A Wounded Nation

Politics, to me, look a lot like an intimate relationship–maybe it’s just the lens through which I see… (so many things!)

It does stand to reason, though, that opposites “attract,” in a sense; that really, we can’t have one without the other—(that tends to be when revolutions occur)—yet the intrinsic balance of different perspectives creates a stronger foundation for relationships or, in this sense, for a nation—for the collective. Opposing strengths and perspectives, when they can depend on and challenge one another—sometimes even when they need to battle things out—ultimately lend to a more powerful system.

wolf-packThis concept is part of our nature, but we’ve become disconnected to its inherent value. It even shows up in the animal kingdom. Herds and packs of animals work collectively for their survival, yet they each have unique roles, due to their innate strengths and qualities, and exhibit those strengths with the intention of surviving and thriving together. They certainly battle it out at times, yet there seems to evolve a natural respect among members. They are stronger BECAUSE they are different.

(And just to note, I’m not speaking of political candidates here—I’m speaking of parties.)

I often wish I could do relationship therapy among political parties.

You see, there’s a fascinating and consistent theme when couples come into therapy. The belief goes something like, “My partner is more of the problem in this relationship.” So the request, from both partners, often is a bit like, “Can you please let my partner know that she is the problem,” “convince him of how he needs to change, and then we’ll be good!” (Basically). But here’s the deal: Research into human nature and relationships has found—through decades of intensive exploration into this subject—that, 1) One partner’s belief that the other person is “the problem” is the quintessential “Kiss of Death” to the relationship—it’s by far the most damaging belief, and strongest indicator of relationship failure. And, 2) …it’s almost NEVER true.

Swallow that one for a few moments (relationally, politically, whichever is the most difficult!)

People who end up being really good at relationships are the people who are willing to explore the possibility that their perspective isn’t the only valid one. –That, in fact, underneath someone else’s seemingly polar opposite opinion, there’s something just as legitimate as what we want or believe. That doesn’t negate that how we see things is as important, and we need to require equal regard and respect, but the key to being influential is partly based on our ability to also accept influence—to have some flexibility in the way we interact with one another.

We’re all biased to see the world through the lens that we’ve each developed based on our unique experiences, our heritage, our culture, our family dynamics, and the personal qualities that we’ve cultivated throughout our lives. Each of us has strong feelings about what is right and wrong—how people are supposed to act, both in relationship and in the world, and we tend to naturally believe that our beliefs are both “right” and also shared by the majority. The fact is, though, that’s just not so. In fact, with most of the things that people tend to argue over, there is no universally accepted “better way.” And even when behavior is actually “universally wrong,” how we respond to it is the most important piece of whether we’re going to see more of it in the future or not. And blaming and shaming simply doesn’t bode well for creating change.

People struggle with this idea because each one of us becomes attached to how our own perspective works for us.

Now, what happens when we apply these truths to politics, to parties or affiliations? Seems to me that we’re all coming in believing “the other guy/gal/belief system/policies/way of being/etc., etc… is “the problem.” I’ve certainly had my own share of that perspective. But in reality, WE ARE ALL A PART OF THE PROBLEM. We have all contributed to the condition of our current political landscape. And the truth is, we all have legitimate concerns. At the foundation of all the negativity and anger and aggression—at the root of bad behavior—there’s always some reasonable perspective, something that we each believe passionately about how to make our nation a better place to hang out for a while.

Talking politics on social media platforms seems only to invite those who either vehemently agree or disagree, which doesn’t resolve anything and mostly serves to polarize viewpoints, subsequently people, even more than we already are. Of course, being a “relationship person,” initiating or engaging in those dialogues without some intention for understanding seems counterintuitive. So I’m both working to understand, and asking you all to do the same.

There is a similar dynamic in intimate relationships—we’re naturally attracted to those people who have a lot of opposing qualities to us. It’s part of our makeup. There’s more chemistry in relationship when we have some polarizing characteristics that draw us together. But so often—most often, in fact—we don’t know how to tolerate those differences very well and we begin to see our partners perspective as “off”—not as effective maybe, or just bad in some way. We pathologize one another. And it’s almost impossible to influence a partner when they believe you see them as “the problem.”

The same is true in politics—how are we ever going to influence one another if we continue to blame each other for problems that we have collectively created?

tree-handI have friends and family—people whom I highly respect and regard, people that I know are both rationally and emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, engaged, educated—who are on both (all) sides of this election. And so I cannot simply dismiss any of their emotional and/or rational stances through a reactive assumption that they are simply “wrong” and everyone who agrees with them is as well. It takes mindfulness, flexibility, and inner tolerance to stay present and become curious.

Just as when my children are arguing over something…. If I jump in and assume one person is the problem, I lose the opportunity to support them in honoring the deeper thing at stake for each of them, and I prevent them from engaging their young nervous systems in a practice that I believe is essential for healthy relationships—to be able to willingly listen, from the heart, to what is true for one another, while simultaneously standing up for what is true for themselves.

Our differences are what truly make our country great. But acknowledging differences can be uncomfortable. We so often automatically assume that one of us is right and the other wrong, rather than allowing some space to explore the benefits and risks of both ways of thinking—to tolerate two opposing perspectives with equal regard requires some “mental strength training.” Yet we desperately need to cultivate tolerance—and I mean true, authentic tolerance, not just the kind that pays lip service—we need to practice countering the internal story that says someone else is the problem, and look for what’s right about someone else’s viewpoint. Then, and only then, do we have any chance of asking, and requiring, that they also give space to what we believe.

political-earthWe are becoming so divided and wounded, as a country… it’s painful, it’s scary, and it’s weakening our chances of thriving on our little spinning planet. But we’re trying to find resolution by putting blame on one another, rather than attempting to understand one another. And I want to provide a reframe for how we’re seeing the current state of things, and maybe even see it as an opportunity to do something different—to engage in dialogue with respect, with curiosity, trusting that there is more to the story than what we know—always.

Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom for intimate relationships to come out on the other side with both the capability and the heart for thriving in a new way. And when I see it, it’s one of the most inspiring things in the world—because people have to push beyond themselves, they have to dig into the depths of belief systems and stories that they’ve been telling themselves, they have to stretch into tolerating that their view isn’t the only valid one, and their responses or solutions for dealing with life aren’t the only sane, reasonable ones out there! They also need to practice the habit of standing up for themselves without making their partner wrong—of honoring their own bias, while honoring the way their partner sees things as well.

When these practices are embodied, they are able to step back, take a look at one another, and see the beauty of their partner before them—see that even in the midst of differences, flaws, and idiosyncrasies, we are each, in our own way, imperfectly perfect.

We are ultimately such a young democracy—we’re really still learning how to do this well—just as we are understanding more and more how to have healthy intimate relationships. And we’re going to screw it up along the way—a lot! But it’s how we respond to those screw-ups that set us up for success or failure as we move forward. The shame and blame game… that just gets us nowhere. And I’m not saying that we don’t have to deal with bad behavior, yet so often how we do that undermines our effectiveness in creating change.

Here’s my challenge to you all:

Next time someone shares a political belief, or really any belief, that you cannot even fathom as being reasonable, take a moment to pay attention to your internal story about what that means. Pay attention to your body—to how the automatic processes in your body take hold and put you into a “protective or defensive” mode. Notice the impulse to make that person wrong, to counter and put yourself above them. Take a breath. be with just that, for a moment. Feel how that, just that impulse, plays a role in becoming more distant or more connected, and take a moment to see if it is within your capability to explore the possibility that maybe if the two of you share in some open dialogue, you might both learn something.

I believe that if you can do this, consistently, with intention, you will notice a new strength within you. And I believe if enough of us have a similar practice, we will strengthen our nation, from the inside out—regardless of what happens in this election.

 

For the Love of Your Life

 

Angie

Honesty From the Inside Out: A 1-2-3 on How to Equip Our Children

My kids and I have a lot of long talks. We talk about things likeN&L-1 who we want to be in the world, friendships, differences in beliefs and religions, personal responsibility, diversity, and qualities that are important to us. I love hearing their innocent and naturally developing views on these topics that become the foundation, I believe, for their happiness, their relationships, and their sense of living into their truest natures. I love hearing their minds and hearts expression through exploring what’s most relevant in their growing ideas of the world and of people.

Wednesday night, the subject of honesty came up at the dinner table. We were navigating a “little white lie…” in our house, getting clear on why it happened and what the consequences would be.

As many parents have experienced, this bit of dishonesty had to do with an IPad.

iphone-kidsI have a love-hate relationship with everything “I-digital,” mostly because it’s having a significant—in some ways, devastating—impact on our children’s developing brains, their ability to regulate emotions, their attention, their mental health, and their ability to relate to people in the present moment. It’s having a similar impact on us all, but that is for another post! (Noted as I type this on my related mac book).

When our kids lie, as all of them will be at times (it’s their job to push against every boundary, every edge that we have), our response is key. Just like any relationship—we have to know how to respond effectively when we feel mistreated to increase the chance that we’re treated better in the future—we have a powerful opportunity in these moments to help our kids learn this valuable lesson, yet it can be incredibly difficult to slow down our brains enough to take it!

Honesty is a relational quality that doesn’t always come naturally. When we’re lied to, we have an internalized belief that we’ve been wronged and our brains can become reactive to the point that, through shaming, we contribute to an increase in our kid’s dishonesty in the future, rather than a decrease. And because this is parenting, it’s our responsibility to create the foundation and structure that will support our kids in not just “learning the lessons,” but in embedding honesty and integrity as the foundation of who they are—something human relationships don’t practice near enough of these days.

I heard a great quote the other day, though I don’t know whom to credit:

“Children who are not held accountable grow up to be adults who believe they can do no wrong.”

It’s our job to hold our kids accountable in ways that don’t shame them—that honor where they are developmentally, and honor their relationship to us—their models and guides.

It can feel like a mini brain explosion the first time we realize our kiddo has lied to us—one of those blatant lies, thought out, intentional. It’s easy to fall into a trap of what it means about us—their parents—we can feel a need to control the situation, or we can fall into our own shame. Our reptilian brains can go into fight or flight while we work to mitigate the emotional landslide threatening to override rational thought.

If we look at what research has shown to be absolutely necessary, though, in effective relational skills (which are essential in parent-child relationships), there are some things that desperately need to happen if we’re going to affect positive change.

Number One:

MINDFULNESS

We need to slow down. The reactive brain is powerful and quick—it’s built for survival, for protection from threat (and betrayal feels like a big threat), and fight or flight responses. The immediate reaction to our kiddos lie, if not monitored, can do some damage. Slowing down, however, takes some focused, intentional practice—“knowing this” is very different than “doing it” in the heat of the moment. It’s just like a new training regimen; we need consistent, focused practice, often with support to rewire our brain’s very natural and habitual responses.

We need to focus not on what our child did that was so wrong, but on how we feel in that particular moment. What are our emotions, thoughts, and, even deeper than that, what are our physiological responses—what’s happening on the level of sensation? When we have the capacity to simply notice what we’re feeling, before responding, we slow down our powerful reactive brains and we set ourselves up for a load of successful interactions. We also provide a valuable model for our kids.

Number Two:

COMPASSION

As difficult as it can be to have compassion when our children misbehave, it’s essential that we remember the fact that underneath the bad behavior, there’s a person—one we love desperately and one who is doing his or her best to learn all of life’s lessons, and looking to us to structure the container in which s/he is learning. It’s amazing when we can approach without judgment, get curious about what was happening, and give some understanding to our little ones, we make it safe for them to actually talk about what they did and why. And the more they trust us to hold that space, the more they will be able to share with us in years to come, things that might be painful, shameful, or embarrassing to share.

