As we looked back on the last year, my husband said, “we have had an amazing year, despite all of the hard things that have happened.” I looked at him blankly and said “I heard you say that we have had an amazing year, despite the hard things. And I just can’t feel the amazing stuff right now.” He responded saying: “Sure. That makes sense.”
How we connect
When we use the skills we learned in therapy, we find ourselves connecting, hearing, understanding, and empathizing with each other. We both have years of 12-step recovery under our belts and know that we are our best, one day at a time. And every day is a new opportunity to be my best self, with me, with you, with the world. I get to start my day over at any moment. We feel connected when we communicate effectively, make space in our lives for the other person, share a vision for our future, do fun things with each other, and laugh together more.
Communicating effectively requires a crucial ingredient: curiosity. When I am curious about what you have to say, I listen for things that sound new, or things that I knew but I hear in a new way. I also listen for nice surprises and things that intrigue me. I listen for the things that you say that tug at my heartstrings. Curiosity is a sign that I am safe and grounded and available to engage with you. Without curiosity, I am defended and self-protected because you seem like a threat of some danger ahead.
Harville Hendrix, one of the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, often says “Talking is the most dangerous thing we do.” Seeing you as my partner, not as my adversary is the first step. If I look for what is right and possible with you, I am more likely to see it and thus experience you as open, willing, and safe enough for me to be open and will back.
By making space, I mean, being a welcoming harbor; making time spent together a priority; setting an intention for myself to act in this way. When both of us take personal responsibility for the time we spend together, we can make space from our abundance and not our scarcity. If I feel generous towards you, I become a welcoming host for our time together. When I keep score, on who did what and when I become transactional in my interactions with you. The gift I give to our relationship is to carry my own values and action around making space for us to be together. Sometimes this means that I do something with you because it will give you joy. And sometimes that means you go to see a Broadway musical that I have loved for forty years because you know how much I want to share it with You.
Sharing a Vision of Us
When we craft a concrete shared vision of us, we put a mark out in front of us that gives us direction. We try to be SMART* about our visions. We draft a vision for the immediate as well as for the long term. We revisit it and check to see how we are doing with our vision. We may also do this for a vacation or holiday so that we are clear about our expectations and able to make our vision our reality. Years ago, we put “we take a vacation each year with just the two of us.” We have five kids and lots of family, so it can be challenging to make time off for just us. And then one day we found ourselves reviewing our vision and realized we had gone seven years without making time for this vision. Needless to say, we booked a trip that day!
We look for ways to have fun together. From the smallest, delightful moment to the planful, anticipated adventure, we start from an assumption that it does not matter what we do but how we do it. The fact that we get to do it together, to experience reflected joy, to revel in being us while doing whatever is a gift. It is a conscious decision to say that driving 20 hours to Florida can be an adventure, not an onus. It will likely include traffic jams, bad weather, and unexpected oops. And if we willingly look for the humor, the delight, and the fact that at least we are in this together, we have a better chance of making it through whatever life throws us.
The pandemic has been an incredible crucible for us to practice this. I am an introvert, and my sweetie is an extrovert. I welcomed months of not having to decide whether we go out and do something, while sweetie was excited to get back to life as normal. And so, we began to explore how to get our needs met by turning towards each other when we felt distressed. We borrow from the other the strength that each of us brings into our relationship. I offer endless ways to be entertained and feel productive in a limited space, to nest and nurture. You are the calming and reasonable voice that encourages us out of our cozy shell. Our differences are our greatest strength.
Laughter is truly the best medicine. When we laugh, we produce endorphins and serotonin which then begins to course through our bloodstream to give us a feeling of well-being and engagement. This small foothold is an indication that we have a path to emotional regulation and connection to each other, ourselves, and the world around us. When we have that feeling, we act as if we are safe and engaging. In acting this way, we come to believe that all is well or at the very least good enough for now. Laughing together creates a bond that serves us when outside things or our inner critic become active and potentially triggering.
Becoming a New Us
There are many ways to learn new behaviors. Mostly, practice is the path to progress. We are the sum of the things we practice. These are the very things that we get better at doing. This is true of the things we want to get better at, as well as the things we feel less good about. The more I avoid exercising, the more I rationalize my behavior. I have gotten very good at explaining to myself why not to exercise. The more I look for things to appreciate in you the more I see things that I cherish and adore. Learning new behaviors requires consistency and muscle memory. Accountability can be helpful. Getting outside support may be a good path for you.
- Find a therapist who can support you in self-reflection.
- Attend a relationship workshop, such as Getting the Love You Want
- Join a practice group to build skills and understanding around grounding and centering.
- Develop a mindful way of being in the world.
- Move your body more.
Whatever you do, remember: How you do it is more important than what you do. When I mumble I love you to you while looking at my phone, I do not mean it any less than when I stop and look you in the eyes and say I love you. But it sure feels different for me and for you. As we step into this New Year, how would you like to be a new you so that you can be a new us? Cheers!
Hayley Hoffman, LCP, is a Certified Imago Therapist, a Getting the Love You Want and Keeping the Love You Find workshop presenter, and a Polyvagal Informed practitioner.
Upcoming events and services at the Imago Center of Washington DC
- Polyvagal Practice (Group Starts Jan 28)
- Getting the Love You want (on Zoom) Feb 19/20 and 26/27.
- Keeping the Love You Find (on Zoom) Feb 18-20
- Getting the Love You Want (in-person, Metro DC) Mar 18-20
- Exploring Sexuality for Teens (Group starts in January)
- Exploring Sexuality for Twenty Somethings (Group starts in Jan)
*SMART Goal Making
- S: specific; anyone seeing you do it would know what you are doing
- M: measurable; you know whether or not you successfully did it
- A: attainable; what you state can actually be done
- R: relevant; the goal relates directly to the vision
- T: time bound; for a designated period of time we do this