Matters of the Heart

The other day after work  I was at a local store buying a last minute gift for a 3-year-old birthday party the next morning.  As I paid at the front counter, I noticed a particularly sparkly card with the word “LOVE” in large, gold glitter letters splashed across its front.  Perfect birthday card for this particular girl who hasn’t met a sparkle she doesn’t like.  Then I opened it up to read, “Happy Valentine’s Day”.  What?!  Wasn’t it just Christmas?  I took a beat and realized, yes, it was no longer Christmas crimson surrounding me, but Valentine red everywhere.  The store was scattered with the requisite pink as well -- chocolates wrapped in foil, flowery script, candles conveying messages of love, and bottles of bubble bath promising the perfect romance. 

While I do love dark chocolate, the occasional sparkle, and even romantic comedies (which the feminist in me is embarrassed to admit) the merchandising of matters of the heart has left most of us in the dark about how to actually nurture and sustain a lasting, loving relationship. 

Enter the LOVE LAB and the work of John and Julie Gottman, partners in life and work at University of Washington.  Can you imagine working with your partner for the last several decades?  And still being together?!  They’ve made it their life’s work to study what enhances relationships and what predicts their demise.  They’ve worked with and learned from straight and gay couples of all ethnicities and ages, and have developed the ability to predict (with 90% accuracy!!!) which couples will stay together and who will break up. 

One day, they decided why not take all this science, all this clinical experience, all this knowledge about predicting break ups, and turn it into a research-based approach to building stronger relationships for couples and families. They call this approach the, “Sound Relationship House”. Their work is beautiful and deep and nuanced, and USEFUL if you’re interested in enhancing your relationship.  Check it out in detail here https://www.gottman.com

In a nutshell, their research and work with couples has identified three key processes to sustaining rich and intimate relationships: 

  • Co-creating an ever-deepening friendship
  • Managing conflict
  • Developing a shared vision for life

Co-creating an ever-deepening friendship.  This means you take the time to really know your partner and their world– what are their greatest hopes, fears, desires, accomplishments, failures.  Who drives them crazy at work?  How do they ask for connection and express their emotional and sexual needs?  This also means you share fondness and admiration for one another every day – a verbal and nonverbal gratitude practice. This may not sound as exciting as, “50 Shades of Grey”, but these simple (though not easy) practices are proven to develop greater relational and sexual intimacy.  These kinds of practices are like a solid foundation for a house, they build a positive emotional base of commitment, trust, love, and hope.  The store of goodwill developed through these practices is invaluable when navigating the inevitable conflicts that arise in relationships.     

Managing conflict.  One of the best things you can do for your relationship is actually first attend to your heart. When it’s racing, pounding out of control, breath coming shallow and fast, it’s a sign.  We’re having a, “diffuse physiological reaction” – research talk for losing it.  When this happens, the part of our brain responsible for calm reflection, creative problem solving, and connection with others (among other things) – is essentially offline.  Instead, the oldest part of our brain related to autonomic (unconscious) processes for survival – like breathing, fight or flight – is dominating.  Pay attention to these bodily “messenger” sensations, they are important cues that you may be about to go over a relational cliff. 

So STOP, don’t go there. Don’t choose this moment to try to solve the recurrent concerns in your relationship. Don’t choose this moment to tell your partner what you really think about their: mother, hairstyle, housekeeping skills, lovemaking, parenting, intelligence, etc.  Rather, try this brief self-soothing exercise, a powerful breath break.

  • Inhale slowly to the count of four (expanding your abdomen, chest relaxed, listening to breath)
  • Pause for one count
  • Exhale slowly and completely to the count of six (abdomen deflating, shoulders relaxed, listening to breath)
  • Pause for one count
  • Repeat 4 times

This brief exercise will help your natural relaxation response (your parasympathetic nervous system) to kick-in.  Once you’ve returned to a sense of calm in your own body, when your brain is back “online”, you will be better able to apply conflict management and communication skills.  In particular, it will help you avoid the Gottman’s strongest predictors of relationship demise: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (so malignant they’ve named them the “4 Horseman of the Apocalypse”). 

Developing a shared vision of life together. The way we build our life with our partner is full of meaning and reflects our values, beliefs and goals.  How do these show up in your day-to-day rituals and roles?  How do you want to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries?  How do you want to organize mealtimes, wake/sleep times, end of day reunions, weekends, vacations?  How do you broach stressful topics, bring up issues in your relationship, initiate or refuse lovemaking?  It isn’t that this vision has to be exactly the same; rather, what matters is talking about each other’s values together, understanding what makes them meaningful, and finding ways to support each other’s hopes for the future. No matter how “similar” your backgrounds, a relationship is a cross-cultural project.  Within this context of valuing individual difference, a sense of shared meaning and life purpose bonds partners together.

So this Valentine’s Day, enjoy the chocolates and sparkles, watch a cheesy rom-com, draw your partner a bubble bath, AND remember the LOVE LAB.  Bring these principles into your daily life and watch your relationship flourish.    

Pause for Change

To be honest, between changing diapers, my kids’ winter colds, my husband’s travel schedule, working, getting the groceries, remembering to feed Petey (dog, not child), and trying to squeeze in some exercise, the idea of yet another list of things to do, even if it comes with a celebratory “New Year’s Resolutions”, title, hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind.  As the mother of two-year-old twins, most days I feel happy to have made it through the day, never mind have the time to think deeply about resolutions for Life and Change. 

