SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
Stability and peace fuel the healthiest and happiest midlife relationships -- and support our taste for adventure
By Ken Page
Many of us have wasted years in relationships whose hallmarks were conflict and drama. In our early years, when youthful ignorance and emotional baggage are still with us, we often feed off the excitement of drama and, not knowing any better, allow it to take the place of authentic connection.
As we get older, however, melodrama becomes increasingly less acceptable, and compatibility and kindness begin to look more and more desirable.
But this doesn’t mean the end of adventure. We can have and enjoy the deep thrills of romantic love and the comfort of stability at the same time. Recent research has shown that emotional safety is actually the jumping-off point for love that’s as heady as it is healing. It’s only in an even-keep relationship that we can risk the vulnerability that deep intimacy requires. Few of us, however, are taught how to link passion and peace in our relationships, or how to cultivate the thrill of a brimming yet quiet heart.
As a therapist who has worked with couples for more than three decades, I have learned a lot about finding this state and achieving that balance. In this article, I will share two powerful yet simple techniques for deepening safety and diving into new zones of intimacy. You can do them alone, but I strongly encourage you to practice with your partner or, if you prefer, a close friend or family member.
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Bringing Back the Passion)
Emotional Safety Is the Bedrock of Adventurous Intimacy
"People who feel more attached aren’t just happier," says Craig Malkin, a professor of psychology at Harvard University School of Medicine, "they are more likely to seek such thrills as rock-climbing and parachute-jumping and to throw themselves into new situations and challenges, like meeting strangers and traveling overseas.”
Why? “Their sense of adventure may stem from a lust for life that security itself imparts,” Malkin says. Citing new studies on this subject, he says: “People who imagined a safe relationship felt more energy than those who didn’t. Perhaps the biggest turn-on in life is knowing someone’s always in your corner.”
The following two exercises can deepen the sense of security in your relationship. The first is a kind of meditation, but you don’t need any special talent or prior experience to make it work. Do it quickly, do it imperfectly — but just do it. It should take only two minutes, so don’t wait for an hour of dedicated quiet time. You can even do it while waiting in a doctor’s office or when you’re on a bus or train. (Be aware, though, that you may feel very moved by this small but powerful process, so you might want to save it for a more private moment.)
Feeling the Gifts and Wounds of Your Loved One
Sit quietly in a place where you won’t be interrupted and think of your loved one. Picture his or her face and body. Remember how your partner’s face looks when he or she is gazing at you with love. Call up a quality that you appreciate about this person and a time you felt it particularly strongly. Allow yourself to lightly enjoy this, to be touched by your loved one’s nature. Ascribe some words to this characteristic.
Now reflect on how this gift has wounded him or her. How has he or she been hurt, disappointed or taken advantage of because of this attribute? Let yourself ache a little for your loved one and feel compassion. Stay with this for a moment. Feel all the emotions ... well up. Let them ripple inside you.
If you’re doing this exercise with a partner, share your experiences with each other when you’ve both completed it.
(MORE: 8 Reasons Why Sex Is Better After 50)
In our culture, reliance upon our partners has gotten a bad rap. The very word needy is synonymous with weakness and/or unattractiveness. Our generation is attempting to make itself antiseptic of dependency. There are countless articles and books that teach us how to get over dependence, but very few that show us how to honor our feelings of intense reliance upon our loved ones.
Our desires for love and validation don’t evaporate just because we find them unsightly. When need is shamed, it becomes that least desirable condition: neediness. More specifically, it degrades into two unhealthy byproducts: a defensive lack of warmth in our demeanor and, when it can’t be suppressed any longer, a messy mix of insecurity and anger.
Ultimately, we simply can’t extinguish our longing for connection with others. And that's a good thing. Our longing has roots in our most primal self. It is precious, it is essential and when it’s expressed without demand or judgment, it can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
Letting our partner know how much he or she means to us can be hard. And it’s even more difficult to be honest about how much he or she may have hurt us. Expressing our dependency may be the most challenging task of all. A healthy relationship should permit both partners to venture out of their comfort zones and test their trust by being emotionally honest and making themselves vulnerable. When each is confident that he or she is honored and accepted by the other, the result is a “home in the world” sensation that feels like the big brass ring of happiness so many of us are seeking.
Go Deep Together
When have you experienced a profound love for your partner mixed with a sense of contentment, an awareness that the quality of your bond syncs up with your deepest values? Far from being static events, these moments are portals through which you can enter new states of connection based on an abiding sense of peace, some of which might even feel transcendent. Here’s an exercise you can do together:
Take a few moments with your loved one to discuss when you have both felt that kind of closeness — either at the same time or on your own. Share your stories and memories with each other. What triggered the experience? What did it feel like?
Then take it a step further. Can you recreate the environments and interactions that allowed them to take place? Make a plan to do just that. You may not feel the same thing again, but by finding the pathways to deeper closeness and exploring them together, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll experience those wonderful moments of connection again.
You’ve worked long and hard to find a caring relationship. That’s something to celebrate. Now you can embrace the great privilege of leaning into that love in deeper ways.