Compassion doesn’t mean that we rescue them, make it okay, or let them off the hook. It means we help them to explore the “why,” and what they could’ve done differently, and then we collaborate on an effective consequence that will support more congruent choices in their future—and we do this with love and understanding.

Number Three:

PARENTING

Seems an obvious necessity, right? We’re clearly parents or we wouldn’t be here. Sadly, I often witness parents, either in my practice or in my community, who seem to struggle in deciding whether to be a parent or a friend. I would assert that most of us would like to be both. Sometimes, however, our friend role gets in the way of being good parents, and our kiddos desperately need us to be parents first.

I love the pendulum shift in our culture that has brought us to paying more attention to our children’s emotions than to their behavior, as we did in previous generations. However, with that, our kiddos are struggling to find a solid structure on which they can depend to hold the natural chaos of their development! The rise in anxiety disorders in our kids and teens is unparalleled and so much of that is related to the lack of stable household environments and parents who are modeling emotional tolerance, resiliency, and flexibility.

Parenting—true parenting, including rules, structure, discipline, along with unconditional love—can be really uncomfortable sometimes. We all want our kids to like us, and want to spend time with us. We want to have positive, fulfilling interactions and relationships with them. But sometimes our actions geared at creating friend relationships undermine the effectiveness of our role as parents.

Setting boundaries, enforcing rules, providing consistent and thoughtful consequences—no one enjoys being a drill sergeant (well, there are those few…) and sometimes it may feel as if we need to embody that character for our kids to listen—these are just some of the qualities of a stable parent-child relationship. The other side of this foundation, of course, is our own ability to model these qualities. When kids feel and can trust in us to provide these consistently, they learn to gain a stable foundation from which they can naturally learn to navigate the impact of their own developing relational qualities. 

We are powerful factors in helping to determine the qualities our children choose to practice. The responsibility and impact are incalculable. Pushing into the less comfortable moments in parenting, with some dedication to these practices, can provide some of the most fertile ground for our children to become mighty stewards of our collective humanity.

I would appreciate hearing your thoughts, reservations, questions, hopes, and some of your own personal stories!

For the Love of Your Life,

 Angie

Parenting… Good Enough

I remember the first (and possibly only) time I ever heard my mom swear. It was the word, “shit.” And it was directed right at me. I’ll never forget the level of annoyance and disbelief that crossed her face, to the point where she just couldn’t contain it anymore. “You little shit,” she said. And while I have no recollection of exactly what I’d done, I knew that I was being just that—a shit. And I’d pushed her to her edge.

Which apparently was an area I had a good amount of skill.

My mom has never been someone who lost control, who yelled and screamed, who expressed anger like the other people in my family. Maybe it was the Greek blood in the rest of us. I knew angry outbursts—but not from my Mom. But that day, she’d had it. And I deserved it.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve had it as a Mom. I feel that twinge of fear—the “I must be failing as a parent” fear that wrecks me because honestly, since the moment that my son was born almost 12 years ago, my identity has become absolutely attached to being “Mom.” And when most of us feel fear, to the point where it literally “hijacks” our brains, we do everything we can to protect our created realities—our identities, as if our survival depends on it.

Tonight was one of those nights.  And just like me, my kids are damn good at pushing me to my edge.  (My mom warned me about that!)

It’s as if on the nights when I am so excited to just hang out with my kiddos, plan a great dinner, know that we have some simple play and relaxation time, and that’s everything I want… those are the nights when all hell breaks loose and I lose my grasp on my lovely vision of motherhood.

Now here’s where I’ll share that I’m with the rest of you who wonders how much reality exists in social media. I know that what I share—my pictures and posts, especially of parenting—are of the moments that I want to cherish. They’re the moments that get me all soft and, honestly, a little bit like “wow, what a great Mom am I!” And then I get a swift kick in the ass like tonight and I realize that all I can hope for, and work for, is “good enough.”

I’ll also share openly that it’s during nights like tonight when I truly miss having a parenting partner. Single parenting is… well, like an entirely different, life-changing adventure.

We’re wired to do this dance together. It’s sometimes only our kiddos other parent who really gets the unique way that our kids push us to our edge, when all we need is that “I’m done” look to the other, and it’s as if we immediately have our stunt double to take over. In this solo dance… we look sideways for someone to step in and give a reprieve, and realize that when we feel we’re at our edge, our only hope is to stretch even further into the resource of who we are, to manage whatever has taken over the system. And it can feel virtually impossible at times.

Now I’ll be honest, I think my kids are perfect! Perfectly imperfect—exactly how they were created. I believe that their natures are kind and good, and that they are beautiful, wonderful, and innately brilliant in their unique ways.  And I think that they get off track sometimes, and as their Mom, it’s my job to help them get back on—sometimes simply to hang out with them where they are and trust the bigger love that is holding them, to get them back on.

Sometimes when I see my kids have wandered off too far, I think, “yep, that’s normal kid stuff. It’s going to happen,” and I can calmly reflect what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling, and that’s all that’s needed. They feel held and loved regardless, they are okay being “seen,” and are able to recognize what needs to change, and all is good.

Other times, like today, I calmly reflect, and I hear defensiveness and blame and excuses and dishonesty, all sorts of things that trigger this grinding in my heart, and I’m guessing they sense that. And my brain gets a little caught, and I’m not the mindful, centered Mama, but a triggered, fearful woman who’s quickly losing her skills, and searching for a rope to grab ahold of, and flailing.

And tonight… after flailing, I sat at my dinner table alone, looking down at a lovely dinner, while both my children were in their bedrooms crying.  And I had a little “whoa is me” moment, while the old adage, Mothering—the most thankless job, came into my head, and I thought, “No—there’s a deeper Gratitude in the world for Moms, and Dads—parents who are pushing past the edges of who they’ve known themselves to be because they love their kids to the ends of the earth.

