Vitality and connection: A round-up of our week on Love… | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 12, 2024

“Life without love is like food without salt,” – Isabel Allende

At the Optimist Daily, we work to put a spotlight on the solutions that abound around us. While much of what we tackle are the “big” issues like the environment, medicine, science and energy, some of the most salient problems we all face are of the more personal nature.  Yep, love and relationships are not immune to becoming problematic. The good news? There are, of course, solutions for what ails them.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we took this week to focus on Healthy Connections and Intimacy, and we’re sure you’ve noticed we’ve been writing a great deal about love, relationships, romance, and sex.

Love can be fraught with anxiety and intrigue. Love can be comforting and fulfilling. Love is patient and it is kind, and at times it is confusing. Often it is all these things and all at the same time. At its best it has the power to create life, and give our lives meaning. What we don’t often remember though, is that love is best thought of as a verb – an action, a way of being, a muscle that grows stronger from being used – and not a “thing” to be taken for granted.  Even the easiest loves take effort to maintain.

Managing romance and long-lasting love

There are many forms that love can take, whether it be romantic, familiar, friend, or self. Its variety and complexity, and the knack love has to affect us each in different ways is part of the magic.

This week we were focused on the kinds of relationships that are usually infused with romantic feeling, or that spark our sexuality.  One favorite asked how we can navigate the lies between intense friendships and romantic lovers. Are the two mutually exclusive? Should they be? Should we expect our romantic partner also be our best friend? Some people derive enormous satisfaction out of their partner being their best friend. After all, friendship and romantic partnership share a lot of common qualities: e.g, trust, compassion, vulnerability. However, some relationship experts warn this could place too much pressure on one person to fulfill all our interpersonal needs.  In a slide toward codependency or a loss of individuality, an all-encompassing relationship where your one-and-only is the only important person in your life can be a recipe for disaster.  Allowing a bit of space, and looking to friends to fulfill some of our interpersonal needs can take some of the pressure off a primary relationship. This supports us in multiple ways, reinforces our uniqueness, and in the end can then make us a better partner.

Even in the best relationships, we don’t always see eye to eye. In romantic relationships, the stakes of disagreeing can feel particularly high.  That’s why learning how to argue in a healthy way that ends up bringing us closer is a skill worth mastering. Honesty is important, not just with your partner, but also with yourself to get to the core of what you both truly want. If you come to a fight in good faith, with understanding, and a willingness to be flexible while also giving your partner clear solutions-focused suggestions, it’s amazing how cathartic and healing a good fight can be.

Navigating the journey towards intimacy

This week, we also discussed ways to reframe our ideas around relationships and sex. For instance, ditching the term virginity can help young people better navigate their way into adulthood. The concept of “virginity” is not usually questioned, but as we move away from old-fashioned social structures built on gendered ideas of dominance, it makes sense to ask why it still carries such weight.  If we acknowledge its arbitrary origins and double-standards, focusing attention on “losing” something that doesn’t physically change anything about an individual or their worth deserves to be reconsidered.

Similarly, in a two-part series, we asked our readers to reexamination of the concept of “consent.” Rife with unconscious implications connected to dominance and submission, “consent” is a one-sided term that alludes to sex as something being “taken”, creating an active and a passive party. The benefits of reframing “consent” can lead to a more equal exchange.  The main suggestions revolve around offering a gift of intimacy which can be refused, and rephrasing interest as an invitation to share intimate time.

Going further in our exploration around mutually beneficial sexuality, we also wrote about the concept of healthy boundaries. Unpacking the difference between explicit and implicit boundaries can help us express what’s working and what needs to change in our most intimate relationships. Explicit boundaries are your personal boundaries which you have directly communicated with your partner, while implicit boundaries are the unspoken ones, the ones assumed on generalities in our society. As each of us is our first and most important advocate, it is important to know where our boundaries are, and learn how to discuss them with our partners.

Learning how to let love in

After all the exploration about how to establish healthy boundaries, we also had to explore the idea that sometimes our own fears about love can keep us from it.  It may sound counter intuitive, but for some of us, when someone that checks all of our boxes and showers us in love and affection, can make us really uncomfortable. Even when everything is going great, we want to run for the hills. In other words, sometimes the biggest obstacle to finding a great relationship is us. This was also the subject of our conversation on the podcast with Joyce Catlett, MA – co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships and Fear of Intimacy among other books. She explained that if we are used to being mistreated, or if we had to learn how to survive in sub-optimal childhood experiences, being truly loved can be very challenging.  We may not recognize ourselves and feel like we’re swimming in unfamiliar waters. Coming to understand and identify this tendency is often a big step toward treating it.

Sex and intimacy throughout the life-cycle

Like anything, good sex and intimacy are skills that build over time. We get better by practicing, and by getting advice from people who have been doing it a long time.  Practice makes perfect!

As we age, and our bodies change, so does our sexuality. Approaching these changes with curiosity and compassion, can help us find fulfillment in new directions. We took this reality to heart and offered tips for men, and a whole separate set for women — but lots of wisdom transcends gender and age. Taking time to listen to our partners, be patient, get creative, and remembering that love is a mutual effort that needs honesty from both participants. Trying new things, communicate new interests, remembering that sex and intimacy doesn’t always need to involve intercourse and can be liberating and fantastic.

Sex is about pleasure, but it’s also about connection. Those of us who decide to get into a relationship do so because we crave intimacy, and this is yet another area that can benefit from conscious practices of honesty. You can also build intimacy in your relationship by carving out time or task during the day that are just for you, shared chores, such as cooking or cleaning together and creating a sanctum all your own. You both can also benefit immensely by spending the mental energy to learn each other’s Love Language.

It never fails to be honest and open and discuss your wants, desires, and preferences of what you like best. There is also never ever any shame in seeking professional help when impasses are reached. We all need some help every once in a while.

Love yourself 

Of course, we could not neglect one of the most common and important loves: Self-love. Singles are one of the fastest growing demographics in the world, and there is a growing trend to avoid the stigma traditionally associated with being single and embrace the potential. If it strikes your fancy, being single can be an endless opportunity to embark on solo adventures, practice true self reliance and acceptance, and work a singular focus on finding your purpose in life. Whether you are independently with someone or vibrantly alone, an all important tenet is to love yourself.

And speaking of loving yourself…

Masturbation need not be the shame-ridden pastime it once was. We’re not telling you to show off about it, but masturbation should be a fulfilling and reverential time that you take just for you. This is a practice as old as time that can improve self-image, reduce stress, and let you explore your own sexual desires and discover what truly turns you on. Few things can unlock what your into like this and have the same well-researched number of health benefits such as improved immunity, cardiovascular health, prostate health, and even brightening your complexion. Do yourself a favor, and favor yourself often.

Sex, love, and research 

It’s fun, fulfilling, it expresses love, and sex is the means by which we reproduce. So you can bet that there will always be new research coming out about sex.

New data, for instance, has found that the most effective sex education includes information about about sexual pleasure. Research has shown that sex education that included “pleasure ed” has lead to a higher rate of condom usage, HIV and STD awareness, and use of knowledge-based sexual practices.

Finally, let’s end this round-up with some lighter tid-bits of learning… Did you know that bacteria get busy too? As it turns out, bacteria do “do it” and more. Recent studies have shown that the bacteria making up your gut biome have a good time all the while exchanging important nutrients that help them and you. For them, sex isn’t just about reproduction, it’s about feeding each other and improving one another’s survivability.  Sharing is caring after all.


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