Origins: Why Tenderness
We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.
— Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
Let’s step back from “perfect” because perfection implies no room for growth, and we expect our relationship to be growing as long as we are together, which we expect to be as long as we both are alive.
But hurray for Robbins’ point. We can create the relationship we desire by taking the necessary steps. (More about those later.) We’ve seen it happen to us. Again, we don’t claim perfection, but we share a level of closeness and tenderness that we could only have dreamed of when we first became a couple over 30 years ago.
We had both been married and divorced when we met, and after we fell in love, we shared our commitment to “make this one work.” We had some of the same relationship growth books on our respective bookshelves, which we saw as a reassuring sign — we were both willing to learn “what it takes” to grow and sustain a successful relationship.
Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves in couple counseling within a year of our first date. On the one hand it was a testament to our commitment to do whatever it takes, but on the other hand, “How on earth did we end up here?”
Despite what we learned from previous relationships and our readings, we had to work through some difficult dynamics that occur in many relationships, and we got stuck more than once. We bogged down in repetitive right/wrong arguments, during which we didn’t feel heard by each other and we were unable to acknowledge the validity of each other’s point of view.
Also, we were not effectively acknowledging each other’s feelings. In fact, they were sometimes even criticized (by one of us) as “wrong.” “How could you feel that way? All I said was . . .” It took one of us a while to learn to treat feelings as facts, worthy of respect and even honor in a relationship where contributing to each other’s happiness is a major life priority.
Then there is the insidious little issue of blame. It is not easy to create a truly blame-free message about a negative reaction to another person’s behavior. If you’ve made that attempt, you will hopefully empathize with our efforts to scrub any and all blame from our communications. (More about well-scrubbed “I-messages” later.) Blame can still pop up from time to time, but we’re now better able to catch it and apologize for it.
We also had to deal with the power struggle issue of independence vs. dependence, and become comfortable with the way each of us depends on the other. We should add that our interdependence has evolved to being more than comfortable – it is delightful, and part of our tender closeness.
Our wise and gentle counselor helped us over some of our humps. Fortunately, around the same time Bob started a masters degree program in conflict resolution, and we both got the benefit of collaborating on written assignments that analyzed our own conflict patterns.
We were making progress. Before the end of our second year together, Cheryl asked if we were ready to plan a wedding. Bob said he wasn’t, but was optimistic that we were making steady progress toward that level of commitment. You can imagine how well that went over.
We dove head first into learning mode. We continued our other readings. (A number of helpful books will be mentioned in these pages and will be in listed under RESOURCES: BOOKS on this website and also in our bibliography once the book is published.) We attended several relationship growth workshops. We talked, and talked some more.
Gradually our conversations about us took on a softer tone. Our conflict resolution style became gentler and more respectful of each other’s point of view. As our commitment to contribute to each other’s happiness grew stronger, each other’s feelings became more important than any of our “issues.”
We were learning the core of what we have come to call “living tenderly together.”
To us, tenderness is a gentle and caring sensitivity to each other’s feelings.
The core of living tenderly together is that honoring each other’s feelings is our most important priority. Our commitment is to act on that priority. This writing is about our efforts to live up to that commitment in our daily lives.
Once we shifted our primary focus to each other’s feelings, certain changes gradually followed.
First, we paid more attention to each other’s feelings, and to our own. One of our major life goals in being together is to contribute to each other’s happiness, so it became more important to know what each other was feeling and why. We shared a commitment to treat each other’s feelings gently and with care. We felt safer trusting each other with our feelings. It also meant that we were becoming more fully known to each other, which brought us closer. (Step 1.)
Second, we gentled our communication in significant ways. We agreed to banish blame, although it still sometimes shows up to remind us why it is so toxic. We agreed to convert criticisms to requests. We stifled sarcasm — the biting kind, not the fun kind. We reframed it as “scar-chasm” to remind us of its potential to cause pain and distance. Most importantly, we agreed that anger was worthwhile to acknowledge. However, we would quickly move to the more vulnerable feelings usually beneath anger, like hurt or fear, which would inspire empathy rather than defensiveness. (Step 2.)
Third, we evolved a gentle and respectful method of resolving conflicts between us. We found that without an effective way to resolve conflicts, disagreements can get stuffed away and create distance between us. We call our method “tender conflict resolution” because of our emphasis on giving our own and each other’s feelings primary consideration in seeking a mutually satisfactory solution. Also because of our emphasis on a blame-free process that respects and validates each other’s point of view. (Step 3.)
Fourth, we increased our efforts to nurture our closeness in big and little ways. We sought romantic opportunities that allowed us to celebrate our good fortune in finding each other and our commitment to each other. For over twenty years, we’ve had a practice that we call “our daily dance,” even though it doesn’t happen every day. We slow dance to a love song with sweet and tender lyrics. We’ve collected many such songs over the years and you can find lists of our favorites on this website under RESOURCES: SONGS. (Step 4.)
Fifth, we began to reframe desire by eroticizing tenderness. Our concept of sexiness keeps shifting away from curvaceous and toward coeurvaceous — our word for a shapely heart. Because of our accumulated exposure to depersonalized “sexy” images, it’s an ongoing process. The more tender and heartfelt our lovemaking becomes, the more erotic it becomes to anticipate sharing prolonged exquisite tenderness with our lifetime lover who desires our tender pleasure as much as their own. (Step 5.)
Sixth, we’re continuing to explore the edges of tenderness together. We’re still students of relationship growth, both in general and our own in particular. There are numerous resources available that foster couple growth and enrichment. The one that has meant the most to us is Better Marriages (bettermarriages.org – formerly the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment, or A.C.M.E.). We became a Certified Leader Couple over 20 years ago and have presented a variety of workshops at marriage enrichment conferences over the years. (More about this throughout these chapters, and especially in Step 6.)