Life asks us to stretch into more capable, more tolerant, more vulnerable versions of ourselves when we step into parenting. And if we can do that, Life will thank us. I fully trust that.  And wow, sometimes that’s just about the most difficult task there is.

Ultimately, my kids joined me for dinner and, later, after a quiet, somewhat tense evening, we talked, and cried a little, and watched Brené Brown’s TedTalk on Vulnerability. Honestly, it’s all I had left, and I felt like she’d share it better than I would.   And while some of it was probably over my seven-year-olds head, my son got it—and it was exactly what they needed to hear. They needed to hear—maybe from someone other than me—that it’s their willingness to share all of themselves, and to be seen, even when they mess up, to be compassionate—first and foremost toward themselves—and to believe they are worthy of immense love, that will allow them to actually feel love deeply.

Something began to heal what had been a really painful experience between us tonight. Shared understanding maybe. Willingness to allow ourselves to be imperfect and still worthy of love—for my kids to get that they can’t “earn” my love—nor can they un-earn it. It’s as present as the sun and has nothing to do with how they act or behave, or what they accomplish, or how often life gets messy between us. It just is.

So I’m doing it—this parenting thing, I’d say about good enough…

And tonight, I’m wiped!

Nate-cherish

For the Love of Your Life!

 

 

For the Love of Lust: Part Two

(If you missed part one of For the Love of Lust, Click Here)  

We are built for bonding.  There is no doubt.  Whether we ever satisfy our relationship1innate need for deep connection is dependent on countless factors, but suffice it to say, creating meaning through our relationships is a prime motivator for much of what we do in life.

Could it be possible, however, that our desire for intimacy has a shadow to it?  Maybe that the moral laws that govern our fidelity do not coalesce with passion?  Could it also be that through our efforts to increase togetherness in our relationships, we simultaneously create an emotional barrier to eroticism?

Many partners will admit to waning desire that can become a burden to relationships, coming alive only in response to others or conversely deadening one’s spirit of Lust altogether, after significant time has past.  Most will simply describe this process as fact, as natural.  And while sex and eroticism can take dramatic turns over the course of time, to submit to these socialized beliefs can actually cause harm to these unions we’ve worked so diligently to forge.

In Part One of this article, we spoke to the evolutionary advantages of Lust.  We spoke to the health and necessity; to the brain circuitry specifically designed to support it’s expression.  We also acknowledged the complexity of attaining a harmonious balance between Lust and Love.  (Again, if you missed that, click here).

Becoming Friends with Lust—Ours and Our Partners

Esther Perel, PhD, author of Mating In Captivity notes that lust doesn’t always play by the rules of good morals.  In fact, sometimes those rules are actually antithetical to the cultivation of lust and eroticism because, for that circuitry to be activated, humans tend to require a little bit of risk—something that our intimate bonds have a propensity to constrain.

When we consider the closeness that intimacy allows, the stripping away of lifelong emotional layers that lends to the foundation of relational love—the transparency that fosters safety—we have to wonder as to the other side of the coin.  When we have become so open, so able to yield into the transparent dance of togetherness, we leave nothing for our partners to seek out in us.  And our practice of seeking is related to another region of evolved brain circuitry that is necessary for us to thrive as humans.  Seeking feels good to our brains–it provides a sense of purpose and pleasure and forward motion.  When there is nothing left to seek out in our partners, the pleasure that comes from seeking must find another outlet for expression.

To destabilize our intimate bonds with behavior that many see as riskyfor example, to rekindle eroticismcan feel as if it opposes the exact behavior that is nourishing our relationship.  So often, our “lust needs” take a back seat to the cultivation of care and closeness

lust5And yet… as is clearly stated in Part One, we are hardwired for lust as well.  So while lust can quiet itself for a time, that particular brain circuitry needs expression and ideally that expression would be practiced in a way that supports our vision for an integral relationship.

Lust, for most people, tends to require a certain amount of risk—these two emotional constructs act very similar in the brain, in fact.  The question in the development of lust in an intimate relationship subsequently becomes, how do we RISK without risking too much?

Neurochemicals of Risk

The nature of risk is related to the emotion excitement, which is essentially a combination of hope and fear.  Excitement, on a physiological level, provokes a state of hyperarousal, where thoughts and body states are pushed to stretch beyond homeostasis—our natural state of equilibrium—to a palpable emotional experience that, while stressful, is also related to positivity.  You see, when we push ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zone, and we experience some resulting pleasure, the reward center in our brains lights up like the 4th of July!

Exciting experiences activate dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s rewardDopamine1 system that helps us experience pleasure.  The pleasure and reward center is housed primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, and provides a “reward value” for experience.

For risk to be related to reward, our brains need healthy doses of dopamine and adrenaline, along with their available receptors.  And the culmination of reciprocated lust ignites serotonin as well—which is related to feelings of happiness and mood regulation.  Top that off with healthy doses of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids and this neurochemical cocktail—if given to a skilled mixologistis deserving of a worthy name!  No wonder our drive to acquire, and experience, the rewards of lust are so powerful.

The fact is, even a one-night-stand can stir these potent neurochemicals into existence, which is why we can experience incredible closeness—the feeling of, anyway—after even a brief sexual encounter.  And yet, one-night-stands do little for the other driver of our relational circuitry—those connected to Care, Bonding, and Love. 

Cultivating the Sweet Spot

Our brains and bodies have evolved to the point of reaping significant benefits of both intimacy and lust—just rarely collaboratively.  The relationship between the two is complex and clearly non-linear, as we may have previously assumed.  Science has demonstrated that both are necessary to our collective evolution.  And if we are to thrive, individually and collectively, we need to stretch into new possibilities for these constructs not only to co-exist, but also, to inform and enhance one another.

The current marital trends are far from indicating a culture of happy unions.  With over 50% divorce rate (60+% in second marriages) it’s time we take a look at the deeper implications of a society that is known to deny the health of lust.  More importantly, we need to cultivate a more united vision of intimacy and lust working, and playing, side by side.

