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Cultivating vitality in your relationship

12/26/2019 by Marcia Johnson, LICSW, and Kileen Smyth, LICSW

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Ultimate intimacy may be about the freedom to be ourselves. Knowing our intrinsic worth, we're able to be present with ourselves and our partners — whatever the circumstances. Here's how Jennifer Welwood, poet and therapist, describes this: 

Willing to experience aloneness, I discover connection everywhere
Turning to face my fear, I meet the warrior who lives within
Surrendering to my emptiness, I find fullness
Each condition I flee from pursues me, each condition I welcome, transforms me.

Moving from our conditioned ways of relating to more authentic ways of connecting can be refreshing, scary and life-giving all at the same time. Communication is often given as a problem in relationships; it also happens to be the solution. Relearning to communicate is at the heart of intimacy. Learning to be emotionally present to ourselves and to another can be amazing. Why not give it a try?

Our Integrated Behavioral Health colleague, Denise Morcomb, LICSW, says "We should expect to have to learn how to communicate better as we grow in our relationships, otherwise we're destined to continue communicating like we're 18 years old."

Moving beyond 18

Skills like problem-solving, negotiation and conflict resolution can be more challenging when we're with someone we think we "know". Often over time, we don't practice being vulnerable to those closest to us because things become comfortable, routine and easy. Sometimes it's essential to pause and discover what and who we don't know, which may prompt us to notice how we've changed. We can always be in the midst of discovery. 

Learning to speak one's truth without blame or judgment is at the heart of vulnerability. Vulnerability in a relationship can draw you closer, but it takes practice and time. 

Exploring new ways to connect may help you move inward, outward and forward to cultivate vitality in your relationship. Consider trying some of these ideas. 

Cultivate

Communicate. Speak and listen from a place of curiosity and non-judgmental awareness, speak of your vulnerability and listen to the other. Communication is often identified as a problem, yet it usually is the solution. Take a risk to rediscover who you are individually and together. 

Understand your partner's love languages. Try to really know what makes that person feel loved. First you need to understand how they experience love so you can meet their needs and not your own. Move out of your comfort zone to give those things to them without waiting for something in return. Love languages may be expressed through: 

  • Words of affirmation. Tell them what you appreciate about them. 
  • Acts of service (actions speak louder than words). "I called the vet today", "I cleaned out the dishwasher."
  • Gifts. Better yet, don't just "do" for the other — put a note in his lunch tote or a thoughtful trinket by her plate. 
  • Quality time. Actually listen, respond and pay attention. 
  • Physical touch. Sit close together, kiss, hug, hold hands.

Listen attentively. Start from a place of not knowing, a place where you don't need to fix or figure anything out, just listen with heart and eyes and ears. 

Try something new. Bowling, dancing, the theater, volunteer, a community education class, a new sport. 

Invite others into your circle of play. Create moments: invite a few people over for cards or games, go to nearby music venues. 

Validate. Speak about what your partner does and knows, express awareness of the simple things you appreciate. 

Appreciate. Show appreciation through small expressions of gratitude such as notes on the counter in the morning or on the pillow at night. These can be playful and simple. 

Take time to pause. Be quiet together, go on an electronic time-out, slow down to the speed of life, ponder your love maps (that part of your brain where you store meaningful events and moments of your relationship). 

Engage in physical activity together. Take a hike, a walk, dance around the house, dance in the driveway, do Tai chi, yoga or go snowshoeing or for a dip in a nearby pool or lake. 

Vitality

Visit a place or person or try something new that neither of you has done before. 

Integrate self-care and self-compassion and speak about how each of you has done that, perhaps even discuss spirituality or what has meaning in your life today. Practice self-kindness. 

Touch one another with humor, learn to laugh at yourself or make each other laugh. Feel your feelings and allow emotions and discover ways to lighten up. Play with not taking yourself so seriously. 

Allow your partner to have some alone time with others, authentically let them influence you, notice what can happen when you leave some space for letting go of the need to control. Enjoy. 

Liberate yourself from your own defensiveness before you try to critique the other, speak about your awareness. Turn toward, rather than away from each other in times of challenge. 

"I love you." Say it and identify specific reasons, write them down with pen and paper or even on a mirror, look for opportunities to express love as you also say it. 

Trust transformation. Surrender to the opportunity to be curious. Allow vulnerability to grow and enhance a spiritual connection. Old patterns that once kept us safe can sometimes become limitations. 

Yes. Simply say "yes" to doing something you think the other person might like to do, say yes to naming one thing you would like to do, say yes to daring greatly. 

One couple we know takes time out at the end of each year to go away and reflect on questions like, What worked for you and us this year? What would you like to discover or investigate next year? What things can I do for or with you to support you? What do you think you need for self-care? How can we plan for kids, travel or retirement or our next chapter together? 

When they discuss what they appreciate about each other, they also own what they have found challenging. They tend to focus on what they have learned about themselves, as well as from each other in the relationship. Dare to cultivate vitality in your own relationship this season. 

"Relationships can build a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together — a culture rich with symbols and rituals — and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you've become." John M. Gottman, PhD

Marcia Johnson, LICSW, is a social worker/therapist in IBH at Mayo Family Clinic Southeast and has worked for 20 years in psychiatry and behavioral health at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She runs groups for senior vitality, as well as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for depression and anxiety. Marcia also has volunteered as a mental health supervisor at the Compassion Counseling Center for the past 10 years. 

Kileen Smyth, LICSW, is a clinical social worker/therapist for IBH at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest. She provides individual and group therapy for patients dealing with anxiety, panic, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, insomnia and an array of other family and life transition challenges. Kileen also facilitates group supervision, helps educate colleagues and enjoys the opportunity to network with mental health colleagues throughout the Rochester community.