Valentine’s day has come and gone… Has your heart been seen? Have you allowed yourself to unzip it to your partner in all its glory and pulsating life force, as well as its vulnerability, woundedness and need for healing?
Sometimes this can be hard. Sometimes couples come in and their hearts have not been unzipped in a long time. Sometimes the zipper has been zipped all the way up purposely, for protection, but many times their hearts are hidden due to the stresses and demands of life, sometimes even hidden to themselves.
It’s easy for most of us to list what these possible stresses and demands are, since we are living them. Demands of work, demands of parenting, demands of caring for aging parents, stresses of not enough time, stresses of fatigue, stresses of tight finances. Let’s add in car trouble, sick children, upcoming deadlines, too much to do, simply not enough time! Often we run through life, and unzipping our hearts as we are running does not compute. It does not compute to take the energy to pull down that zip. It does not compute to make time for heart-to-heart intimacy with our partner, since we just don’t have the time, we’re stressed, the last thing we want is one more thing on our list to do.
And other times, we don’t want to. We might be feeling distanced from our partner and have no desire whatsoever to be vulnerable since, previously, that vulnerability may have been mocked or criticized. Maybe our partner pushed us away. Maybe they rolled their eyes. Maybe they simply left the room or ignored us. Or maybe they got angry. Maybe we just don’t feel safe in that moment to be vulnerable, and so we stuff the feeling down. Sometimes we don’t even feel that feeling ourselves, much less being able to express it, since the habit of stuffing it down is so common for us.
We might be hurting really badly and yet that zipper is up up up all the way. Whatever the reason, from being too busy or not feeling safe, the zipper is up. And it just seems like it would take way too much energy to do anything about it.
The good news, I tell my couples, is that unzipping their hearts can actually give them energy. Granted, it does take some energy to start the process of unzipping, but my guess is that most couples long to be able to do this with their partner. They long to unzip, to lay down their defenses, to connect, to know their partner is absolutely there for them in their vulnerability, to be able to express their emotions safely, to be nurtured, to be cared for, to be loved. It seems to me that this longing is universal.
So – how do I help my couples do this? Perhaps my couple is you and your partner. How would I help you?
I would start with suggesting small rituals of connection that you can add to your day without stress. Rituals like a hug and kiss goodbye in the morning, and a hug and kiss of welcome at the end of the day. Rituals like texting each other during the day to say, “Thinking about you!” Rituals like spending ten minutes at the end of the day taking turns to talk about your day, where your partner’s only job is to listen, validate, and maybe ask questions. This can be hard to do – so often we want to help our partner with their stresses and issues by offering solutions to their problems, but this help can often come across at criticism or judgment. Instead, I would coach you on validating your partner’s feelings; for example, by saying, “Yeah, that hurts,” or “I totally get why you’d be upset by that,” or “I’m so sorry – I’m here for you!” These validations can be interspersed with questions to get more clarity, questions like “Tell me more about that part,” or “How does that make you feel?” or “What do you need right now from me?” Being listened and attended to without judgment, along with rituals of connection in small ways throughout the day, definitely helps the process of unzipping.
If there is a bigger issue of disconnection (and usually there is when couples come in for support), we would work on this bigger issue, a small piece at a time. We would look at your typical pattern of interaction and the typical things that get said and done. We would examine the thoughts and feelings that come up when these things are said and done, and work on verbalizing those thoughts and feelings, to yourself and your partner. The intent is never to judge – each of you is always “right” in how you feel and think – but rather to validate and understand. If we can validate and understand our own feelings and thoughts, then we can begin to figure out what we need from our partner. If we can understand our partner’s feelings and thoughts, then we can begin to shift our own words and actions that may be quite inadvertently triggering these thoughts and feelings, fueling this disconnecting pattern. If we can begin to shift our own words and actions, then a larger shift in the pattern occurs, a shift towards increased safety and connection, a shift towards increased vulnerability and honesty, a shift towards unzipping our hearts more and more.
When this happens in session, it is moving. Tears often flow, feelings are expressed and understood, connection seems to shimmer between partners. I encourage my couples to practice these same shifts at home, and to notice and validate their partner making their own shifts. It is amazing what can happen with intention and validation.
And really, it all starts with this human desire to be seen, to be validated, to be valued, to be loved, to be attached, to bond to another. It all starts with this human desire to unzip one’s heart.