I was recently talking with a friend. She spoke to the importance of cultivating a loving relationship with yourself before you can enter into a meaningful relationship with another. In other words, your primary relationship is with you. In order for the connection to be healthy and functional, you need to cultivate and nurture this friendship as you would any other: putting time and energy into the relationship each and every day.
Although this is a simple concept, it was a revelation for me. I have generally lived my life focused outwards. Helping others. Listening to others. Assisting others. I spend very little time checking in with me. This approach inevitably leads to burn out. I shift from being a high functioning performer to running on empty, without ever seeing it coming. This is a direct result of not listening to myself or acknowledging my own needs.
As a simple way to establish a connection, it was recommended that I start and end each day by checking in with myself: first thing in the morning and before I go to sleep at night. To place my hands on my heart and my belly and ask the questions, “How are you feeling? What do you need?” To listen and create space for the emotions and answers that come up: even the uncomfortable and difficult ones. To allow them just to be and try to meet them with kindness.
As the connection increases, you can start to take action on what you hear: “I need more rest”, “I need a hug”, “I am feeling lonely”, “I need to move my body more.” Taking action on these micro requests will eventually add up to a cumulative feeling of love and support: an understanding that someone always has your back.
It is easy to prioritize everyone and everything before yourself. What I am learning is that caring for yourself is essential to being able to love and care for others. The key is to make a regular practice of it and to commit to cultivating this relationship, as you would with any one else.
I have been reading a lot of non-fiction over the past year. I wrote an article on the blog a few months ago sharing financial resources that I enjoyed; and my most recent learning focus has been on relationships. As I explore the world of dating, I am particularly interested in expanding my knowledge of how to cultivate a strong and lasting connection; and I have been delving into all kinds of books that cover this vast topic.
Although I have already had a successful long-term relationship (21 years), it was not a healthy one towards the end. As I learn more from experts in the field, I can now identify many of the things that pulled us down, and I see an opportunity to do it better the next time around. A relationship is a living organism; it is something that requires daily care and tending, like a delicate plant. Love is not a destination. It is a way of being.
On that note, I have picked a few of my favourite books to share with you. They vary in topic and approach: from exploring early dating to maintaining an established relationship. They each offer a valuable perspective on the complex journey of being in relation with another human being. I can highly recommend them all.
Wired for Dating by Stan Tatkin
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern California, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In his book, Wired for Dating, Tatkin uses neuroscience and attachment theory to understand dating couples. He categorizes readers into one of three attachment types: islands, whose predominant approach is “I can do it myself”; waves, with a more psychologically dependent nature; and anchors, with a balanced, stable approach. He then counsels readers on how to identify and interact with each of these personality groups while exploring how childhood influences shape one’s psyche.
Tatkin provides practical tools for navigating the emotional landscape of early dating, so your choices are based on fact not fiction. These include: developing “sherlocking” skills so you can really get to know your partner; asking your friends and family to provide honest and regular feedback; and learning how to foster a securely functioning relationship.
Secrets of aPassionate Marriage by David Schnarch, PhD
Dr. David Snarch is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist. He directs the Marriage and Family Health Centre in Evergreen, Colorado. Secrets of a Passionate Marriage is structured around three main sections: the Basics; the Tools for Connection; and Observations on the Process.
This is not a “how-to” book on creating a passionate marriage. Rather, it is an insightful book which gives couples a guide to sexual fulfillment and intimacy via emotional maturation. The first section lays the groundwork for the book and acquaints the reader with an understanding of Schnarch’s theoretical model of sexual and emotional development. The second section, Tools for Connection, offers the reader specific examples of where and how to begin in making changes in your life and relationship. And in the final section, Observations on the Process, he reflects upon his own experiences as a clinical counselor and a married man.
Throughout the book, he provides thoughtful insights by:
Describing the process of differentiation in intimate relationships;
Discussing why emotional gridlock is a critical and necessary phase for a healthy relationship;
Recommending steps to achieving more passionate sex and a more intimate relationship;
Explaining how to “self-soothe” your anxieties and open to the full range of human eroticism;
Interpreting the psychology of sex.
