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Intimacy as Spiritual Practice

As Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement is upon us, we stop to take stock of our spiritual and interpersonal relationships. We acknowledge where we fell short of our ethical, emotional and relational ideals and standards, and we re-commit to strive to do better, to be our better self, to related more genuinely and more compassionately to others whose lives we touch. A Rabbi I listened to a couple of years ago pointed out that in Hebrew, the words for “close”, “relative” and “sacrifice” (Karov and Karban) have a shared linguistic root. It is often those closest to us who suffer from the reverberations of past wounds and hurts we suffered, or from the lack of appropriate modeling and guidance, and the deficits in the relational capacities for intimacy that these past experiences have left us with.

Relational capacities are not merely better “communication skills”, but a different way of looking at our self in relation to others. Developing higher order relational capacities requires a commitment to consciously cultivate a more mature and compassionate version of our self and a deeper sense of connection with the other. In this way, building our capacity for intimacy in a couple is spiritual practice.

Last Friday I had the pleasure to attend a day conference with Terry Real, one of the central figures in the field of “experiential therapies”, among which are the Imago Therapy by Harville and Helen Hendrix, Encounter Centered Couples Therapy by Hedy Schleifer, Emotional Focused Therapy by Sue Johnson and the Gottmans’ Method of Couple Therapy. These models share many similarities and are based on the premise that “the past is in every step we take”, but that as conscious adults, we can do better than be programed by our past. The potential greater freedom we can gain comes from establishing contact with the “inner child”, the woundedness or trauma that this child version of ourselves harbors, and by recognizing the adaptive strategies we have developed then to cope with pain and sorrow. These old patterns have become reflexive, automatic responses that we employ whenever the wounds we carry are ‘triggered’ by current interactions.

 However, each of us has also a “functional adult self”, a present-based, more rational, more nuanced, more flexible part which is capable of being aware of our current goals, such as wanting to be a better version of ourselves and a better partner to those we love.

So how do we strengthen the functional adult? What does the practice of working on intimacy consist of?

Here is a short version for a practical look at what we need to focus our effort on:

First, when feeling triggered, feel the wound that has been activated, notice the potential action you feel compelled to take… and don’t act on it. Instead, take a break, talk to your inner child, tell yourself, ‘right now I am feeling frightened, or hurt, so I need to take some distance to recompose’. Tell your inner child that you can do better for them today, that you can take care of them. If you would like a good image of this, watch “Rocketman”, the movie about Elton John’s life, and the internal dialogue that is externalized therein, using the cinematographic medium, between his inner child and the grown up man. Another beautiful example is the sculpture by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov featured at Burning Man in 2015, shown below, that shows the inner children of two arguing adults reaching out to each other in the hope of connecting, while the grown-ups are each in a shut-down defensive posture.)

Second, access your emotional resources, in reality or in imagination. Reach out to a trusted friend, go for a walk or a run, or just think of your most supportive relationships, feel them near you, imagine that supportive other right there by you. You can also think of times when you feel best about yourself, times when you were proud of yourself, places or activities where you feel most true to who you are. Imagine these as vividly as you can. Smell the sea breeze, see the loving gaze of that supportive other, hear yourselves laugh together, feel the sun on your skin. Memories can be a very real source of fortitude, as has been reported by people who have lived through the worst, like many of our Holocaust survivor parents.

Then remember, as an adult, everything that needs to be said to your partner can be truthfully said, if you take the time to down-regulate your anger, to acknowledge within yourself the nature of your woundedness, and if you make the effort to express the hurt in a manner that allows the other to actually hear your pain compassionately. Being vulnerable is harder than being angry or complaining. It takes courage to take a risk of not being responded to in the way we would hope. But someone needs to begin to act as a functional adult, perhaps even endure disappointment if the other doesn’t “show up”, but every such instance can lead the way towards a different interaction in the future.

Most importantly, remember when triggered, that the other is still the same person you love most of the time. Cultivate the self-discipline that will prevent you from “scorching the field” just because your inner child got activated. Your adult self is still in a loving relationship with this partner in front of you.

Finally, when you can take a step back from being activated, take the opportunity to learn about your old adaptive strategies, so you can decide consciously which you want to keep and which are no longer serving you well. Our adaptive strategies are often an amalgam of what we saw/experienced/learned as we were growing up, and sometimes they repeat exactly that which we suffered from in our childhood environments. Or they might be simply due to the lack of awareness of better relational alternatives. As Terry Real puts it: ask yourself, who did you see do this, who did this to you, or – who did you do it to, and nobody stopped you. This last piece is very important to notice, as some of us have developed bad relational habits not because we identified with bad behavior that was modeled to us, but because of a lack of sufficient parental guidance and supervision, and false empowerment through lack of appropriate boundary setting.

In summary, we can all learn new ways of being in relationships. We can learn to be more accountable for our behavior and for our impact on the other, we can learn to be more vulnerable rather than angry or withdrawn, and we can develop our ability to be more empathic to the experience of those we love.

May the New Jewish Year bring better relationality to us all, in our private lives and in the world around us.

                Irit Felsen

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