But, I couldn’t quite let it go, as part of what I do love about the New Year is the promise of new beginnings, letting go of the past year, having a clean slate from which to dream and create and plan and act.  I love the idea of an opportunity to reflect on my life, to let go of habits that aren’t serving me anymore, to open up to new relationships and resources, and to move a little closer to what matters most to me in life.

Then I had an idea -- what if this “resolution” thing isn’t a grand list we compose each year, but perhaps an opportunity that we have each morning, each hour, or maybe even each moment?   A chance to pause, to breathe in and to acknowledge what is actually happening in that moment (not in the past problematic moment nor in the imagined perilous future moment).  What if it is a chance to breathe out and let go of the relentless worrisome chatter of the mind, to find a spot of calm in the storm that is modern day life?  This paradoxical “pause for change” (paradoxical in that we tend to think of change being all about action) is where we can find the freedom from our habitual thoughts and moods, and the awareness to re-commit to what we most value for our lives and our relationships.   

Indeed, science supports this approach for creating lasting change in our lives.  No matter how well intentioned, grand lists penned once a year tend to have little lasting effect on our behavior.  What makes change stick is commitment, a community of support, thoughtful, consistent practice (not perfection), and flexibility to adjust our course when faced with new input.  By commitment, I mean commitment that stems from deeply held, personal values and intentions (as opposed to externally driven ideas, like needing to fit into the jeans of the moment to feel comfortable in our body). 

The challenge is keeping up.  For this, it helps to have a community of support – folks who are aligned with you, who believe in you and help sustain your motivation and confidence.  One such teacher of mine recently told me that it would help to “see the seed as the tree” – to see each movement in the direction of my intention, no matter how small, as mattering and powerful. 

So, for this New Year, I invite you to do the same -- see the potential for growth in it all, in all you experience, the good, the bad, the ugly.  See it all as seeds of change, movement towards that magnificent full-grown California Redwood that resides inside of you. 

First, have the courage to survey the landscape of your life – your habitual patterns of thought, feelings, and actions.  This is acknowledging what is.   

Second, determine where you are vis-à-vis your unique values, hopes, beliefs, and goals. This is building awareness

Third, identify your unique personal intention or goal (one that really matters to you).  This is developing commitment

Fourth, connect with relationships and communities of support that buoy you on this path.  This is building motivation for consistent practice.

Fifth, have compassion for yourself when you fall off the path. Compassion is the opposite of shame and blame. Shame and blame are a painful waste of energy, and actually prevent us from making an honest assessment of what needs to shift to continue our path of intention.  This is flexibility to adjust our course.

And, finally, celebrate each small action, each small choice in the direction of health, happiness, and wellbeing – celebrate like it’s your first New Year’s Eve. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Stress-Busting Tips

PAUSE

Observe what’s actually happening.  Just like a roadmap, we need to know where we actually are in this moment, before we can figure out a plan to get where we want to be.  What are the sensations in our body (is our breath shallow & fast, is our heart racing, are our hands sweaty?)  What are we feeling (are we frustrated, angry, nervous, excited, tense, etc.)  What are we thinking (is our negative, critical voice taking over?) Often, when we’re stressed, we speed up, which can lead us to reacting, instead of responding in a powerful way, from our deep wisdom within.  If we can pause, slow down, get back to our center, we can know what steps are needed for self-care.

 

BREATHE

Take at least 3 long, deep breaths. Our mind and moods are powered through our central nervous system, which is led by our breath.  When we’re stressed, we usually start breathing shorter, shallower breaths.  This brings in less oxygen to feed our brain, blood, and organs.  It triggers the part of our central nervous system involved with the “fight or flight” response and releases stress hormones like adrenaline.  As we take slow, deep breaths, we are activating the part of our central nervous system in charge of relaxation and renewal.  We feel at ease.

 

MOVE YOUR BODY

Exercise, dance, walk, do yoga.  Movement releases natural endorphins (the “relax, be happy” chemicals in our brains).  Research shows even daily walking can enhance your mood.  Consider the food & nutrition you’re putting into your body, if you’re feeling stressed watch out for excess caffeine and sugar – try an herbal tea that has calming properties.

 

CONNECT WITH YOUR COMMUNITY

We all need LOVE and support in our life. Identify who in your life encourages you, listens well, provides healthy guidance.  Do something fun with your friends, volunteer and give back, join a group, visit a supportive counselor.

 

RELAX AND EXPAND YOUR POINT OF VIEW

Explore what activities help you feel ease, peace, a sense of wholeness.  Connect with something that is bigger than you, that helps put our stresses in perspective.  Connect with nature.  Connect with spirituality – meditate, pray, go to church, temple, or the ocean.  This can also help us feel more connected to each other, and have more compassion for ourselves, and others.  For easily downloadable, free guided relaxations go to: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22  and/or http://www.mindfulrp.com/For-Clients.html

 

TREAT YOURSELF 

What are simple ways to treat yourself?  Take a hot bubble bath, get an ice cream cone on a hot day, enjoy a sunset with someone you love.  Light a beautiful aromatherapy candle.  Cook a healthy meal with family.  Take your dog to the park.