
The path of healing is to sense our way back into what is being avoided, first in ourselves and then in our relationships. Embodiment is the key to intimacy. If we stay in our heads, we can never truly develop intimacy with ourselves or others. We need to find ways of experiencing our own and our partner’s wounds and vulnerabilities directly and fully, yet without being overwhelmed. And we need to bring an attitude of unconditional friendliness (self-compassion) to our innermost wounds and vulnerabilities. When we are able to do this, our symptoms and relationship issues – which, remember, are caused by the very attempt to avoid our vulnerability – tend to resolve by themselves.
To do this, we must develop a container of loving presence or compassion that is able to hold whatever is experienced without being overwhelmed. Indeed, the fear of being overwhelmed by emotion and somehow annihilated or becoming unable to function, is the reason we develop avoidance strategies in the first place. Getting in touch with something bigger is critical to the healing process. Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that it is not enough to just suffer – we must also get in touch with something that can contain that suffering.
Mindfulness helps us to contact and relax into a sense of something larger, which brings peace. Therefore, another way to think about mindfulness is holding whatever is true in a space of loving presence. A useful metaphor here is to think of the vulnerability or emotion as a drop of ink. If we put it in a shot glass of water, the ink will completely colour the water. But if we put the ink in a lake or ocean, it will be a very different experience. Mindfulness creates this space, which can hold any experience without being changed by it. And when we start to hold vulnerable parts of ourselves in this space, it becomes important that the water is clean and warm. This is the basis of loving presence.
When we can be with what we feel we can also be curious about what an intimate partner feels. We can begin to let go of seeing our partner through a fog of judgments and can learn to relate from a deeper, more compassionate place; one that is more respectful, kind and loving. When we really stay open to this we can pave the way for more mature relationships that are not based on reactivity, and our relationships become a rich and rewarding adventure.
This article is an excerpt from the book Mindful Relationships: Creating genuine connection with ourselves and others, by Dr Richard Chambers & Margie Ulbrick and is reprinted with permission from the authors.
*Reference: Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Cour New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
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