A while ago the beloved and I got in a doozy of an argument. Now, our arguments are not like four-alarm fires that cause everyone to run for the hills. That type belonged in my childhood and first marriage. Our conflicts are a bit more like an oceanic earthquake whose eruption is tempered by the weight of reserve that lives in both of us. The tsunami however, nonetheless rolls in and is felt when our once warm and cozy bed feels like it has tripled in size and cooled to freezing. Finding our way to each other becomes about as easy as walking a tightrope strung between two high-rise buildings.
What is stunning to me after an argument, is how triggered we both are (we have stepped on each other's unconscious landmines!) and how physically ill I can feel the next day. We are a pretty connected duo, the beloved and I. In fact, I often joke, that we are 95% in sync and 5% out of sync. But when that 5% comes around, I become even more aware of how inextricably linked intimacy and loving touch are to my overall health and well-being. Stella Resnick, PhD, whose work I adore, talks about how intertwined emotional attachment is to loving touch through our brain and nervous system. And how the dynamics of that connection can affect everything: our moods, self-confidence, and optimism, as well as how we handle stress, our resistance to illness, how we get along with others, the quality of our orgasms, and our ability to abandon ourselves to pleasure and to celebrate life.
Not only did I not sleep the night after this last earthquake, the aftershocks were felt in every joint of my body the next day. I ached everywhere. I felt like I had been in a car accident. My shoulders, my hips, my back, my knees, even my jaw. I was exhausted and in pain. Now, being a thinking type, I could hear the running dialogue in my head. "Would you look at that? Your body is clearly speaking! Isn't it amazing how quickly your body responds to being triggered?"
I knew emotionally that I was wrestling with all my childhood and early adult traumas ... "You cannot be loved, known, understood, seen. You'll need to take care of yourself. You'll need to protect yourself. You need to wall off!" And I knew none of that was true. The last person I needed to protect myself from was my Beloved. What was true, was that I had triggered the Beloved's deepest fears as well, and he was lost in his reactivity. Which, whatever it was, was also not true.
Self-Regulation and Intimacy Repair
One of the things we are both fairly good at is holding our temper, going to our own corner and self-soothing. We both have learned to calm ourselves, breathe deeply, gather, and allow our thinking brain (prefrontal lobe) to begin to operate again. What we are not always so good at, especially in times of mutual high-stakes triggering, is intimacy repair. In Stella's book The Heart of Desire she talks about the ABC's of Primal Intimacy. These three tasks, when done together, even when it is hard and vulnerable, allow the body to begin it's healing of the soul, spirit and relationship. It happens BEFORE the talking and THROUGH the body. Stella says this, "Data from developmental neuroscience, psychology, sexology, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience all converge to highlight [these] three bottom-line essentials of primal intimacy – three basics for nurturing a more fully embodied, emotionally gratifying inner felt-sense of closeness: empathic touch, eye contact, and intimate kissing."
Don't Talk ... Touch
So this is what we did. After a day of gathering ourselves and before we tried to tackle a topic that was so triggering for both of us, we crawled into bed naked and just held each other – skin to skin. Mind you, we did not feel like doing this – we were both still feeling rather prickly. But for over 30 minutes, we alternated who held who and we matched our breath to the person being held. We focused our hearts on what we knew to be true about each other, our commitment and our love. This was the empathic touching part. After that we sat in yab yum and looked in each other's eyes for ten minutes. Here, we alternated our breathing. We focused our thoughts on sending our love into the heart, mind and body of the other. Neuroscience demonstrates that when two people do this they are actually becoming more physiologically attuned – meaning their nervous systems come into neural synchrony. When this happens rhythmic activity of other systems of the body come into sync. For example respiration, hormonal, and immune systems. Eye gazing, as well as empathic touch, stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain causing dopamine and oxytocin to be released. These powerful pleasure and bonding chemicals play a key role in physical health, emotional attachment, sexual desire and orgasm. We were literally physically and emotionally beginning to heal each other. Next we kissed. A long, slow, gentle "I'm sorry", "I love you" kind of kiss. The Hebrew people believe a kiss is intimate simply because you are sharing the breath of God. We believe this too. Research shows that kissing can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, while at the same time increasing the heart rate, dilating blood vessels and increasing respiration. We become simultaneously stimulated and relaxed. All of this and a little more ... gave us the attachment and reassurance we needed to more gently and less reactively enter into the topic at hand when the time came to actually talk the subject out. And it helped beyond measure!! Having the honor of watching Stella work with 13 other brave couples at a recent workshop, we felt equipped and confident that this seemingly backwards way of dealing with big conflict actually works!!
In fact it is to them, those 13 beautiful, amazingly brave couples, and Stella and her Beloved, that this post is dedicated!