Practices

There are many practices that have been designed to deepen our awareness and experience of intimacy and sexuality.  I’ll focus on three that I believe, and that are grounded in science, as central to supporting a healthy transition into developing lust within an intimate partnership—whether you’re in one or not.

These practices are for individuals, maybe those who are deeply connected to a partner and looking to enliven a relationship; and also for those who are seeking to explore a new relationship, where lust is alive from the beginning, and remains a central theme in the developing journey of Love.   These practices are simply “some” ways to help reconcile our need for security and adventure, closeness and separateness, stability and risk, predictability and novelty.

1)    Honor Autonomy

autonomy1In our desire for connection, we can often forget that we are primarily individuals seeking togetherness.  We can become essentially “fused”—not knowing where we end and our partners begin.  This feeling can be incredibly soothing and seductive initially, as we can imagine we’ve found our intimate home and that, finally, we are met, deeply recognized, loved unconditionally.  However, becoming over-connected can, in reality, become a hindrance to eroticism.

For deep connection to be possible, separateness is vital.  While this may seem contradictory, the ability to step away from our partners as separate entities, the ability to self-regulate and practice autonomy, are necessary qualities for one to be able to move toward the other.  As Esther Perel states, “When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen.  There is no one to connect with.  Thus separateness is a precondition for connection:  This is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”

Find ways to establish—or reestablish—independence, autonomy, and separateness.  Nurture activities and personal interests as a means for strengthening not only your attractiveness and desire-ability to your mate, but your own internalized “attraction to self.”

Also, encourage your partner—or future partners—to do the same.  Honor his or her need, whether stated or not, for separate interests and activities.  When developing closeness, look to the future vision that you would like to create—where there are worlds yet unexplored within the context of your partner’s autonomy.

2)    Cultivate Mystery

It can be difficult to be lustful for someone about whom we know everything. synapse1
If nothing is left to the imagination, our minds become uninterested, lacking the tension necessary for desire to flourish.  And as science of the mind is fairly certain, our sexuality is more related to the space between our ears than the space between our legs!

Nourishing the mystery in our intimate unions can feel somewhat counterintuitive since some of the elements of lust don’t necessarily support the development of a harmonious, transparent relationship.  Clearly, lust and intimacy are on very different trajectories, and when they yearn to coincide, fears of the unknown can destabilize our inner worlds as well as our intimate journeys.

One place where we can always escape the confines of fusion is into our own minds—where imagination can take us anywhere, to anyone.  And when we honor the beauty of our minds, simultaneously soothing the innate fears that may arise, we are cultivating our unique mental wanderings that may inform us of what naturally excites us.

The question becomes, can we tolerate the anxiety provoked by our partner’s developing autonomy—by his or her intrinsic capacity to always escape into the sanctuary of the mind, to where we are quite possibly NOT the center of their attending neural processes?  When we can stand firm in our own sense of self, within the vulnerable “unknowns” of our partner’s inner mental territory, we give space to his or her unique exploration of self, grounded in the safety of an intimate home.

An important distinction to consider with this level of the erotic dance is whether or not we are utilizing our fantasies as fuel for our intimate partnerships, or whether we are escaping into the erotic, only to return to safety and stability with our partners, and leave the fantasy separate.  Part of how fantasy can serve to edify our relationships is to acknowledge and share at least part of what is occurring in that solitary space.  Risk bringing the erotic design of your own mental forays into sexual play with your partner—and be open for him or her to do the same.

Conversely, when our own imagination confronts what we assume about ourselves—the principles and experiences within our comfort and moral code—with new stimuli that forces us to question our truest desires, our integrity, and our natural wiring for lust, we have an opportunity to strengthen our sense of self and to share something new and different with our intimate partner.

Through imagination, we maintain a sense of freedom and personal wonder

that can bring new life to our relationships.  

It can feel intimidating to allow our imagination to wander and wonder, to consider what or who, besides our current partner and situation might naturally entice or excite us.  Through our development of safety and closeness, we’ve forgotten that our erotic mind needs to flourish as well.  So allow yourself to re-attune to your innate lustful longings, and then allow them to come alive with your intimate partner.

3)    Practice Mindfulness

a.    In perception

Practice increasing your tolerance to the exploration of space between meditation1you and your lover.  When your partner feels distant, or when you are proactively choosing to strengthen your own autonomy, allow the emotions and the sensations that activate your nervous system to arise.  Welcome them, sit with them, yield into the discomfort of “stretching” your perception and tolerance.  Allow them to inform you of the long-standing patterns of anxiety and fear that tend to surface and cause discord.  Welcome that knowledge like a long-lost friend, here to help you increase both your ability to push the edges of your comfort as well as to strengthen your ability to track your natural sensation that ultimately will lend to deep understanding.

b.    In thought

Practice unconditional acceptance and presence to all of your thoughts from the perspective of an observer.  Practice noticing the thought, and letting it go, over and over and over.   Don’t fall into spiraling thoughts that trigger fear.  Rather, notice the thought arise, and witness it being released with each breath. Notice any impulse to create a story with your thoughts, to give deeper meaning to fear or insecurity.

According to Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, in his article, “Rewiring Neural States in Couples Therapy:  Advances from affective neuroscience,” we can easily “blindly trust” a feeling or thought, because our brains are hardwired for self-protection.  We often automatically attach ourselves to an emotion—as if the emotion is real, and the idea that someone else caused it feels just as real.  In all actuality, the automatic processes of the brain do this naturally.  Our “protective mechanisms” are designed for hypervigilance, first and foremost.  So if we feel fear, for example, we will seek out a source—external to us—that we can attach to the cause, and from which we can then protect ourselves.  This dynamic, while serving us in regard to our survival, can be toxic to our relationships.

