INTENTIONAL INTIMACY: when your past meets your present

Lily Zehner

Contribution by Dr. Lily Zehner

Intimacy is a delicate and powerful force in all aspects of our lives - not just in the bedroom and not just with your romantic partner. Intimacy can be experienced in all relationships - even with your in-laws!

Intimacy is knowing we will be seen, heard, and accepted exactly as we are. It’s about trusting that you can show up - vulnerably, authentically, and wholeheartedly.

And yet, it can be terrifying.

This is a story about how I figured out how to intentionally create ideal intimacy with my in-laws and aligned our relationship with my needs and values.

Unspoken Hope

There was a disconnect with my in-laws, and it was starting to weigh heavily on my marriage - a relationship built on deep and sacred intimacy.

I craved a relationship with my in-laws that felt safe, reciprocal, and fulfilling.I love and care for them. They are generous, kind, and light-hearted. Yet, whenever we would all spend time together, I would leave feeling unfulfilled. For years, I couldn’t figure it out.

Every time I spent time with them, I hoped “this time it may be different.” That it would be nourishing on a deep level. That it would be reciprocal. That it would leave me feeling loved and received exactly as I am.

But then it all became clear to me. One of the things that draws me to my in-laws is the way they value humor and play. And yet, I was struggling  to meet them there. I was afraid that they would laugh at the real me or take something important about me too lightly. In my childhood it wasn’t safe to play and laughter was seldom kind.

Culture Clash

Suddenly I got it:  we had a culture clash. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me, it was that they showed love differently and I didn’t know how to receive it. It was like a language barrier.

And so, I needed to ask for what I wanted. What I craved were open-ended questions that went deeper than the moments we shared together. I wanted to reveal something more of myself, but they just didn’t seem to care.

Turns out, they did care.

I found out when I took a leap: I wrote a heartfelt letter. And I actually sent it. It felt like a brave thing to do. Even more important, it felt necessary. Yes, I was scared to do it, but I reminded myself that my husband and I had created a safe world together and this was the right thing to do for our relationship and for our relationship with his parents.

When they wrote back, they told me exactly what I had hoped to hear. Turns out, they wanted to create a relationship where everyone felt seen and truly comfortable too.

They felt like it was an act of love to avoid asking questions. I am the kind of person who feels loved when people want to know more about me.  

Months later, I continue to see proof in words and actions from my in-laws that shows that we can feel safe even when we’re being vulnerable. Now, I feel like I can show up authentically in every one of our phone calls, emails, and days spent together.

It Begins With You

Here’s the thing about intimacy: you have to first know what you need and desire. Once you are clear, it is up to you to communicate your needs with others. Often you have expectations of others’ love and are left wondering why they can’t provide you with what you want. The question is, have you ever shared this with them?  

I didn’t realize that the reason my in-laws weren’t loving me as I needed was because I never told them. They loved me as they knew how and I loved them how I knew how. None of us were wrong. We were just missing each other’s attempts to connect, doing the best we knew how.

Don’t Wait for Intimacy. Ask for It.

If you are feeling a disconnect from those you love, please take the time to get clear with your desires and needs. Find a way to share them whether in a dialogue, a letter, or otherwise.

In the end, the sweetness of intimacy is worth putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and being vulnerable. Know yourself. Build trust. Show up as yourself and allow yourself to be seen, heard, and accepted while offering the same to others - that’s what all the deep, nourishing connections in life are made of.

Dr. Lily Zehner has inspired you to expand your idea of intimacy and take steps to make it part of all of your most important relationships. Sign up for our newsletter for more insights into how you can practice loving Connectfulness in your life.


What is Play?

An 8-part blog series, helping parent couples reconnect.

A note on the Reconnecting Parent Couples Series: These eight posts present  perspectives and advice from respected colleagues and experts from across the world. I’ll also weave in my personal and professional discoveries and introduce you to aspects of my evolving relationship practice: Connectfulness.   


When it is incorporated into your daily rhythm, play can fundamentally shift everything about how you and the people you love relate to one another...I find that’s especially important for parenting couples to keep in mind.

So what gives? Why does the word and concept of play totally stress people out? Perhaps you are unsure about what play looks like.

“Play's a little like pornography in that you know it when you see it.” Jill Vialet, the CEO of Playworks

Well, duh!  But that doesn’t exactly help you start adding more play into the connections that fuel your daily life, does it?

So, what is play?

Play is a state of mind rather than an activity.

When at play you’re in a state of enjoyment. Your sense of  self-consciousness and sense of time are both suspended. Whatever you are engaged in, you want to do it again and again. Though you may feel  like it’s  purposeless activity, something important and healing is happening…

Play can be hard to define. It can include  so much. Humor, flirtation, games, roughhousing, storytelling, fantasizing, collecting, movement, exploring, competing, directing, creating.

Play looks like different things to different people, but here is what we know:

Play is a natural and biologically driven social exploration. It helps you learn about, and experience your world and your relationships by encouraging discovery.and feeding curiosity.

Play is inhibited and shuts down when you don’t feel safe (In my practice, when my clients can’t or aren’t playing in  their relationships I want to know more about what doesn’t feel safe. And we slowly begin our exploration there).

Play allows you to practice essential life and relational skills. It is full of triumphs and failures and everything in between.

Play is magical, integrative, and healing. It allows you to process, digest, and gain understanding about your life and your relationships. 

