Fostering Intimacy With a Romantic Sanctuary

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The couples I work with all too often struggle with making time and space for sex in the context of the rest of their lives. When we have families and careers to juggle, sex all too often falls by the wayside. Yes, time and energy are at a premium for many of us. But there is also deeper level to this dynamic. We often find that juggling our different roles also makes it difficult to keep the fire alive. It is hard to switch from our role as a professional, or as a parent, into a sexual being. Instead, we may find it easier to numb, ignore, and starve our sexual selves.

The process of reintegrating this part of our beings can be a complex journey, one unique to each of us. And while it would be impossible to address the totality of this dynamic in a single blog post, I can offer you one of the starting points that has fostered intimacy for many of the couples I see, especially those with children.

Create a romantic sanctuary.

Have one place in your house that can transform into a space where your sexual self can thrive. Set the intention to spend time here a couple of times a week, whether or not you choose to have sex. When we build a fire, we need a physical pit or fireplace—a special place for that purpose alone. We also need enough space for air to pass through, and enough time to nourish the flame. So too with the fire within do we need space to breathe and time for growth. We also need to send it the message that it is an important part of our lives.

Here’s how:

  1. Pick a place in your home for your sanctuary.

The bedroom is the obvious choice for many, though it doesn’t have to be. If there isn’t one place that can be just for you and your partner (say, for example, you are co-sleeping with your child in your room), pick a place you can transform with candles, music, pillows, etc. when you and your partner want to connect. You could even add soft lighting to a bathroom and take a bath together. Wherever it is, make sure it is a place where you feel safe, comfortable, and confident that you will not be intruded upon.

  1. Let your five senses guide you in your transformation of space into sanctuary.

What smells turn you on? How does temperature affect your sexual enjoyment, and what is your ideal temperature? How do the fabrics on your bed or couch feel on your skin? How does lighting affect your mood? How about sounds? This is you gathering the wood to fuel your flame.

Consider adding candles, twinkle lights, or other soft lighting, a way to play music, or aromatherapy to the room. Leave your phones, TV, and other screens off or outside.

  1. Make sure you feel safe and comfortable to be yourself.

If you are worried about being seen through the window, make sure you to close your curtains/blinds. If you are concerned with being heard, try adding a white noise machine by the door.

  1. Set the intention to spend time together in your sanctuary fostering intimacy, whether sexual or nonsexual.

Make actual dates, and follow through with them, even if they are only for 15-minutes a night.

And if you are too exhausted/triggered/anxious/etc to have sex, spend time in your sanctuary anyway. Listen intently to your favorite album. Give each other massages. Take a bath together. Have a meaningful conversation. Create art. Enjoy a good glass of wine. Fall asleep in each other’s arms. Find a way to harbor connection to each other and to your sensory experience.

Have fun!

 

 

Learning Emotionally-Focused Therapy

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A little over a week ago, I attended a four-day intensive training in Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT). Around seventy therapists sat in a windowless conference room, nestled against the rain and flood warnings pitter-pattering the cell phones we had agreed to tuck away for the sake of presence and connection. Banana bread and popcorn nourished us as we grew in understanding of the practice and in warmth towards one another. I was able to get to know some of my fellow trainees well, while others didn’t get a chance to meet. Still, by the end of our time, the room felt safe and intimate; there was a sense of the human bond running between us. It reminded me of sitting together with strangers to witness the wedding of mutual loved ones; though many of us did not know each other, what we had shared brought us to drink in the same joy, hopefulness, and love that we had all felt. And in that sharing, we had opened in connection to one another.

It is always hard to explain the inspired exhaustion that follows a good psychotherapy training. The best trainings I have attended stir their way into me so that I understand them in all layers of my being, from the cerebral down to the emotional, personal, and primal. When learning EMDR, this meant watching my own hidden shadows move and shift within the somatic realms of my body and mind, as I rode emotional waves into greater peacefulness. In the art therapy trainings and consultations I have attended, it has meant expressing my own feelings and experiences that have been silenced in colors, shapes, and symbols; I have always left with a greater understanding of myself. This is what Contemplative Psychotherapy is all about; it is my mission to continually get to know myself and my emotional process so that I can be as fully present and empathetic with my clients as possible.

It would make sense that an emotionally-focused therapy training would leave me feeling warm, close, and connected with those around me. EFT is based in attachment theory, with bonding at its center; it guides couples (and individuals) in shifting away from destructive cycles and disconnectedness by fostering the safety for each to vulnerably express his/her needs and emotions, creating a secure bond. Through EFT, this bond becomes reliable, consistent, and a source of support and strength. This not only helps the communication in relationships, but it attends to some of the most basic, primal needs as humans. In this way, it is holds great potential to heal mental illness and emotional suffering.

