- Erika Shershun, MA, MFTI
Updated: Jan 18
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, this month's blog topic is connection, moving toward another physically, emotionally, psychologically and energetically. We are born in connection, we are wounded, healed, and grow through connection. Our brains are literally wired to develop in the context of relationship with another. We thrive in connection.
I've included an exercise designed to enhance connection through attuning to another, but first I'd like to share a little about the traits that cultivate lasting connection.
Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman's extensive research on couples reveals that the most essential ingredients for lasting relationships are, drumroll, kindness and generosity. It turns out that one of the most important ways to show these qualities to a partner is meeting their requests or "bids" for connection. A bid for connection is when a partner says or does something in hopes of being met with a sign of interest or support, creating connection even if for only a moment. Bids for connection can be verbal, a gesture, look, or touch, and usually happen throughout the day. When a partner makes a bid you can respond by "turning to" or moving toward, a sign of recognition, respect and support, or by "turning away", a sign of disinterest and disconnection. Becoming more mindful of meeting a loved ones bids by responding in an engaged and present manner (yes, put the cell phone down) is one way to strengthen and deepen connection.
Kindness and generosity also come into play when we focus on what our partner, loved one or friend is doing right rather than being on alert for what they are doing wrong. When we focus on criticizing we miss as much as 50% of the positive things partners or loved ones are doing, such as those bids for connection, while breeding contempt. Gottman found contempt to be the number one factor in braking up relationships. Looking for the positive, celebrating your loved ones successes, expressing gratitude, along with eye contact and gentle touch are the antidote.
Eye-to-eye contact and skin contact are among the most fundamental ways that humans connect. Professor and author Marion Solomon explains that without such contact, at any time in life, both mind and body are negatively affected. It takes repeated, small healing experiences of feeling seen and understood, safe and comfortable with a partner or loved one in order to create a framework of connection. With this in mind, I've adapted the following exercise from a chapter by Solomon in Love and War in Intimate Relationships, coauthored by Stan Tatkin. While the experiential was originally intended for couples, I suggest you try it with anyone you wish to deepen connection with.
Painting the face
Preparation for this exercise requires only that you and a partner sit facing each other. Find a comfortable position to relax in, center or ground yourself, then bring awareness to your breath.
Now look at each other’s eyes. Spend a few minutes in silence as you imagine that you can see very deeply through the lenses of the eyes, into the essence of the other. It's ok if you laugh, but try not to talk other than reading the prompts.
Imagine you are preparing to paint an image of the eye. What would you look at first?
Notice the details as you scan different parts of the eye, the whites, the pupil, the iris. Note the color of each eye, is there any differences between them, the shade, the darkness of the pupil.
See if you can sense what’s behind the eyes at this moment. Does the left eye reveal more emotion than the right? The left eye and muscles surrounding the left eye are believed to be influenced predominantly by the right hemisphere, which is dominant for social-emotional processing.
Now paint the eyes with your imagination.
When you have finished painting the eyes in your mind you can begin to address the other important need of all human beings, to be gently touched by a loving other. This is best done one at a time, so decide who would like to go first.
Continue as the artist, this time painting the other’s whole face using your fingers as your brush. With the tips of your fingers, begin by gently painting the outline of the face and neck. Do this in silence.
Slowly paint the eyes, around the eyes, eyebrows, the nose, the cheeks, the outlines of the mouth. Paint the lips, the chin, the ears, the top of the head, then back to the face.
Ask if your partner has any request – a heavier touch, lighter, something that was missed, or an area that felt particularly good – and if so try the face painting once again.
Without talking, take some time to pay attention to and process the feelings around touching and being touched. For the moment, just hold the feelings, and notice where they are held bodily. Take as much time as you need.
Now switch roles.
When you have each had a turn invite one another to share any feelings, thoughts, and sensations experienced as artist and as muse. Let go of any judgment, exercising kindness to yourself and your partner as you welcome with curiosity whatever emotions surface. The gentle contact of skin-to-skin touch often brings up strong emotion as we're reminded on a sensory level of our earliest connection, that of our primary caregiver when we were an infant.
Tatkin points out that we fall in love through the eyes, in close proximity, when we are fully present with another. Maintaining this quality of contact can reignite connection. Through tender touch, a gentle tone of voice, purposeful presence, kindness, and generosity we can create a culture of connection, intimacy and love sweet love.