And perhaps most importantly, play happens in your mind. In fact, recent findings in neuroscience are showing that nothing lights up our brains like play does.

Why do we need to play?

We adult humans keep forgetting about the purpose of play, or we simply don’t value play. I get that, it’s so easy to do. When you are in the flow of play, it feels totally purposeless. And part of being a grown up is to have a clear sense of purpose, right?

We push children of all ages to play less & sit more. We are placing value on decoding and recall rather than comprehension and collaboration. Children are missing out on the experiential learning that they can only absorb through the process of play.

But then, it’s no wonder that we’ve taken the play out of children’s education - adults have eliminated play from their busy lives. they don’t know how to model or pass on something as purposeless as “just playing.”

We often think that as adults we shouldn't play, that we should stay serious and focused all of the time and that couldn't be farther from the truth. When couples are really stuck in the thick of stress, I suggest bringing in some kind of play. It can allow partners to connect in a light hearted way. It can also be a great way to reminisce and re-live the earlier days of the relationship when things were less stressful and more fun. Dr. Lily A. Zehner

We are designed to play throughout our whole lifetime

Play is very much a pre-programed social mammalian skill. Watch a pack of puppies, or a litter of kittens. How do they interact with one another and learn appropriate social behaviors?

They play!

They wrestle with one another, they push and pull on boundaries and they either get redirected by one another or mamma when they’ve gone too far or they tire out in a happy exhausted pile, content with one another.

And it’s not different for us humans. We learn how to connect in play.

Your sense of safety and trust in relationship are established through play signals such as eye-contact, facial expression, voice tone, posture, gesturing, timing and intensity of response.

In play, it's safe to fail, to fall get up and try again.  Play makes it easier to adapt and stay connected.  

If you want to keep growing, you must keep playing

Stuart Brown, MD author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul and the founder of the National Institute for Play says that when we stop playing, “our behaviour becomes fixed. We are not interested in new and different things. We find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us.

If you want to do more than merely survive in your relationships, you need to play. Couples who thrive know how to play.

Play reminds us not to take life too seriously. Couples often get stuck on recycling the "bad stuff" in their relationships and stop making new, fun memories. An analogy I like to use is that people have two rooms where they keep their memories of their relationships. One room has all the "good" memories and the other room has all the "bad" ones. How we feel about our relationship is how much time we spend in each room. By playing together couples spend more time in the "good" room and also develop new, happy memories. Mark Vaughan MAMFT, AMFT

When you start to make play your mindset — the attitude you use to approach life situations — you get to practice how you perceive and respond to other's emotional states in a safe, no pressure way.

Play is the glue that connects people to one another. In my next post we’ll dive deeper into how you can rediscover play if you’ve lost it, stay tuned!

>> Part 6 | Play Is Relationship Glue <<




working with me


“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”―Buddha

Therapy can be extremely rewarding when you engage in the process of trying on new perspectives, tweaking habits that don’t serve you, and learning to nurture yourself and your relationships in new ways. The work of opening and examining your inner world — and trusting to share that process with another — requires considerable courage.

Together, we cultivate a healing relationship that nurtures the delicate balance of listening to your inner wisdom, respecting your limits, and encouraging growth. We take time to explore your hopes, joys, and fears to better understand your journey and find more satisfaction in your life and relationships. I help you build awareness of your own strengths and deepen your bond to yourself and become the person (or partnership) you would like to be.

As a psychotherapist specializing in maternal and relationship wellness, I work with women and couples to enhance both partners ability to understand and communicate effectively with one another, work as an effective, loving team and rebuild and/or maintain intimacy in your relationship.  Helping women, couples and families through the pregnancy and postpartum and parenting spectrum is a primary focus of my practice.

I work with many new(ish) mothers who have lost track or forgotten how to nurture and care for themselves. There is no wellness in depletion.  Mothers are sacred. They hold the family together with their pivotal nurturing role. Motherhood (and fatherhood, too) provides opportunity to grow beyond by nurturing and meeting needs within ourselves and rediscovering our sacredness.  It is for that reason that I believe whole-family wellness begins with the mother’s wellness.

I am very interested in how the mind and body work together. I believe all patterns and habits --of both movement and of thought-- can be refined and honed. Sometimes this work is best achieved in my psychotherapy office, sometimes in my gym.  Life presents challenges and stressors. Utilizing weight and fitness training in therapy is a novelty for sure, and it's not for everyone, but I do offer it to select clients.  Regardless of where we work, the premise of the work is that we can practice and hone mental training cues that work best for you in therapy/in sport/under the barbell, and then you can learn to translate them into your life and your relationships.

When you choose to enter into a nurturing therapeutic relationship with me, we utilize my unique blend of psychotherapy and coaching to reshape mind, body, and spirit.  We build on your strengths.  We tap into the power of relationships, first through developing our therapeutic relationship with one another, then by honing your relationship with yourself and eventually through coaching you how to use what you have learned in therapy in all of your other life relationships.  We practice mindfulness and compassion; we nurture wellness.  Wellness is multi-dimensional; body, mind & spirit --it begins in the mind and is nurtured through our self-view and our relationships with others.

In other words, we tap into your strength potential and get you good with yourself --body, mind & spirit-- then we build on that and make your connections to others in your life stronger too.

In Warmth & Wellness,

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