Each training day of lectures, watching sessions, and practicing/receiving EFT with my colleagues, I found myself in a place of more profound openness and connection, not only with those around me, but with my own loved ones outside of our cozy conference room. I felt increased appreciation, empathy, and curiosity towards my own partner’s experience in our marriage, and have found myself in deeper appreciation for the relationship we have built together. The experience has made me even more excited to bring this beautiful healing modality to my clients as I continue to grow from it, both personally and professionally.

Thank you to Jim Thomas, Lisa Palmer-Olsen, and the Colorado Center for Emotionally-Focused Therapy for a great externship experience!

Unveiling Bridezilla: Deconstructing the Anger, Chaos, and Mania Surrounding the Journey to the Wedding.

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Adapted from the original by Rachael Uris, published in Twine Magazine, Fall 2012, Boulder, CO. http://www.twinemagazine.com

 

It was just under the one-month mark when I had my routine dental visit. I let my eyelids fall to a soft close and my fingernails gripped the padded armrests as the technician scraped and poked along my gum line. As uncomfortable as it was, I welcomed the cleaning as an object of meditation—as something to place my focus on beyond corsages and place cards. I knew my gums were in bad shape, and was therefore unsurprised when she asked me if I had been flossing. “No,” I sighed. When I told her I was getting married next month, she gave a long exhale, and for the first time in my dental-visiting career I was told, “It’s no wonder you’re not flossing. We forgive you!” She then proceeded to tell me that months before she had gotten married, she started getting ocular migraines.

We laughed together. There was both mutual understanding and mutual puzzlement. We had both experienced an ungodly amount of stress before our weddings. We discussed how stress had turned us each into “bridezillas”: obsessively calling vendors with questions and leaving them cranky voicemails when they didn’t answer, acting as a drill sergeant to those involved in planning and screaming hysterically at them when deadlines were missed, awakening in the night from nightmares of flower arrangements clashing or bands not showing up. It was something we both knew all too well, yet had trouble defining or explaining, even to ourselves.

We all love to joke about the “Bridezilla Syndrome.” It seems unfathomable that we could lose our minds while attempting to organize all things beautiful—from eternal love to diamond rings, from our favorite songs to our favorite people. At our wedding, we are surrounded by love and a thousand blooming flowers, walking on rose petals in the trail of our best friends, adorned like royalty and taking one step in front of the other to meet our life’s companion. We laugh at the wedding stress rampage, because if we didn’t we may be offended, or at the very least dumbfounded by a paradox which, on the surface, appears to us as remarkably selfish, entitled and ungrateful. Somehow, we are suddenly allowed to skip flossing, and breathing, and being a generally decent human being in our interactions with others.

And we see the transformation happen to our friends, our family, our partners and ourselves. But why? We have dreamt of the swaying paper lanterns, the exploding peonies centerpieces, the satin bridesmaids with perfect pearl earrings since we were little. And now that it’s all really manifesting, as we shop alongside our best friends, as we hand-cut flowery paper to print our perfect invitations, we rip apart our brothers for suggesting the wrong shoes and tear our mothers to shreds for tying a ribbon wrong or picking out mismatching postal stamps.

The first rationale we tend to give: it’s a lot. And it is a lot: a lot to organize, a lot remember, a lot to keep track of. And with such a detailed idyllic vision of what it all should look like, the possibility of a shortcoming is terrifying. No one wants to shatter a fantasy. I found myself mulling over this while taking a step back to look at my own Bridezilla Syndrome. The general stress and pressure was obvious. Still, it felt like the majority of the puzzle was left unsolved. After all, I had far more responsibilities at work than I had taken on for the wedding, and considered myself both highly organized and a generally good manager of stress. It was a lot, but it wasn’t that much. And it was fun, for the most part.

So what else was there?

Unfortunately, some who contemplate the deeper meaning behind morphing into a ‘zilla come to the conclusion that it’s a symptom of a bad relationship; it’s some kind of hellish inflammation of an injury—a warning to stop. Perhaps the bridal rage is a person’s way of kicking and screaming her way into the wrong life path. If she’s angry about the bustle on her $2,000 dress or dissociating during her grandmother’s toast at the rehearsal dinner, it must be because somewhere deep down, she knows she is making a mistake. Right? What else could there be?

As it turns out, perfect weddings of perfectly happy couples are overwhelming. Destination weddings requiring minimal planning are overwhelming. Eloping is overwhelming. Aside from the obvious organizing a symphony of tasks and people, there’s a lot to come to terms with, to take in, to grieve and to welcome as one commits to a lifelong partnership. And something in our society tells us that this is not ok—that there should only be room for excitement and joy. But if we dig deeper into what is playing a part in our emotional journey to the wedding day, we find a mosaic of dynamic experiences to breathe, to process, to honor and to explore. These experiences are not just peripheral symptoms of the wedding, but are actually a part of what it means to wed. In embracing them, we not only dispel the anxiety that fuels the Bridezilla Syndrome, but we also enrich the sacred experience of joining with another in a life together.

