I spent the weekend before last at seminary for my Interfaith Ministry training. There was a lot to love about the two days (as well as plenty to feel challenged by!), including one particular structure we did on the subject of intimacy. The facilitator, inspired by Gestalt, was talking about intimacy as a cycle; as any of my clients who have listened to me bang on about how sexual arousal is a cycle (not a straight line!) over the years might anticipate, this made a lot of sense to me.
This cycle flowed from Openness (being available for intimacy), to Contact (being willing to share), to Union (being at one), to Confluence (being content), to Isolation. In the structure that followed, we were invited to reflect on how we have experienced each of these states in past relationships, and how transitioning between them felt for us. We did this by drawing the cycle out on the floor, and walking round the various stages in turn. I had anticipated that I would enjoy exploring my experience of Union, that moment of ecstatic communion with a beloved – it’s obviously one of my big biases. I also assumed I would feel positively about Confluence; I have a particular fondness for those later stages of a relationship, when a deeper kind of trust has had time to unfold.
However, I was surprised to find that, once I have moved fully from Union to Confluence, I actually find the latter a scary place to be. My fear is that I won’t be able to get back to a place of Union once I’m fully inhabiting that more grounded, mundane, comfortable place. Interestingly, this is very similar to the fears many of my clients in long term relationships present; they’re afraid the thrill is gone, and looking for ways to “go back” to that scrummy chemistry they had when they first got together.
What I like about the cyclical nature of the model above is that it demonstrates that it is in fact possible to re-enter a state of Union, but it also demonstrates why it takes the kind of time and patience I inevitably end up encouraging my clients to give their relationships. So many of us try to “go backwards” in our intimate relationships in order to “rekindle” Union, when in fact what we need to do is move forward, and come anew to the start of the cycle and a state of Openness. However, in order to get there, we have to do two potentially scary things.
Firstly, we have to traverse Isolation – a misunderstood concept which is less about necessarily breaking up, and more about appreciating that it takes two whole people to have intimacy. And in order to remain whole and not slip into being someone’s unfulfilled “better half”, we have to take time to come back to ourselves – whether it is to reflect and do the work of self-development, or to create, play, and have some “inner-kid” time. This is why relationships in which there is no space for “me-time” become so exhausted and lifeless – and why, as challenging as it can be when there is another beloved person, or a family, asking for your attention, you have to carve out time to nurture your relationship with yourself. Otherwise, we can descend into fighting as a way to get the separation that we subconsciously need in order to find our way back together.
The second scary thing we face is finding our way back to openness – and this requires a different kind of time-taking. The fact is that open is a hard thing to be when we have so much weight resting on our shoulders – and sharing a life with someone often comes with all kinds of heavy-duty time consuming baggage, whether it’s the endless cycle of housework or school runs, or social and professional commitments, not to mention attempting to keep the person we love interested and happy. It’s hard to remember that, if we value our relationship as much as we value these other commitments, we need to be willing to give it the kind of time we expect to invest in other important areas of our life – eg, our careers; we can’t expect it to be the one thing that ticks along by itself. There are archaeological layers of resentments, unspoken anger, hurt, etc, that inevitably build up over time if left unattended. In order to move from a place of mutual shut-down to that tentative but potent place where we’re ready to reconnect, we have to find a way to sift through these layers together, to lift some of the weight off, and this is no easy task – especially if they have been there a long time. It takes courage and commitment, ideally some experience of conscious communication techniques, sometimes time with a therapist, to face up to the kind of conversations and working together this can take; it’s easy to see why so many couples put it off, and hanker instead after the good old sexy days of yore.
However, I think the question we need to be asking ourselves when it comes to intimacy is not “How do we go back”, but rather “How do we go deeper?”
One of my favourite ways of going deeper is a deceptively simple little communication structure, which I first encountered several years ago on a weekend with Intimacy Works. In its essence, it involves sitting opposite your beloved, taking a few moments to breathe deeply and connect, and then lighting a candle. When one of you is ready to speak, you can draw the candle towards you to signify that it’s your turn to share; as you share, your partner simply listens, offering you their full and compassionate attention, without interruption. You can share about anything that’s up for you – I usually like to agree on a topic with my beloved beforehand. Ideally, you share using “I” language, and describe your own feelings and experiences rather than falling into the temptation to allocate blame or judgement. When you feel complete, you push the candle back to the center. Your partner can then choose to pull it towards themselves to indicate that they would like to share – from their own experiences and feelings, rather than in direct response to yours. You can go back and forth as many times as you wish, or ask your partner for a response to what you have shared, and agree to move into dialogue. Explore this and other ways of sharing and listening to your beloved in greater depth in the Lovecraft Home-study Course for Couples.