When Kevin, 42, and Melissa, 43, attended their first counseling session, they spoke about the lack of connection between them. Sitting on opposite ends of the sofa, they avoided eye contact and seemed hesitant to share their perspective.
Kevin put it like this, “Melissa and I have been married ten years and we still have not decided if we are going to have kids because we’re more like roommates than lovers or romantic partners. Part of the problem is that we’ve both been in toxic relationships so we have trust issues. We rarely spend time talking about what interests us and our conversations are superficial.”
In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, Gillian Florence Sanger breaks down the often tough topic of increasing intimacy in a relationship. Many of us struggle with establishing and fostering intimacy, and the root causes are frequently difficult to asses. Whether the barriers to true connection with one’s partner are internal or exist in the dynamic between a couple, Sanger deconstructs the building blocks of trust that leads to intimacy.
Her analysis opens with an astute, reliable observation, as she writes “to be intimate with someone is to allow ourselves to be seen and to see openly in return. At the heart of human relational desires, you long to be seen as the complex and authentic beings that you are. Yet, despite longing for intimacy, not everyone knows how to go about achieving it.”
Sanger notes that romantic relationships in and of themselves offer certain pre-conditions for intimacy that don’t exist in platonic relationships, writing that “when you are in a romantic partnership built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust, you have the necessary foundation to open up in deeper ways. This is what intimacy is about. It is a practice of peeling away external layers of who you are to get to the heart of what you think, feel, and experience.” But intimacy is not possible without mindfulness and a willingness to be open to self-reflection and putting in the work to build lasting connections, whether they be spiritual, sexual or emotional.
Understanding mindfulness as a key component of intimacy first requires that partners share a common definition — what Sanger describes as “the practice of paying open, non-judgmental attention to your experience.” Indeed, mindfulness “enables you to offer your partner increased presence, patience, compassion, and acceptance.” And while mindfulness is critical to intimacy, it’s comforting for couples to absorb Sanger’s take on the practice as a simple awareness of your assumptions and typical reactions to your partner, as well as a the ability to “listen with open, curious heart.”
Sanger goes on to suggest several exercises aimed at supporting mindfulness, and ultimately at building intimacy. First, is the practice of “intentional sharing.” While we often talk to our partners multiple times throughout the day, intentional sharing is a more active approach to engaging. The practice is as simple as it is rewarding — just carve out the time to mindfully listen and share with your partner, finding a comfortable space in which to speak in turn, truly tuning into the thoughts and concerns of your partners. As Sanger says, “the intention is not to fix or to problem solve. It is simply to let your partner know that you are fully open to learning about their experience.”
Next, Sanger unpacks the practice of “Love-kindness meditation,” which is designed to “enhance your capacity for compassion” by “draw[ing] to mind the following people one at a time: yourself, someone you love, an acquaintance, someone you have difficulties with, and the collective at large.” Simply applying focus to your thoughts process, you can silently repeat affirmations as a way to center yourself around each of the people who occupy your meditative thoughts.
Sanger offers additional meditation practices as well, all of which are intended to build a connection with one’s self and one’s partner. In the end, this kind of mindfulness and non-judgmental attention are key ingredients in a relationship that breaks down the walls standing in the way of intimacy and build bonds that can sustain a romantic partnerships for years.
For couples like Melissa and Kevin, it’s important to make intentional time daily to have a ritual of connection when they try to have a stress-reducing conversation. This can be over a cup of coffee in the morning or a meal in the evening. Some couples like to have a walking conversation to exercise while talking. In addition, I recommend that couples have a date night once a month to talk about finances and planning for the future. With these routines in place, Melissa and Kevin, are beginning to feel more connected and they’re building intimacy.
I would love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments at movingpastdivorce.com. To find out more about my research, order my book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy Long-Lasting Relationship.
My book “The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around” was published by Sounds True in the February of 2020.