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The Importance of Being Open in the Moment

How to get through the rough parts of a relationship.

Key points

  • Everything in relationships depends on openness and awareness of openness.
  • You can develop your ability to be aware of your openness and of your partner’s openness.
  • To have the most loving contact with the least injury, read the signals: go on green and stop on red.

What is the one most important thing you can do to keep the love you have or to get back the love you’ve lost? How can you succeed in what is possibly the most satisfying, frustrating, joyful, painful, fun, and interesting adventure of your life?

Aperture Awareness
Source: RgStudios/istock

Here’s the secret: Everything depends on your openness to your partner in each moment. Call this your emotional aperture. Your ability to sense that openness we'll call your Aperture Awareness. This is the superpower perfectly designed to steer you through the many dark and stormy moments of a relationship and help you move toward connection when the sun comes out.

You’re a couple because when you encountered each other in the vast sea of “others,” something clicked. Chemistry happened. You opened to each other in a way that felt special, unusual, maybe even magical. And the connection that happened because of this unusual openness inspired you to move forward. You may have said to yourself or to each other, “Let’s do this more. Again. Next Friday. A lot. Forever.”

Ninety-five percent of Americans will, at some point in their lives, attempt this amazing feat. Everything in their bodies, hearts, minds, and society tells them this should be the most natural and wonderful thing in the world. And so, with no training whatsoever, they set off to be a couple.

Two individuals, who since birth have specialized in learning to be separate and independent, now attempt an ongoing, intimate connection while maintaining and developing themselves as individuals. What could go wrong?

At some point, you discovered that your secret connection has another side to the secret: an increased vulnerability to feeling hurt, ignored, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated. These injuries, large and small, trigger your emotional aperture to close, slam the door. You’re now more protected, but also cut off from love and companionship. With the “end of the honeymoon” you are launched into the full mind-bending puzzle: open, and you have the pain of being emotionally injured; closed, and you suffer the loss of connection that you want and need.

So why all the secrets? Why can’t we learn about how to be a couple from watching other couples? Because watching other couples is like watching a magic show: the important stuff is kept out of sight. Much of what couples do to create or destroy love happens behind closed doors.

So how do you succeed?

First, stop doing the two things that most people do when connection is lost: overthinking and disconnecting.

Stop trying to figure it out. Each moment in the life of your partnership is a complex weaving of your histories, with each other and with other people, your personalities, your patience, dreams and desires, what you had for breakfast, and how you slept last night. Fortunately, you do not have to figure out the complicated calculus of all of the factors in order to steer through the seas of a relationship. In fact, oddly, thinking too much about any of these things can actually get in the way.

Don’t give up or disengage. Instead, quiet your thoughts to make room for noticing what is happening in the moment, in particular your openness and that of your partner.

Aperture awareness is a felt sensation. Just as we do not “see” by consciously thinking about the information our eyes absorb, we do not become aware of aperture through thought and analysis. Rather, we learn to feel it and then to pay close and careful attention. Simply asking yourself, “Do I feel open or closed right now?” directs your attention to this felt experience. With practice, the experience of aperture awareness becomes more accessible. This same ability extends to being able to sense your partner’s openness. When you are interacting, ask yourself, “Is my partner open or closed at this moment?” Then pay attention to what you can sense about this.

An open aperture feels like safety, relaxation, trust, optimism. A closed aperture feels like danger, wariness, pessimism, anxiety, unease. Some people register these physically. Looseness, softness, and warmth often signal apertures opening. Tightness, hardness, or coldness, especially in your chest, belly, or face, often signal to us a closed aperture, your own or your partner’s.

The uncomfortable sensations of “closed” happen when the “danger, danger” signal is activated, sending various body systems into a state of tension and readiness for fight, flight, or freezing, each of which closes our emotional apertures. This warning system makes sure we are not going to get eaten, or experience the emotional equivalent of that, when a friendly face suddenly darkens.

Let’s say you’re in a tricky conversation with your significant other and one or both of you start to close down. You each want to be seen, heard, and understood, but this is unlikely to happen if you’re closed. Worse yet, continuing to try to talk is like running a stoplight: someone is likely to get hurt. The injuries may be the frustration and discouragement that can squeeze the life out of your relationship, or they may be the more serious injuries that happen when one of you says hurtful things.

Using your aperture awareness, learn to stop on red (closed) and go on green (open). When either of you notices that your own aperture or your partner’s aperture has closed, follow a simple formula: Stop, Reassure, Inquire.

  • Stop the conversation to check in about openness.
  • Reassure each other of your caring and interest in having a good talk.
  • Inquire about what is needed to improve the conversation and re-open.

As each of you re-opens, go on green. Move toward connecting in ways that help each of you to stay open.

Life as a couple can be complicated and mystifying. The key to keeping the love you’ve found or rebuilding the love you’ve lost is in keeping your eye on the north star, openness.

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