Receiving. A word I had absolutely no context or understanding of but that was routinely thrown around when I first began my “intimacy” coach training. “Giving. Receiving…” it was all very abstract to me and it wasn’t until I learned through experience in various relationships that I came to actually understand the concepts. In truth, it isn’t just “receiving” that I needed to learn and understand. It was “receiving well” in connection to others, particularly in the case of romantic partners. Unfortunately, it took a lot of “receiving” badly to be able to write freely on the topic.
Just a few weeks ago I was out with an old friend, someone I haven’t seen in ages – we taught together in Los Angeles back in 2011 so it had been about 10 years, nonetheless I still considered him a very dear friend. Upon realizing that we were both in New York, we made plans to get dinner. I showed up to the restaurant in eager anticipation. I glanced around the room and there he was! Overwhelmed with joy I rushed over to his warm embrace! He had arrived a few moments early and had taken the liberty of ordering two drinks for us – there was a beer and a margarita on the table. He said playfully, “pick one”. I then realized I hadn’t shared the news that I had stopped drinking since I had seen him last. Aware of the awkwardness I carefully and with the utmost gratitude for his effort replied, “Ah. Thank you so much for the kind gesture, but actually I don’t drink anymore”. Surprised he paused and looked at me curiously. “Wow. Good for you! No problem. I will handle it.” and placed them both in front of him. Moments later the server delivered a plate of dumplings to the table. “I ordered us some dumplings too!” Sh*t, I thought to myself. I have to break the news to him again. “Ah. I don’t eat gluten anymore either”. He laughed and said, “Alrighty then. Two strikes for Stephen tonight I guess.” We laughed it off, and being the great guy he is, he shrugged it off, made a few jokes and the conversation moved on.
So, what does any of this have to do with “receiving”?
Giving and receiving is an emotional exchange. A feedback loop. When someone “gives”, and it isn’t met with “reception” there’s an immediate disconnect, an immediate disconnection between the two. Had I met my friend Stephens offerings with, “You shouldn’t have ordered before I got here, I don’t drink anymore!” Or, “I don’t like dumplings!” or had said something ungracious, belittling, ungrateful, a) unkind and b) shame inducing (the two textbook no no’s in receiving 101), he easily could have felt rejected, embarrassed, ashamed- never how I want anyone to feel at my doing. Instead, I was conscious and aware of how vulnerable and generous both of his gestures were. I worked hard in my mind and body to feel genuine gratitude and appreciation. Even though I had to decline both of his offerings, I kept an open heart in my expression and communication. There was levity and he was able to infuse playfulness, because I worked hard to send every signal to him that I wanted to be connected. Just by making a few minor adjustments, taking a moment to be aware of how I received his offers, there was zero damper on the evening and we had a really wonderful dinner.
My dinner with Stephen however is a simple example with pretty low stakes. When it comes to romance, love, and sex things get quite a bit more complicated. When we open ourselves up to someone intimately there is far more vulnerability, far more risk, a more painful rejection and a more painful disconnection. If we are unaware of both when our partner is making an offering, and of ourselves as receivers, we can quickly do damage to even the most “healthy” love relationship. Case and point. Think back to a time when your partner made a sexual advance. That advance could have been subtle even, a look, a touch, an innuendo…maybe you abruptly turn away, ignore it, pretend you didn’t notice. Or maybe you outright refuse them. It doesn’t have to be harsh. You may not think much of it. You’re busy with a work project, cleaning the house, taking care of the kids… To you it seems they should obviously see that you’re busy with whatever it is. To them however…it’s a rejection. Not just a rejection of their sexual offering, but a rejection of them as a human being!
Consider a situation that a friend once shared in desperate search for answers and guidance. She had been in this relationship on and off where despite an obvious deep love for one another, the relationship felt doomed. Not unlike many couples they just could not communicate effectively. More specifically the couple struggled with chronic miscommunication-a breakdown in their ability to “offer” and “receive” well. It seemed that the intensity of the feelings each had for the other, and the level of vulnerability that came as a result of those feelings, made each one of their interactions challenging. My friend explained how one of their sexual encounters ended badly over what was nothing more than a misunderstanding. During this encounter her partner had made an attempt to pleasure her in a new, and “special“ way. Excited, and feeling good about his offering, he was eager to please her. Uncertain however about what was happening for one brief moment she hesitated, tensed up – the couple exchanged a look, but before she could explain what she was thinking and feeling, he read the “look” too mean he was doing something wrong, something bad. This was not the way she felt at all, but the damage was already done. He had felt a deep sense of rejection, shame for having made an offering that was not received well. In the end it turned out there had been so many moments like this, the emotional costs too great, for the couple to carry on.
All too often in relationships we don’t realize how our choices, our words, and actions are impacting one another. We fail to recognize that every little moment between us is actually an exchange. An offering, or a reception, and that we can be doing irreparable damage even when the exchange seems small or insignificant.
Once upon a time, when I had much less understanding of “reception” my ex and I had just moved to NYC and were in the process of furnishing our new apartment. I had given him a list of items to pick up at the store, and he returned with everything fine, but when I saw that he had purchased the cheap white plastic hangers and not the non-stick ones that I had wanted, I snapped. I “bitched” at him for having gotten the wrong hangers! Now having not specified which hangers it was certainly nothis fault. But as is not uncommon in romantic relationships I was caught up in the tension of the moment and lost it on him! He of course felt small, incompetent, as though he was being scolded like a 7-year-old. Here he had gone out of his way to offersomething kind, something nice for us. Instead of receiving him, honoring his amazing act of service to us and our apartment, I was belittling.