Instead, practice simply noticing the thought without attaching it to any external source.  Allow it to exist solely, without spiraling out of control.  Practice being present to all that arises in regard to mental information, just as it is, without trying to dismiss, avoid, or change anything that may ultimately serve to bring awareness.  Simply witness… and let go.

c.    In body

Pay attention, nonjudgmentally, to the subtle signals and sensations of your body.  Reject nothing.  Notice in detail the sensations that are present—especially any tightness or tension that arises or that draws your attention.  Notice any small, seemingly automatic movements that could be related to a deeper emotion.  Allow those sensations to simply “be” without attempting to dismiss them or push them away.  Allow your sensations space to exist, and time to guide you to your body’s internal wisdom.

Also, nurture physical practices that help you touch into your own internalyoga1 resources—your body, your strength, the wisdom that resides in each and every cell of your being, along with your ability to practice new skills.  Experience your body in moments of strength, in times of vulnerability, though practices that stretch and push you beyond what you know.  Our physical selves help to shape our psychological selves, so be present to the shape and flow of your life.

Research has demonstrated that those people who enjoy physical practices, such as strength training, dance, cycling, running, or yoga, experience more excitement in their lives.  And as we practice risk by exploring new physical practices, risk becomes an integral aspect of our natural drive for learning and pleasure.  So the very practice of getting physical opens your neural pathways to experiencing more excitement, more risk, and ultimately more lust.

Embody Your Intention

We have an opportunity, individually and collectively, to transcend the inhibitions and fears ignited by longstanding ideas of lust, as well as our attachment to any historical meaning or power we’ve given over to it.  Lust is a natural, potent, necessary quality of human beings.  Like all other qualities intrinsic to our evolving selves, this specific circuitry in our brains needs to be understood and allowed space to breathe—to find it’s way out of hardwired constraints—in a way that helps us to thrive rather than has us cycling in a spiral of fear.

It is time we transcend the fears that bind our relationships, and allow our bodies the chance to expand their language repertoire—to own and practice our original language and deepen our understanding of the subtext, the nuances, the dialects of our own—and our partners—primary tool of communication.  It is time we work toward becoming fluent in our unique erotic style, allowing ourselves to fully embody the dynamics of seduction, and then share that energy with those whom we love and trust.

Through following the practices of presence, mindfulness, autonomy and mystery, we can begin to lay claim to our birthright for experiencing both the intense nurturance and love of intimacy, along with the fiery and erotic dance of lust—together.

If you’d like more tips for enhancing your intimate partnership, check out my !0 Rules For Intimacy, a free download with lots of juicy and challenging tips for Relationship Transformation.  And keep coming back and joining in the dialogue here!

For the Love of Your Life…

Angie

Relationship Skills Training

When I was a personal trainer working with people striving toward their fitness goals, my initial focus with them was most often on form and function. Beyond those basics, I would help to motivate them to then practice their new skills daily or weekly, consistently bringing them back to the subtle messages from their bodies and minds—those things that would further inform their practice. What I knew from my own training, experience with clients, and what the experts said, that’s what works!

I certainly had clients, at times, who were looking for a “quick fix,” Yet I don’t remember ever having clients that actually believed that simply gaining “awareness” of their form and function, without practice, would yield the same results—they knew they couldn’t just read a book, look at some pictures, and have it down or transform their bodies. And what they became aware of rather quickly, with instruction, was that to make an actual difference, they would need to be pushing their bodies through some pretty intense physical feelings—they would be strengthening not only their bodies but their ability to tolerate a variety of powerful sensations.

Relationship Training

It’s almost humorous, and tragic, how often I hear people books1
working toward relationship success who are seduced by the belief that relationship habits will alter through simple awareness—That by reading the right book or article, by having some enlightening conversations with a therapist or friend, their core style of relating to their partner will magically transform.

Now I will grant that awareness—the didactic part of our learning—is a necessary foundation for change. And yet there is so much more.

Our Relational Design

Our style of relating to intimate partners has been designed into our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems—having literally been “wired” into us—from as early as our very first neural “firings.” The automatic pathways that our brain mechanisms follow in response to all sorts of human interactions is something that is related to processes that occur, most often, without our conscious awareness. These processes are immediate, unconscious, and follow “well-groomed” paths within our neural networks like the ruts in an old dirt road—and each time we allow them to flow without attention, those ruts become deeper and deeper, and much more difficult to alter. There’s some benefit to these processes, of course, especially when they’re related to things like…. Oh, walking, for example—the billions of functions that our brains control each and every day that we couldn’t possibly be aware of constantly. When it comes to relationship dynamics, however, those automatic processes often don’t serve our higher desires for intimacy and relational health.

Our perception of truth and reality, likewise, is so often immediately NeuralImage1
categorized by our brains and relegated to “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., without our minds conscious engagement, that we have often decided something is just so, without considering the possibilities that would require a lot more work—and ultimately discomfort—for our brains. This is where Brain Training comes in.

Pragmatic/Experiential—it’s What Works

In terms of Relationship Training, we learn the “what” of skills through the pragmatic work, through reading and research and dialogue and psycho-education. Then with a trained observer who can provide reflection, support, encouragement, challenge, curiosity, and “coaching;” we can begin to learn the form and function in our bodies and minds—coming back to those subtle sensations, messages, triggers, and automatic responses, with more awareness and more ability to make different choices when it’s most important.

We can begin to feel into the internal shifts of observing our thoughts as we engage in new relational behaviors with a person practiced in the field of our learning. And as neurons begin to fire in distinctly new patterns—because that’s what’s happening when we practice new skills, connecting new behaviors to certain brain states—these pathways begin to carve new “grooves” into our neural networks. It’s like a workout for the brain! We are “wiring” new and healthier relationship habits into our neural networks. And yet, just as is true in the body, a single workout just makes us hurt—it doesn’t create lasting change!