Grief

No bride or groom wants to acknowledge their sadness about getting married. Because sadness and grief are so painful—even intolerable—we will do anything to rid ourselves of them. Perhaps we are afraid our sadness is related to our decision in our life partner—that it is our body’s way of telling us we don’t really want this marriage, this person, this life. We have a difficult time both acknowledging sadness and feeling peaceful in our decision. So we push it away (or towards the ribbon-tying victim) as a way of avoiding doubt.

But what could we be sad about if we were stepping into the perfect union? Is it ok to feel nostalgic about past lovers—to have the slightest twinge of loss when we acknowledge that we will never be with them again? That we will never sleep with anyone else again? Never have another first kiss or flirtatious courtship again? And even those men or women who don’t exist in the flesh—our ideals, our fantasies—is it not inevitable that we will have to say goodbye to them as well? Is there legitimacy in grieving lost possibility?

We may have imagined one day having our homes adorned with paintings of ourselves, having become the muse to a famous artist. Or maybe we had always held out a little hope for a partner with a hefty inheritance who would sweep us away to vacations in Bali when the Colorado snow got too thick. Before the engagement, the possibilities were limitless; the unknown prospects of our future were scary but exciting. But with the wedding comes closed doors. Like taking any path at the fork in the road, our freedom contracts just the littlest bit. And it’s hard to say goodbye to freedom. It hurts. It’s worth it for the right marriage, but it hurts.

And if we sink deeper, we find we are not just grieving lost circumstance, but also dying parts of ourselves. Whether it’s totalitarian reign over our futures or over our kitchen sinks, we have gotten used to a certain sense of freedom and autonomy. Even if we have been in our present relationships for some time, there was always the choice to go back to that freedom—the option to flee without too many complications if things got hairy or just plain didn’t suit what we wanted. We reminisce to the single days, when Friday night and Saturday morning belonged to us and us alone; we could leave our closet as messy as we pleased, forgo parts of our grooming rituals in the winter, and even pick up and move to India if we felt stuck in our jobs. Surrendering to a life of negotiation, of piecing together the best compromise for the family as a whole, can be something our inner bachelors and our inner nomads want to kick and scream about.

Grief exists in any transition. Whenever we walk down a new path we leave an old one behind. Yet when we fail to recognize grief for what it is, it can become more complicated and confusing. Holding so much in, the smallest bumps in the road can cause us to break, to warp into wedding monsters. The truth is, most of us haven’t been taught that grief can coexist with happy transitions, when in fact, it is an inevitable part of any life change.

Fear

For many of us, our biggest fears in life stampede wildly to the surface when we go through the engagement journey. Marriage hits at the very core of our interpersonal identity—how we protect ourselves or allow ourselves to be vulnerable, how we rejoice in another’s happiness and let others inspire us, how we either make sacrifices for love or abuse others in our struggle to modulate our own pain.

Many of us feel safer alone and find it hard to trust another person. Fear akin to claustrophobia may surface for us, bringing with them a whole host of stories and explanations: What if I’m choosing the wrong person? How can I trust someone enough to be tied to them forever—by a house, by kids, by work benefits, by income? Will I be able to leave if I want to or need to? Rather than grieving and accepting lost freedom, we panic about it.

Or perhaps we go the opposite way: we trust too easily and merge with other people effortlessly. We absorb their flavors as though we were tofu fried alongside a potent, savory vegetable or meat, and define ourselves by their proximity. One could imagine existential fears arising from such enmeshment even more intolerable. If I have defined myself by this person and they leave me, who am I?

But it’s not only our interpersonal identity that comes into focus during the wedding process. For many of us, we undergo existential explorations of all areas of our lives during an engagement. In choosing to marry, we are drawing a piece of our future’s blueprint. Like beginning a mysterious jigsaw puzzle, once a couple pieces are in place, it is only natural for our curiosity to push us into exploring deeper to manifest the picture before our eyes.

We are often deciding if we would like to have kids, where we would like to live, and how we will choose to support ourselves. In that sense, it seems logical that we would try to factor in our personal dreams, our aspirations, and our values into marriage. It can be scary to share these things with another person and in many ways, rely on that person to help manifest them. If I admit to my partner that I yearn to be a mother, will he love and accept that part of me? Will she accept me if I follow my inner artist, moving away from my stable job to pursue my hidden passion? Will she appreciate my art and my connection to it? Will he still accept me if my politics change, or my spirituality evolves into a new form? If I feel that travel is part of my life’s path, will she follow me abroad? And if she shows a side of herself I didn’t anticipate—if her values or ambitions change or unravel, will I still love and appreciate her for who she is as she evolves?