The Mastery of Love by don Miguel Ruiz
don Miguel Ruiz is a renowned spiritual teacher and internationally bestselling author of the Toltec Wisdom Series, including The Four Agreements, The Mastery of Love, The Voice of Knowledge, The Four Agreements Companion Book, The Circle of Fire, and The Fifth Agreement. The Toltec Wisdom books have sold over 12 million copies, and have been published in 46 languages worldwide.
In The Mastery of Love, don Miguel Ruiz illuminates the fear-based beliefs and assumptions that undermine love and lead to suffering and drama in our relationships. Using insightful stories to bring his message to life, Ruiz shows us how to heal our emotional wounds, recover the freedom and joy that are our birthright, and restore the spirit of playfulness that is vital to loving relationships. The Mastery of Love includes information on:
• Why “domestication” and the “image of perfection” lead to self-rejection; • The war of control that slowly destroys most relationships; • Why we hunt for love in others, and how to capture the love inside us; • How to finally accept and forgive ourselves and others.
“Happiness can only come from inside of you and is the result of your love. When you are aware that no one else can make you happy, and that happiness is the result of your love, this becomes the greatest mastery of the Toltec: the Mastery of Love.” ~ don Miguel Ruiz
Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, PhD
World-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. His work on marriage and parenting has earned him numerous major awards. Dr. Gottman was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker. He is the author or co-author of over 200 published academic articles and more than 40 books.
The Seven Principles
Gottman’s principles are research-based. He and his colleagues have studied hundreds of couples (including newlyweds and long-term couples); interviewed couples and videotaped their interactions; even measured their stress levels by checking their heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function; and followed couples annually to see how their relationships have fared.
Enhance Your Love Maps: Gottman encourages couples to get to know each other well. Asking questions is a way to meaningfully learn about your partner and to stay connected as you grow and change.
Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration: Gottman contends that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship. By focusing on each other’s positive traits, you will build respect for one another, and it is easier to move past the more challenging aspects.
Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away: According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.” This principle teaches that little things add up. Couples that turn toward each other have more in their emotional bank account. This account distinguishes happy marriages from miserable ones. Happy couples have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts: so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushions them against conflict and stress.
Let Your Partner Influence You: Happy couples work as a team. They consider each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you is not about having one person hold the reins; it is about honouring and respecting each other’s role in the relationship.
Solve Your Solvable Problems: Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: easily resolved conflicts and perpetual, gridlocked issues. It is important for couples to determine which ones are which. Telling the difference can sometimes be tricky: “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational and there is no underlying, long-term issue.
Overcome Gridlock: While some conflict can be solved through simple adjustments, many disagreements are related more to more fundamental differences. Finding a way to respectfully work through these more complex and difficult issues is the key to a healthy marriage.
Create Shared Meaning: Building shared meaning together sustains the family culture; this is where traditions, rituals and rites of passage are found. There is a spiritual element underlying this principle; and it is the one that binds a family together.
Lately, I have been taking notice of a habit. As I walk down the street, I tend to look down at the sidewalk, rather than up at the world around me. I focus my gaze five to ten feet ahead, as I move towards my destination. My comfort zone is to keep my eyes lowered and my focus inward.
I recently decided to test out a small experiment. Rather than looking down, I have been intentionally looking up at every person that passes me. If it feels safe, I offer them a smile. This pushes the limits of my comfort, as it brings me into direct contact with strangers.
The vast majority of people do not meet my gaze. Some people look down or straight ahead into the distance. Some are busy talking with their friends. Others are intently focused on their cell phones.
Once and a while, however, I am successful. There is a simple but powerful moment of connection. Our eyes meet and I silently think to myself: “I see you. I acknowledge you. I honour you.” It often results in their face lighting up as we pass one another.
Although it is easy to dismiss the importance of small acts of kindness, you never know their true impact. That moment could offer a glimmer of hope to someone experiencing a difficult day, reminding them that they are not alone. It may inspire them to pass kindness onto the next person they encounter: generating a ripple effect of love. Whatever its impact, I am enjoying the practice of bringing myself into the moment, and taking the opportunity to connect with others along the way.