Basic Neuroscience

Neuroplasticity is a popular buzzword right now—and a powerful one at that! The idea that the brain is moldable and changeable in response to behaviors and Mindful Attention–both in processes and shape–challenges the long-standing idea that the brain is physiologically static.  The direction that neuroscience has catapulted the realm of psychology has countered decades of the simple analytical, cognitive, and cognitive/behavioral work of our psychological heritage. It’s time that we—as practitioners of change—develop our emotional and relational fitness, strengthening neural pathways because we are choosing to develop not only awareness of our automatic responses, but to engage the most evolved parts of our brains. It’s time to build brain mass!

It’s exciting, really, that we have so much to say about how our internal worlds might respond to stimuli—those triggers that have previously caused us to feel powerless. And now we’re coming to grasp a power that, prior to the last decade or so, we’ve not fully understood. The idea that we can alter not only the functioning of our brains but the literal form—that’s just damned attractive in my world!

On this note, I want to share a recent experience based on these exact principles—I think it might be helpful for some people who are in the process of making the “implicit” “explicit”—bringing awareness into experiential practice and noticing the subtle shifts. This is the work of transformation.

The Language of Love

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre DameCurrently, I co-facilitate an adult relational skills group, called Developing the Language of Love, based on the scientifically sound approaches of Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. It’s work that literally gets my heart pumping and makes me want to shout from rooftops—we CAN develop the types of relationships that we’ve all dreamed of. Just as the fact that we CAN create fit, healthy bodies if we have the right tools. And this… this is one of the right tools!

This is an eight-week group, and we are more than halfway through the first round. Already, the results are evident to all of the participants and powerfully affirm our work as therapists and educators.

Two weeks ago my co-facilitator, Robin, and I modeled a “healthy dialogue” sharing some tools for approaching conflict with some well-grounded principles for getting our partners to treat us well. We demonstrated a conversation where both partners were tapping into skill. The modeling was well-received in the group and, also, a request was made that we share what a similar dialogue might look like if one partner is practicing “skill” and the other partner continues to dismiss, criticize, or respond negatively.

Of course! …thought Robin and I. Because most often isn’t that the exact way things play out? Quite wisely, our group was begging the question, “But if I show up well, and my partner is still an ass, then what?”

The Relationship DancerelationshipDance1

This is a much more common occurrence within relational dynamics, right? Consider how often you have approached your partner with a need to either launch a complaint or discuss an emotional need and you plan to do so with skill—maybe you’ve even practiced prior to the dialogue—and the response you get seems very unskilled—in fact, you might even feel mistreated and dismissed or, worse yet, your partner justifies their behavior or belief and actually purports that whatever issue you’re discussing is your fault!

Aggravating, isn’t it? We can walk away from such interactions feeling as if, “I did it right! My partner, like usual, is the one who just blew it!”

We leave these conversations, often very resentful of our partner, feeling that he or she simply doesn’t get it—they just don’t have the skill that matches our own.

And guess what? This very reaction, no matter how “true” it feels, is a breeding ground for contempt.

…But Back to the Story

Robin and I took our group’s request to heart, loosely designing a scenario where one of us (me) had developed some skill to get my partner to treat me well, even when my partner (Robin, in this instance) continued to criticize, dismiss, and blame me. And you know what? It worked! Even via role-play, it became apparent to everyone there that, had this been a real life interaction, with the skills I was demonstrating, it would be incredibly difficult for Robin, or anyone, to continue to act in the way he was consciously TRYING to act—badly!

Then the bigger questions came: Did I feel the automatic responses in my body that might have made me want to react negatively, and what did I do with those? What were my internal thoughts about Robin’s behavior? How was I able to “calm my nervous system” consistently, while Robin was saying some pretty harsh things?

Real Life Happens

Now, let’s get clear on something—Just like most people I, too, have difficulty in this area of my personal life. I continue to cultivate the skills to stay present and I do my best to practice new habits but, WOW! …Let’s just say, I thought creating a fit body was difficult! Nothing compares to the exhaustive work of developing sound relationship skills. So I’ll just say, this is, of course, much easier within a role-play! And, the story continues…

After our group, I continued on with my night and as synchronicity would have it, had an opportunity to practice these exact skills FOR REAL.

Now, maybe because it was so fresh in my brain and body, maybe because I’ve been immersing myself in developing these skills, I was able to consistently bring my focus back to the more advanced part of my brain—my prefrontal cortex, which resides at the forefront of the brain and is implicated in social and emotional regulation.

Essentially, my mind was able to tolerate a bit more intensity because I’d been “training” the exact function I needed just hours before. –Let’s consider the body once again: When I’ve been training a specific muscle, that muscle learns to tolerate more weight, more intensity, right? The same is true for structures in the brain.

I became involved in a dialogue that required some regulation of emotion, some acknowledgments of deep, somewhat painful feelings between two people, and a solid balance of validating my own truth while also acknowledging a legitimately different perspective of someone else—without making the other person “wrong.”

The dialogue that ensued is one I literally know “by heart,” and while the distinctive movements may look different from the outside, the dance is well rehearsed. The “dance” being the pattern of activation—mirror neurons from one person to the other engaging in a willful and well-choreographed tragedy that repeats itself over and over. For many, including myself, this is often the seductive dance of relationship.

Rewiring

Somehow, this night, I was able to feel my feet on the dance floor, feel my pelvis, my belly, my chest, all responding to conscious breathing and mindful presence. So when I approached the dialogue with skill, and then received what felt like a defensive, critical response, something happened. And this is the piece I want to dissect a bit.

Automatic, Subtle Responses that WRECK our Relationships

Most of us have had moments when we’ve approached a difficult dialogue with some skill, right? We’ve maybe done some work around “personal development” and feel better equipped to handle relationship distress. And it’s a boost to the ego when we feel as if we’ve done ourselves well and acted with integrity. And often, we just don’t get what we want in return. Sound familiar?

Then What?

