This is the subject of my love letter to you this month dear hearts.
Specifically, perseverance in relationship.
What follows is an ode to those of you pushing through the undergrowth of resentment and the quick sands of fear, in dogged determination to get back to the heartland of connection. A serenade to those sitting up together till 3am, wrestling the built up habits of a lifetime into submission in order to allow trust to blossom. A celebration of those striving to get present enough with the all-too-familiar to make it new*. And an attempt to offer some possibilities to those of you asking yourselves a variation of the following:
How can I nurture our togetherness, and take action on behalf of our love, in order to make this relationship even more sustainable, intimate, and juicy?
*Disclaimer: I want to be clear that I am not applauding the flogging of a dead horse. Just as I am opposed to the kind of cruelty inherent in that idiom, I am also not in favour of relationships that wreak repeated cruelty on one or both parties. If you are the recipient of physical abuse, continuous emotional blackmail or blame, or you simply have a long-standing niggle in your belly that this just isn’t the best situation for your wellbeing … Then my question for you is not the question above. Instead I urge you to ask yourself, and those you know love you, repeatedly, until something shifts:
How can I nurture myself, and take action on my own behalf, to make my life more sustainable, creative, and joyful, filled with people who value me as I hope one day to value myself?
Ok. Disclaimer over. Back to the first question.
“Active engagement, turning towards, and an ongoing determination to cultivate profound interest in each other are far more important than marriage contracts.” Wise words from two of my favourite authors on conscious relating, Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels. And what a gift that ongoing determination is, what an extraordinary treasure we bestow upon another by refusing to give up them, and on all that bridges the space between us.
I’ve been the recipient and the bestower of that gift a fair bit this year, and can testify to its sweetness – and also to its efficacy. Both have surprised me – and I might have missed both had I not stuck around, and occasionally even stepped forward in order to engage, turn towards, and show profound interest in what both I and the other had to say. With this post, I hope to pass on the gift of perseverance to you beloveds – so here are some perseverance practices that myself and my clients have used for years, which nevertheless continue to take me by surprise:
By looking into our beloved’s eyes, we give each other our best chance to see and be seen, to bear witness to what is moving in the other, the pain, love, or truth writ large in their gaze; in seeing, we allow ourselves to be moved, and in being moved, we come closer to understanding. Which is of course why the eyes are purported to be the windows to the soul – and why the first thing to go when something is wrong in our household is eye-contact!
Knowing this, myself and my beloved have a handful of techniques we pull out to encourage us to look once more into those soul-windows; here’s one of my favourites, inspired by a session I attended with Roxana Hewett some years ago:
Sit opposite one another, with your right palm resting on your partner’s left, and vice versa.
Make eye-contact (you’ll probably have to pick one eye to focus on; western tantra favours the left), and, as much as you can in this moment, let your eyes be soft, and allow yourself to be seen, and to see, a little more deeply.
Take deep, full breaths together. If you can, gradually synchronise your breathing with your partner’s.
Once you’re sitting comfortably, with full eye-contact, and breathing in harmony, take it in turns to ask “What’s here now?”.
If you’re asked the question, take a moment to breathe, turn your attention inwards, and then offer a word or phrase that arises spontaneously from within. If you’re asking the question, your job is to keep breathing, and just listen, with as open a heart as possible.
Keep asking the question back and forth. Take your time. Eventually you’ll probably arrive at a place where the exercise feels complete, or you’re ready for a hug, or you wish to move on to another activity.
Quite apart from the oxytocin that a positive experience of touch releases into the body – lowering blood pressure, stimulating the reward centre in the brain, paving the way for greater physical and emotional wellbeing – I appreciate agenda-free touch for the opportunities it gives us to show willing. If a partner just needs to be held, touch allows us to do that. If a partner isn’t feeling heard, listening to how they wish to be touched and adjusting our touch accordingly allows us to change that. If a partner is looking hopeless or afraid in the midst of an argument, offering a hand to hold or a hug can communicate that, whilst the argument may not be over yet, we intend that it will be soon, and that we will still be together at the end of it.
And sometimes touch allows us to communicate when words fail us. Sometimes when we cannot put an argument to bed, and instead we must go to sleep on it, we awaken in the morning to find our bodies have found their way back together, where our outspoken minds could not.
In times of stress, or relational strain, taking time daily to offer touch without an agenda can maintain that baselines of tenderness and trust from which to build back up.
I recommend the magic of “May I?” – May I give you a hug, May I rub your shoulders, May I stand here and kiss you in this sunbeam for a moment… Along with exercises like the Three Minute Game by Harry Faddis, popularised by Betty Martin if you want something more structured, but still safely contained.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
One of the best things my partner and I have ever done together happened earlier this year. We’d had a rough winter – a little too busy, too overpopulated, for us to give our us-ness the attention and nourishment we needed. Inspired by Laura Vanderkam’s assurances in her book, 168 Hours, that the time was there to be made for the things that mattered, we wrote up a list of every big and scary subject we could think of that we might have something to say to each other on, and every night that we were both home for over a month, we sat down together at the kitchen table with pens, paper, tea lovingly mixed from the jars of loose herbs on the shelf behind us, and out “talking candle”, and thrashed our way through an item from the list for 30-60 minutes. We went into the experiment tired, wary, and with plenty of bones to pick over – and came out of it feeling connected, inspired, and a depth of intimacy and understanding that had us falling in love all over again.
One of the key tools we used is a deceptively simple exercise that I find myself recommending to clients time and time again. It’s a combination of a Talking Candle, and Active Listening, and it goes like this:
Sit opposite one another, with a candle between you. Breathe deeply, and ideally make eye-contact if you can, and express your most loving intention for the conversation (eg: I want us to share how we’ve been feeling so that we can develop understanding and feel connected again).
Talking Candle means that, whenever someone has drawn the candle towards them, it’s their turn to speak, and they can speak – ideally allowing a stream of consciousness, gently shaped by using “I language”, and speaking from one’s own experience rather than one’s judgement – until they feel complete.
They can then push the candle back into the center, to indicate they are finished.
My modification on the Talking Candle is that, once a speaker is complete, they may also express how they would like their listener to respond – eg, they’d like their listener to repeat the key points of what they heard back to them, so they can ensure they have been understood, or they’d like their listener not to respond to what they have shared – either not immediately in their own sharing on the subject, or not for a certain period of time (eg 24 hours), or they’d like their listener to respond in their own sharing if they so wish.
The Talking Candle structure is useful, because sitting down together, agreeing a time period, setting an intention, and lighting a candle, all serve to remind us that we’re in this together. The structure also invites us to get present enough to really listen to each other, rather than staying focused only on our own side of the story. But doing that takes a great willingness – and willingness is really what all of these techniques, and the myriad of possibilities like them, come down to.
Willingness to pause – in that oh-so-familiar moment when you know you are heading straight for disconnection, along the same route you always take – to stop, to take a breath, and to try something new. Willingness to look up, reach out, and communicate on behalf of the love that still sings beneath the layers of built up co-created “stuff”. Willingness to, as Hedy Schleifer puts it so beautifully here, cross the bridge from your world, where your judgements and fears and resentments reside, to your partner’s world, taking with you nothing but your capacity to listen.
Or at least, if that willingness can’t be mustered right now, as it sometimes cannot, the willingness to do what needs to be done today, so that it may be mustered tomorrow.
Get willing with us at the upcoming Making Love with Other weekend, and learn new practices for presence, pleasure, and loving perseverance.