And so in asking these questions, we explore ourselves; we explore hidden parts of ourselves, we explore dead parts of ourselves, we explore possibilities of ourselves. The truth is, we can never know who we are “going to be” or what will be important to us in our futures. And so in that sense, we have to let go of caring about what music our partner dances to—for it may change—and simply appreciate how beautiful they are when they dance. And if we can support one another in dancing ecstatically, in embodying what makes us each come alive, we can move through these fears and into a thriving and dynamic marriage.

Joy

There are times when we do fall into gratitude, appreciation, and joy—those times when we fall into of love and friendship and celebration accumulating around us. But having grown up in an individualistic culture, we have trouble letting ourselves dance in the center of our community, bringing tears of joy to those around us as our gowns sweep the floor. Having taken pride in becoming self-sufficient, receiving sometimes feels uncomfortable. A poetic toast, a set of crystal glasses, the blessing of our families—we aren’t quite sure how to absorb these gifts, to be nourished and changed by them. And so we often feel vulnerable and scared.

The overwhelm we feel from joy seems to be even more perplexing than that of fear or sadness. For most of us, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Unexamined, the confusion surrounding joy burrows itself into the deeper subconscious, and our inner ‘zilla emerges from the shadows with a host of explanations about how our discomfort is because of imperfections in flowers or shoes or stationary. When we get married, people change all around us. That uncle with whom you had a falling out gives his blessing. The parent who never seemed to notice our achievements is in tears of joy as she welcomes your chosen addition to her family. Weddings are not only excuses for family reunions; they are mirrors reflecting a family’s identity. The estrangement, the disconnection, the distance rises to the surface, and often people feel motivated to make changes. If you’ve been postponing reconnecting with your long lost brother, it suddenly may feel urgent, as you always imagined him standing by your side, your best man on your wedding day. Lost relationships come out of the woodwork to celebrate. And it’s beautiful, and sacred, and often a bit overwhelming.

Moreover, the joy between the marrying couple can feel overwhelming. The beautiful, sacred step into lifelong love, openness and companionship together is a lot to take in. At times in our engagement journey, we may feel stunted by the flood of warm and joyous feelings, unsure of how to let it all in. We may find ourselves frustrated with our process, yearning to enjoy the moment but unsure of how to connect to its greatness. We may be afraid that if we don’t figure out how to take it all in, we’ll miss it.

As with grief, it is important to welcome this overwhelm into our experience, accepting it as a normal and very sacred part of the wedding journey. Just as we traditionally savor the wedding cake for a year, freezing the top layer to be enjoyed on our first anniversary, so too must we learn to take small bites of our celebratory joy—to allow each wonder to have the dance floor to itself so that we may appreciate it in its fullness. I found it helpful to hand-make and hand-address our wedding invitations, spending the five minutes on each to embody gratitude for its recipient. Looking at a list of two hundred guests, people began to turn into table numbers and food preferences. Spending a few minutes with each, even if it’s just touching an envelope with their name, helped me to take in my love and appreciation for each individual, and I was able to let my joy cleanse me without drowning in it.

We can do this with all aspects of the joy arising in our engagement. We can take our time selecting our wedding attendants, taking it as an opportunity to honor those closest to us, or take the scenic route writing our vows, letting ourselves fill with inspiration from our favorite poems, or conversations, or places in nature. And we can honor that joy will come in forms we may not expect; we are better off dropping our expectations of how we should be moved and allowing room for spontaneous inspiration, gratitude, and joy.

As we walk down our rose petal aisle from engagement to wedding, we pass rows upon rows of our most surface and our most buried emotions, all present now in their best dresses, hands full of rice and belly’s ready to be nourished at the tables we have set for them. The inner “Bridezilla” seems to emerge when we ignore them—when we feel resentful about them showing up uninvited. They are uncomfortable, confusing, and hard to understand. When we can’t place a finger on their source, sadness, fear, and overwhelm can be frustrating and even terrifying. Confusion and suppressed emotions become chaotic, disoriented, groundless. And so many of us turn to planning perfectionism to help us regain a sense of control. When things don’t go according to plan, we call on our ‘zilla side in a desperate attempt to find the ground—or at the very least—to blame someone else for our discomfort.

And so instead, we can invite ourselves to honor these emotions. Like the colorful guests of our wedding, they give the journey of marriage its life force and its meaning; they make the celebration alive. So the challenge then becomes learning to welcome these emotions into our experience of engagement and wedding—setting a place for them at our table and offering them a space on our dance floor. If we are to honor what it means to marry, let us acknowledge the vastness and diversity of its experience.

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Rachael Uris, MA, LPC is the owner of Atacama Counseling, LLC, offering sex therapy as well as individual and couple's counseling for issues surrounding sexuality, love, and pregnancy. All services are located in downtown Boulder, Colorado, and are provided in English and Spanish.
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