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This One Thing Can Change Everything

There's something I've learned in the course of both my work and my spiritual studies has made a profound difference in the way I view relationships which I'd like to share.

Often when working with couples on their intimacy and sexuality, one of the practices we incorporate is the idea of intentional, affectionate, nonsexual touch. You know, like hugs. Once, in a session,* a husband was telling me that his wife had gotten into the habit of hugging him more regularly, and that while he appreciated it, it felt a little strange.

Now this isn't unusual, especially when a couple has not been in the habit of offering each other casual physical affection. But I saw something on the wife's face that made me ask this question:

"Have you been hugging him because you want to, like you're feeling and enjoying it, or because you feel that you need to?"

She paused, and said softly: "I'm doing it for him."

Now there's nothing inherently wrong with offering touch because your partner wants it, unless you feel like you're violating yourself in the process.

I continued: "What does that mean, 'for him'?"

She explained: "Well, I see how much he needs it. And I guess it's not only for him but for myself and the kids too. I know that on the days I touch him, he's much calmer, and nicer to me and the family. On the days I don't, he's often moody and irritable. I realized that this is a relatively easy way to make things better for the household."

We all paused a beat. Sometimes, I need to spell out the unhealthy dynamic but in this case, the husband was able to say what we were all thinking: "You're hugging me because you're scared of how I act if you don't?" She nodded.

That's when it clicked for them. It's the "aha" moment when things begin to shift.

This pattern, offering "love" out of fear, is the backdrop for so much of the marital and sexual frustration that I see. Whether it's hugs, or sex, or date night, or even just making time to talk, when one human offers attention to another not out of a place of genuinely wanting to get close, but out of fear of how they'll react if not, the relationship loses intimacy and authenticity. (The way we correct this is by finding ways to lower the pressure, to eliminate the fear, and what generates it. This helps to create space and safety for the lower desire partner to connect at a pace that works for them. How that works specifically, will vary by couple and individual needs.)

In this week's Torah portion, we are introduced to one of the most fundamental Jewish prayers: the Shma. In the first paragraph, it says: "Love your G-d with all your heart, soul, and verily."

The imperative to love is its own fascinating topic, but Rashi comments there that one can't compare someone who serves out of fear to someone who serves out of love. That fear will only motivate until a point, but at some point, it wears out, and we'll say it's too much, and walk away. Negative, externalized motivation is draining- for the individual and for the relationship. It breed rifts and resentment.

On the other hand, loyalty that's motivated by love is invigorating. When I want to do for someone because I love them, the dopamine hit I get from bringing them joy motivates me to do more- not out of sacrifice, but symbiotically- it makes me happy to make them happy and vice versa. A virtuous cycle of giving and receiving.

(The Netflix show that came out last week about a woman's disillusionment with her Orthodox lifestyle illustrates what often happens when religion feels like a series of fear-based, externally imposed rituals, as opposed to a love-based relationship with G-d and community.)

Of course, love alone is not enough to keep a relationship going. Respect and responsibility come into play too. But real fear is usually corrosive, whereas love as the primary motivator will regenerate more connection and desire.

*Whenever I talk about something that happens in a session, it means one of two things: Either the client gave me explicit permission to share, or I'm not describing any one specific client, but a pattern I see repeatedly in my work. In this case, it's more the latter, but I've actually had clients ask me to share this idea on their behalf as well.

The good news about all this, is that when there is some degree of real love in the relationship and the safety to talk about this stuff openly, couples can deliberately shift from fear-based interactions to love-powered ones.

And I believe it can happen in the spiritual realm too.

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