My parents are getting ready to celebrate their 49th anniversary. Each year I always ask them, "What is the secret to lasting love?" Every year the advice is the same: They tell me that the No. 1 way to stay connected is to allow yourself to grow with each other. They suggest letting each person be their unique self; respect and love them as they are, not as who you think they should be.
It seems we put so much pressure on ourselves and on our partners to do things we want them to do instead of appreciating them for who they truly are and allowing them to express themselves in natural ways. If you want to increase your connection with a loved one, start by giving them permission to be themselves. The more we can be true to ourselves, the easier it is to flourish in relationships.
In doing research for my next book Joy Seeker, I traveled the world studying relationships, human connection, and communities. What I learned was despite our cultural background, geographic location, skin color, upbringing, and beliefs, we are all much more similar than we think. We all want to be seen, heard, loved, and acknowledged for who we are, as we are.
Here are a few ways couples can deepen their connection with each other, focusing on learning to see each other more clearly and in a new light:
1. Take turns listening to each other.
Sit with your partner and practice listening with the intention to learn more about them. Most of us listen to respond, and we aren't fully present when others are sharing with us. Instead, come together with your partner and allow them to fully express themselves—when you let them do this, you'll find yourself learning a lot more about them.
Consider trying psychologist Arthur Aron's now-famous 36 questions that are said to "lead to love," popularized by Mandy Len Catron's widely read essay in the New York Times. Or if you'd really like to home in on intimacy, try Esther Perel's five questions for transforming your sex life. After you ask each question, listen to your partner's response without interrupting or trying to fix or solve the problem. Simply hold the intention to learn more about them. Then switch, and you give your response as your partner listens to you.
2. Create something together.
We've all heard that couples who play together stay together, but what about couples who create together? Cooking dinner together, taking a painting class together, or taking photos with each other on your nature walk can help you feel more present. When we create, it releases neurotransmitters in our brain, which help connect us to the moment. And beyond that, when we make something together, we're simultaneously sharing glimmers of our true selves with each other. Sometimes creating together can even involve literally combining our essences and manifesting something in the world that's part each of us—for any two people, it's a way of bonding themselves together and legitimizing a union.
As a couple, make a list of creative activities that you each enjoy or are curious about trying. Tack up the list to your refrigerator or somewhere you can both see it. Now you've got months of meaningful, connection-inspiring date nights preplanned.
3. Do something that allows each person to grow as individuals.
For years I would get involved in relationships and lose myself. I stopped doing activities I loved and dedicated my time to the relationship. Then when the relationship was over, I was left with a shell of myself.
So many of us forget to put our own needs first in relationships. Practicing self-love is not selfish but strong. It's the key to a healthy partnership, and it starts with honoring your own desires. Have you always wanted to take a cooking class, go to a meditation retreat, learn a new language, or start a wellness blog? The inner nudges coming to you are important, and you shouldn't ignore them.
One study also found couples who take part in more self-expanding activities—that is, any activity that allows one or both people to experience something new or learn new ideas or skills—actually tend to have a better, more satisfying sex life. "Partners are seeing each other more autonomously (i.e., differentiated from the self) during novel activities—that is, seeing a new side of their partner or learning something about their partner of which they were not previously aware—that can ignite intrigue and desire," the researchers wrote.
We always think of date nights as needing to involve fancy dinners, sex, and total attention on one another, but sometimes intimacy comes from doing meaningful, self-focused activities together. Consider spending some quality time as a couple in which you're supporting one person's personal curiosities and desires or in which you're doing something that allows both of you to learn and grow.
4. Engage with your physical senses.
Our five senses are the pathways through which we communicate, relate, and connect with other people. One way to deepen our connection with our partner is to practice interacting with and interpreting them through each sense individually. You'd be surprised by how much new information you can gain about your partner when you're focusing only on the sound of their voice and nothing else, or the taste of their kiss, or the feel of their skin.
To engage with each other through sight, for example, try sitting in front of your partner and staring into their eyes silently. Using only your eyes, give each other a compliment without saying anything. Let them see the love you share with only the eyes.
Or you might try focusing on smell: Close your eyes, or if you are feeling really adventurous, blindfold each other. Then hold up different things to your partner's nose. The goal is to try to guess each scent. You could use flowers, essential oils, food items, or anything else. This makes for a fun, flirtatious game that will create a spirit of play, awaken your physical senses, and help you feel more connected to each other.
5. Give each other feedback.
So many of us don't actually gauge how we are doing in a relationship because we are focused on the other person, but sitting with your partner and asking for feedback can do wonders for your partnership as long as you don't take the experience personally. It's important to approach feedback with an open heart and understand your partner is just sharing from their perspective. Sit down with a loved one and ask them how they feel in the relationship. Do they feel loved and supported? What can you do to help them feel even more loved? Then switch and do the same for yourself, giving your partner feedback as well.
These are just a few ways you can make sure you are continually trying to see your partner for who they really are as you both grow and as your relationship develops and changes. The key to a lasting relationship is to always be engaged in this process of deepening your connection and understanding of each other.
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