Here is a very common response—we have some internal dialogue going on, which sounds something like this: “I’m doing my best here to stay present and he/she just can’t do it. Why do I always have to be the more mature/more skilled/more evolved person? He/she can never understand what I’m talking about.” Any of that resonate? Something with that general flavor ever cross your mental palate during an intense dialogue with a partner?

I know I’ve had those moments—many of them! And I usually leave those arguments not only frustrated but resentful. I further justify that the whole situation is “mostly” his fault. I mean really, do you want to know what he said??

(Familiar scenario?)

And then not only is the interaction finding it’s way into well-grooved neural pathways, we actually strengthen these habitual responses each time we mentally replay the interactions in our heads with a similar mental content or share the story with friends—that our partners are the ones to blame.

If you allow yourself to play this scenario out, I have a sense most of you know exactly where it leads, and it’s just no good. Sure, we can get a little release from bitching to friends and family about how inept our partners are and about our powerlessness to create actual change. And then we come back home and start the same scene tomorrow—it’s a little like “relationship groundhog day.”

The Brain Workout

So the shift for me came in that exact moment when I did notice something in my desire to “fight back”—to engage with the same energy I felt I was experiencing from my partner which, by the way, is referred to as negative affect reciprocity—the tendency to respond to one’s partners’ expression of negative affect with one’s own negative affect.

And here’s a little tidbit here, which many of you will grasp. I was feeling mistreated. Whether I was being mistreated or not isn’t really important! What’s important is HOW I RESPOND. That, in and of itself, is the determining factor of my personal ability to ultimately create and maintain a healthy relationship. The problem is that we most often get caught in justifying our response due to our partner’s perceived misbehavior. And ultimately, that does little for us, or our partner’s ability to respond more positively. (More on that later.)

Right now, some of you may be thinking, “But it is important whether or not our partners are mistreating us! We can’t just let them off the hook!” And what I’m saying does not negate the importance of that—I promise. Right now, however, let’s focus on our own ability to strengthen our relationship skills.

So I noticed something beginning to shift in me and further tuned in to my internal state—a process known as interoception—“checking in,” essentially. And thankfully, in that moment I realized that THAT—what I was noticing—was the somatic response that I generally have when I get activated! Here was the answer to my group’s question.

Automatic Somatic Response

The moment I felt I was “doing relationship” just a little bit better than my partner, here’s what happened: My breathing became shallow, my chest kind of “froze,” my shoulders collapsed just a little, but in a somewhat defensive, protective stance, and I felt a lot of energy right in the back of my throat, as if I could raise my voice or rapidly justify my perspective.

And I realized in about a nanosecond that I had an opportunity to re-pattern some neural networks that have known a solid and singular path for years.

One thing to note: It is in the moments when we most need to access more advanced parts of the brain—when we most need to use new skills, that they are the least accessible to us. We need them when our brains are so triggered, we’d rather throw all our damn skills out the window because we feel so hurt or angry. And those are the EXACT moments when we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we can do it differently. This is similar to the moment when training a particular muscle pushes us to a physiological “edge”—and we have the experience of every ounce of our being believing we can push no further. Then something shifts and we somehow push through and far beyond our perceived limitations. This is when the body begins to KNOW how to transform.

The most important time for us to practice new relational skills is when they are LEAST accessible to us–when they are the most difficult to access!  We can all feel pretty “skilled” when we feel we’re being treated well, right?  It’s when we feel we’re NOT being treated well–this is the moment of truth!  These are the exact moments–opportunities really–that will set us apart from those who continue to set themselves up for failure.  Just as in training our bodies, it does little good for us to train with weights that don’t push us to our “edge.”  We have to train our bodies when we feel we are exercising not only our muscles but our focus, attention, and will.  

So… it was one of those moments. And here’s the kicker—I noticed the automatic thought patterns as well. I heard the little voice in my head wanting to believe that my “dance partner” clearly wasn’t following my oh-so-skillful lead. I felt myself wanting to make him wrong, and ultimately “less skilled” than I was.

And then the jolt. Ahhh….. there it is—the wiring that I have for contempt. And damn, is it a well-grooved path in my neural networks!

In that single moment of awareness, something so subtle shifted internally. It was like the moment where, during a workout, “pain” transforms into “sensation” and we realize we have believed a limitation that doesn’t really exist. “Ohhh…..” I thought. “This is where I normally get off track. And I can make a different choice—and it’s difficult.”

The Reason it’s Called “Practice”

NeuralImage2The work in these moments is so incredibly subtle, so consistent. We need to keep bringing our attention, our focus, back to the present moment; noticing what wants to “steal” our attention and bringing it back to the part of our brain that can make a different choice—the pre-frontal cortex. And some might think this is just far too difficult and maybe even silly to focus so much on these subtle sensations. And again, just as in a physical workout, sometimes that subtle shift in “form” is the difference between strengthening and injuring.

This interaction—and what I was attempting to do—took a while, it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was different. Most importantly, the instant I brought attention to my internal dialogue, there was a shift, not only inside of me, but within the system of interaction.

Similar to the role-play interaction with Robin, above, my partner simply wasn’t able to mistreat, or even seem like he was mistreating me. You see, when we believe our partners are more to blame, we make it just about impossible for them to change. In fact, our belief that they are more at fault than we are is like the kiss of death to our relationships! And so when I, or you, can release the attachment to the belief that we’ve held so tightly, it’s like giving breath to our partner’s unique experience of interaction with us—because sometimes, that’s no joy ride either, right?

Learning to cultivate responsiveness in our partner, when we have long standing patterns of blaming them, is the one path out of relational dysfunction. Most often, even the discovery of this path requires a certain receptivity in us, to stretch our perceptions of reality—of our partners reality, as well as our own—to go beyond the paradigm of truth that we know, and develop a new way of seeing.

If you have questions or reservations about what I’ve shared here… if it’s not sitting right with you, or if it is, I’d love to hear from you!

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie