It has taken me years to come to terms with one of the most obvious truths about intimate relationships: that there is labour in love.
We have all heard that you can’t change a person, and that loving someone is accepting them as they are. These ideals sound great in theory, but let’s face it, none of us actually practices this with others or even ourselves.
Perhaps like me, you added some fine print:
“I accept you wholeheartedly, except when you do precisely the thing that annoys me the most, after I have very patiently explained a hundred times how you should do it differently”.
And therein lies the rub: it’s easy to love others when your loved one is being adorable and reasonable, tenderly loving you back. But there is grit to intimacy, the constant dance of ease and challenge, of opening and closing your heart, of feeling generous of spirit sometimes and at others downright miserly towards them.
Despite the idealism of romantic love, this is exactly the way it is suppose to be. Whaaa? You mean all this conflict, negotiation and the ways in which we rub each other the wrong way, is right? Well that’s not what I want!
Hey, I’m with you. I have bought those books, those shoes, that perfume, had my hair coloured one way and changed it back the following month, wined, dined and been to ten day mediation boot camp, twice. I have done the research and sadly it’s true, you can’t shortcut deep connection. Intimacy requires your courage, compassion, curiosity and openness. It rewards you with the confidence of knowing you can be trusted, you can trust, you can laugh at yourself and with your loved ones, and you can enjoy your own strength.
Luckily there are some very practical tools to help you with the heavy lifting of intimacy, all the negotiating, strong emotions and messy humanness. You can find a way back to connection following the outburst of anger or the violence of withdrawal and silence.
The art of intimacy is not learning how to never have conflict, but rather how to get better at it, and mend the love connection in the places where the fabric tears.
Here are a few practical steps that weave intimacy:
Have the courage to learn about the ways your loved one likes to be loved, and also share how you like to be loved. Some of us like to be loved with words and praise. I like to be loved fiercely; I like to be loved in the raw truth of mine and another’s emotions. Sharing vulnerability is a big love ticket for me. You could buy me a ten day cruise around Europe, which would be exciting, but without the intimacy of sharing emotions, vulnerability and laughs – it just doesn’t feel like love to me. Other people enjoy the sense of physical adventure, and all those couples who hike, cycle, and run marathons together are getting their love needs met.
I learned early on that making my beloved a cup of tea first thing in the morning, especially before he gets out of bed, deeply moves him. I don’t drink tea, and am not that big on being in the kitchen first thing, but I know that this small gesture makes him feel loved and cared for. And I want him to feel that. I have also learned this is a way that many of my women friends feel loved and nurtured when they come to my house, and also that it is an important part of the therapeutic environment for my private clients.
So take the time, gently in all of your important relationships and notice the ways in which they like to be loved (praise, an act of service, gifts, quality time together, touch). Start to tell others what really makes you feel loved and connected with them.
2. Compassion and Curiosity
Imagine you are in the middle of some big reactive feelings – you know the ones where you don’t want to open, you don’t want to listen. You have tallied the ledger and it is clearly the other person’s fault. I know this is a real stretch for you to imagine!
How do you get out of the big bonanza of reactive feelings? Stifling them and thinking loving thoughts? Letting them loose all over the other person and getting it out of your system? OK, so the mature part of you knows the answer to both these questions but what is the alternative?
Become curious about why the person you love just did what they did.
Be curious about why you feel the way you feel.
I recently got very ticked off with my beloved while we were cooking together. So instead of subjecting him to the silent treatment (my favourite default response), I took myself into the bedroom and meditated. I let myself feel my feelings. I didn’t try to stifle myself or my feelings. I felt the big dragon fire within me, the heat of my rage killing off everything in its path. And then it subsided, and I became curious.
Why did I feel so upset? I was genuinely upset that I felt he was criticising the way I cut beans (it’s always about the beans right?) But the deeper distress was my thoughts that it’s either my way or the highway. Then I get very upset about implementing the highway option. And that, right there is the most painful slippery slope into disillusionment and heartbreak. You see, I was thinking we would never find a way through, and immediately leaping into the heartache of feeling separated from connection and love with each. I believe the Buddhists call this catastrophising.
And then quite naturally I felt love for myself. I felt the love that I had taken care of myself and listened to myself. I began to feel softer. I opened my eyes and went back to the kitchen.
Meanwhile my beloved had been through his own loop, but my energy was gentle with him. I felt safe in my own heart. I opened just a fraction, I was kind with him, I touched him gently and then we had dinner and talked.
The great gift of relationship is that your default patterns for coping with intimacy, conflict and giving and receiving love often just don’t wash with your partner. And that is very good news – and yes downright annoying! You see it’s wonderful that your default patterns don’t work with your loved ones. Because then you get to mature, grow and evolve. Because you want intimacy, love and desire, you are more motivated to find a way to truly communicate. A way to continue to open and be with the other person rather than tallying the scorecard.
All of these practices can build your relationship confidence. This is the art of intimacy – it’s finding the rough edges where you need to take some time for self care, and it also finding the very edge of your capacity to open your heart again.
There is a very bright part of you which longs to be loved and accepted so deeply it calls like a beacon to the hearts of others. Trust this part of you, and know that you can learn to love deeply, powerfully and appreciate the labour of love.