In this relationship I just wasn’t in a place to be able to receive the love and generosity that my partner offered to me. When we broke up, I looked back with a lot of pain and sadness, regret for how I treated him. It was this learning that inspired me to help other couples learn to honor one another and cultivate their connection, rather than desecrate it.
Below I’ve listed some useful tips on how to “receive well”. Learning to cultivate a closer connection, rather than unknowingly tearing it apart.
1) Slow Down
Learning to manage stress better is a quick and easy way to improve your love relationship(s). By learning to breathe and relax before you are engaging with your partner you are naturally more positive, less reactive, more available to receive them well. Learn to be present with your partner. Make sure to give them some of your time. That means putting away the phone, the computer, turning off the television to show them you value them, you are listening, they matter to you! Slowing down means listening more carefully ensuring you are learning to respond rather than react!
2) Become a Mindful Couple
As cheesy as this may sound at first, team work is a great way to strengthen your connection, creating a sense of being in this together! In our current wellness climate, taking time together to embark on a more present journey will not only improve your connection, it will improve your performance in every other area of your life too. Why not skip next week’s mimosa brunch and head to a float tank, salt cave, or splurge on a couple’s massage? Develop a routine of meditating together, before bed or first thing in the morning? This is guaranteed to deepen your connection, helping you to be more attuned to one another’s needs both in your day to day interaction and in the bedroom!
3) Be Aware of Body Language
How often have you tried to have an interaction with your partner while they were looking at their cell phone, watching television, or while engaging in some other activity? Even in a quick interaction make an effort to put down the device and make eye contact. Turn and position your body so that you are directly facing each other, make eye contact.
4) Stay In Your Body
What you’re feeling in your body is the experience of intimacy, letting someone see you, and letting someone in. Too often when we feel this intense emotion we run from it, go up into our heads attempting to rely on our intellect for protection. Intimacy creates sensations in your body that you may not be used to but subconsciously deeply crave. It’s the experience of being alive and having a real connection to someone else. This is what we unknowingly are chasing when seeking out relationships to begin with. Learn to lean into the emotions rather than running away! Embrace, and expand into it. Developing the muscles, staying in your body strengthens your capacity to receive more, and open the door for more of what you want most in your life.
5) Be Gracious
How do you react when someone makes a beautiful gesture or offering of themselves but get it wrong? First no need to feel shame or embarrassment. Your needs are still valid and important, even if they aren’t being met in this exact moment. Forcing yourself to receive something you don’t want is also not the answer, it will only lead to resentment, for you and them. There is a way to gracefully and graciously receive and still get what you want. It’s actually a lot simpler than you may think – stay in your body, go slow, open, let in what they’ve presented and say thank you. First express gratitude for the offering. Pause and say something like, “this is amazing, I can tell how much thought and care you put into making this dinner for me, or making these reservations for me, planning this trip for me, drawing this bath for me”, etc and follow with “I really appreciate you doing this and you know what would make this even better? – is if you brought me a glass of water, or if we had a room with a view, or if you bumped up the time to 7pm – would you be willing to do that?” Acknowledging them and their humanness and what it took for them to come out and offer what they did, with a lot of care followed by expressing what would need to happen for it to meet your needs, is the kind thing to do. You’ve probably had the experience of someone acquiescing and going along with something because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings, right? That doesn’t feel great either, that’s another form of rejection but in a passive, bypassing way… So, know that adjusting them and telling the truth is the *kind* thing to do even though it may feel uncomfortable. The first few times you may mess this up and someone’s feelings may get hurt. It’s ok. With practice and attention on each other it will get easier.
6) Learn to Ask for What You Want and Need
This one is probably the most important of all, and what we tend to find the most difficult. It is my responsibility to remember that when I’m ambiguous in what I am asking for, it is not fair to take that out on my partner. It’s easy to assume people know what’s going on in your head but if we don’t do the work to ask for what it is you want they can’t accommodate. This lack of communication breads nothing but resentment. Help people win with you and realize that what you have in your life is your own experience of creating what you want. If you’re tired of receiving things you *don’t want* look at where you’re not clear with yourself and with others. I want people to win with me and I also want the freedom to be able to receive unconditionally. When I’m receiving something I don’t want, I’ve learned to stop blaming others and look at how I created the situation I’m in and still receive it with grace and make the necessary adjustments. It’s an incredibly empowering way to live.
7) Be Responsible for Your Happiness
Finally, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to make you happy. It is your job to make you happy! Too often when we say things like “If they would only _____, then I would be happy.” The truth is that is a false assumption! Nothing can make you happy but you! Anytime you put your emotional wellbeing in the hands of something outside of your ability to control you’ve set the situation up to fail. It is simply never anyone’s job to make you feel any which way. That responsibility falls solely on you! It is also an impossible set up! Loving your partner for who they are, realizing that changing them is not your job, and working on changing your response to that thing you ‘can’t stand”, is entirely on you!