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I retreated to my office for the morning, but a snowstorm pulled me home. I came home and rolled around on the floor with my young daughters while my husband plowed the driveway. I later hid away to write until dinner. After our meal we all took a silent stroll through our snow covered property searching for owls in the night sky. Once the kids were asleep, it wasn’t hard to procrastinate writing once again, by choosing to prioritize making love and deeply connecting with my husband. It’s these connections that fuel my story for you.
Connection is at the root of love; connection to others, connection to ourselves, connection to our environment. We all have choices: daily choices, moment by moment, to connect or disconnect. In today’s day and age, our interconnectedness is both expansive and isolating. Personally, I’ve been sitting with my discomfort around writing. It’s not that I don’t have enough to write about; perhaps I have too much. My discomfort has been more about balancing my desires to connect versus isolating myself in writing.
Regardless of our relationship status, we all want to feel loved. It is this very quest, to connect to others to feel loved, that abounds and unites us all. We all desire to find comfort and connection in another. John Bowlby, known in the modern psychoanalytic world as the father of attachment theory, describes mental health as the capacity to make intimate emotional bonds with others. And yet, when that opportunity for connection is present, we so often allow it to pass us by.
I’ve been aware of my own desires. I’ve been aware of the needs and demands of those in my life and of my own deadlines. I’ve been playing with balancing all that fills my life. Through being aware of the balance, through prioritizing my life and my connections; I’m making it work. However, finding this balance doesn’t come naturally. I found balance because I didn’t get in the way of opportunities to connect. I carved out time for writing and I made an effort to tune out distractions. Staying aware of that process -- allowing space to bounce around and to come back – is the start of connection. Discomfort is not bad a thing, it’s information. It’s the first step in tuning into to ourselves.
John Gottman is one of the most influential therapists, researchers and authors of the past 4-decades. His work on marriage and parenting highlights the importance of establishing and maintaining healthy connections. In much of his work, he talks about a central theme of turning towards or turning away from bids for attention. These bids for attention are opportunities to create, increase, maintain and re-establish connection.
When a bid for attention is well received, it can be as simple as returning a smile or answering a request such as “can you help me do the dishes” by grabbing a dish towel. In this example, it’s easy to see how a bid for attention is essentially an invitation to engage in a connection. Often though, even when we desire connection, we turn away. We turn away because connecting can make us feel vulnerable, uncomfortable, or challenged. But when we turn away, we also inadvertently tell others to stop making bids. We communicate disinterest and often, we devalue the connection we really desire. It happens all the time, when we respond with comments that are disinterested, defensive and disengaged (such as: “mmhhmm [attention on smartphone]”, “you can do that yourself”, “why do you always ask for help?”, “not now, I’m so tired”, or “I have more important things to do”.) As bids for attention increase in value and meaning, so does the potential for hurt and fracture. When couples repeatedly turn away from bids they stop making an effort to connect, feel lonely and then they come into counseling wondering how they got there. The question I find myself often pointing clients to is:
How do you relate to your desire to feel loved?
This question permits curiosity. Do we allow opportunity for connection? Do we cultivate and maintain the connections we have? Many clients struggle with finding their answers. The thing is that the struggle is natural. The key is understanding that it’s not the struggle that causes our suffering, it is how we relate to our struggle that does!
By far, the reason most clients find their way into psychotherapy is that they are seeking connection or they aren’t experiencing connections that feel good. They come to me struggling. This is the human condition: to struggle. Many of us bounce up against our past over and over again. In our attempts to move forward, we often choose to either dismiss or ruminate in our feelings. Neither works, at least not well or for very long. When we dwell on a bad feeling, thought or event, we continue to feel the same bad feeling.
It’s not all that uncommon for us to dismiss feelings as unimportant, says Gottman. In 1985 his research assessed parents’ attitudes towards their own emotions and their children’s. What it uncovered was two groups of parents. One group of parents was emotionally dismissive (the larger group, unfortunately) while the other group were emotional coaches. Gottman showed that parents’ emotional attitudes opened or closed the opportunity for learned styles of connection. He showed that if children are not connecting to their parents around emotions, then the idea that personal feelings aren’t of value get’s reinforced. It becomes the way we relate to ourselves. It becomes the way we relate to our struggles.
I am not suggesting that we can only know connection or that we can only experience love within the construct of a relationship. We can, for example, imagine a happy hermit, perhaps a mountain top monk who knows how to live independently and be purely happy. But in reality, the happy hermit is a rare breed. For most of us, less enlightened then that monk, we fair better in connection to others even with the struggles and trials and heartbreaks of marriage. Even with that stress, connection to others is healthier for us! In his book Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes “The fact that studies could show a relationship between the sheer number of social connections and the death rate in a large population implies that our connections play a very powerful role in our lives. It suggests that even negative or stressful connections with people may be better for our health than isolation, unless we know how to be happy alone, which few of us do.”
We connect through communicating with our senses, all our senses: our eyes, ears, minds, noses, bodies and tongues. We communicate and connect through eating together, through looking at one another, through touch and smell. We communicate through reading, writing, speaking and listening. But most of us aren’t taught or trained in the skills of listening. To truly interact and influence another, you first need to understand, to listen. It’s a flow, it’s experiential, that feeling of really being heard. That’s the turning toward a bid for connection.
Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teachings are among the most oft referenced in my work, says that we should begin practicing loving meditations on ourselves and then later expand that practice onto others. Looking and listening within, with a sense of curiosity is the beginning of the self-love meditation. In his book, Teachings on Love, he says, “To know the real situation within ourselves, we have to survey our own territory thoroughly, including the elements within us that are at war with each other. To bring about harmony, reconciliation, and healing within, we have to understand ourselves. Looking and listening deeply, surveying our territory, is the beginning of love meditation.”
I like to think of this love meditation as a practice of self compassion, deep listening and curiosity. When we show up with and foster curiosity, there isn’t room for the duality of judgment. We can see our past but not be stuck in it. We can conceive of our worries and fears but not be paralyzed by them. Awareness is the greatest teacher. Balance is the art of awareness and response. Have you ever noticed how the act of maintaining balance is dynamic? Balance isn’t ever static. I think for example of a practicing a handstand. While a perfectly poised handstand seems so solid and strong, the gymnast is artfully tuning in to each little shift and responding accordingly, hollowing their core, driving through the shoulders, pointing the toes, playing with the back and forth fine tuning of maintaining their balance in their hands, ever so slightly back and forth between the palm and the fingers.
There is an art in maintaining balance, even with respect to love. The art lies in developing and maintaining awareness of when we are off balance; this awareness, of when we are out of balance, allows us to make adjustments to bring us back into balance. That is perhaps the biggest lesson. Love and connection exists within each of us. When we look for partners to value, affirm and admire us -- instead of looking within ourselves, admiring ourselves, finding our own value and affirmations -- our connections often will continue to elude us. Whether you are married, in a relationship or looking forward to your next one, hold on to these thoughts; only when we find love and compassion within ourselves does life find more balance, and only when we find balance within ourselves, can we see the full power and potential of love and connection that exists outside of us within our relationships.
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Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2012). What Makes Love Last? How to build trust and avoid betrayal. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta Books.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2007). Teachings on Love. California: Parallax Press.