We should note that the workshops we have presented relate to each of our steps. The most popular workshop was entitled “Living Tenderly Together,” and it combined all of the elements we have described. These pages will include the updated content from that workshop, and more that we have learned since that time. We’re also going to include exercises for those of you who would like to experience them.
Eventually we made enough progress that we did agree to plan a wedding — to coincide closely with the third anniversary of our first date. So now we celebrate both anniversaries several days apart, often with a trip that offers plenty of romantic opportunities.
WHY WE’RE WRITING THIS
We’re writing this because we wish we had gotten on a path to living tenderly together earlier in our relationship, and we believe that many couples could benefit from exploring the six steps that we described above.
We feel like we’re living a love story, and we’re hoping that if you’re reading this as a couple, you’re living your own love story and want to learn something new to sweeten and deepen it. There are some who will find all of this too warm and fuzzy to relate to, and we understand that. We love warm and fuzzy, and those are the couples we hope to reach.
If only one of you considers yourself warm and fuzzy (and we mean warm and fuzzy toward each other, not in general), we would still say give this a try. We believe that we are all still tenderlings at our core, and the more we are exposed to tenderness, the more our core comes to the fore.
We’d especially like to reach couples that are just starting out together and are potentially headed for some of the road bumps we experienced. (When this is published in book form, we’d love to see it given as a wedding present.)
This is not intended as a resource for couples whose relationship has been seriously wounded and needs to heal. We believe the best resource for that is Dr. Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, or a counselor who is trained in her method of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.
It’s possible that our writing could produce criticism. If so, it will hopefully be constructive and we will learn from it. We know we’re far from perfect. Because of that, it has taken a burst of courage to put this out there for all to see. Switching our focus away from our own self-consciousness to the potential benefit to others has helped. It was also helpful to discover Leonard Cohen’s inspiring lyric in his song, “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
HOW SENSITIVELY AND DELICATELY YOU HAVE LOVED
There’s another reason we’re writing this. We have come to believe that one of the primary purposes of our existence is to learn to love one another. We strongly identify with the statement of the Jesuit author, John Powell, when he wrote, “Love is your calling and destiny. It is the perfection of your human nature.” We especially identify with his statement that “in the end, the success of your life will be judged by how sensitively and delicately you have loved.” As we would put it, “by how tenderly we have loved.”
THESE PRECIOUS DAYS
Ours was a midlife coming together. We didn’t meet each other until we had each been married and divorced and single again for many years. That increased our awareness that we didn’t have a whole lifetime in front of us. The fact that life can turn on a dime was often poignantly reinforced during Cheryl’s years as a hospice social worker. Our wedding included the singing of a couplet from September Song, including “these precious days I’ll spend with you.” That line inspired the following poem, which hangs in a frame on our wall as a reminder of how precious our remaining time is with each other.
These Precious Days
Out of the vast universe,
In the entire history of time,
We have come together
To spend these moments
And the balance of our days
With each other.
Not knowing our time remaining
Or what tomorrow may provide,
We have this rare chance
To learn to love one another
Sensitively and delicately,
Fully and deeply.
With our brief span passing
At an ever faster pace,
We can let the days
Slip through our grasp
Or we can remember that
These are our moments now.
LIVING TENDERLY TOGETHER TAKES PRACTICE
Let’s return to the goal of living tenderly together. We still call it a goal because there is always something more we can learn about it. Maintaining a gentle and caring awareness of each other’s feelings doesn’t happen just because we want it to. Disagreements and other stressors pull us in the other direction. It is a learning process, and an ongoing one. There are skills involved that improve with practice. There are practices involved that only happen through attention and intention.
Each of the six elements of living tenderly together involves action on our part. Yes, there are times that an action takes effort. The good news is that these actions are so richly rewarded. The usual result is that we become closer, and we can have lots of fun doing so. There are also actions that can require courage, such as reaching across a distance that has developed.
Yes to a Dance
The pace and the flood of distraction
Creates drift that skirts disconnection
Until there is no satisfaction
And loving is far from perfection
Just then comes a note from Romance
Saying this is worth taking the chance
Daring to ask, just perchance
If s/he’d say yes to a dance.
SIX STEPS IN A COUPLE’S DANCE OF TENDERNESS
The six steps in a couple’s dance of tenderness support and enhance each other. They also support and enhance our commitment to contribute to each other’s happiness as a major life priority. They are each elaborated in separate chapters.
Step 1. Honoring Feelings. Seeking out and embracing our own and each other’s feelings as a path to closeness and to becoming fully known and deeply loved by each other — and to knowing ourselves better as well.
Step 2. Gentling Our Communication. Learning to transform anger, banish blame, convert criticism, and stifle sarcasm.
Step 3. Resolving Conflict Tenderly. Learning to resolve our inevitable differences with gentleness and respect for each other’s point of view, giving primary consideration to our own and each other’s feelings.
Step 4. Celebrating Our Love; Embracing Romance. Collecting favorite sweet and tender love songs for slow dances to reconnect and bring us closer. Embracing other romantic opportunities to celebrate our love.
Step 5. Eroticizing Tenderness. Reframing desire by eroticizing tenderness. Learning to experience exquisite closeness through prolonged erotic tenderness.
Step 6. Growing Together; Exploring the Edges of Tenderness. Exploring opportunities for relationship enrichment and growth together.
THE POWER OF TENDERNESS
The central thing we’ve learned and want to share is the power of tenderness to create and enhance a sweet, deep and at times exquisite closeness with each other. The other wonderful discovery for us is that tenderness can be cultivated, and like a well-tended garden, it will grow.
There’s also a benefit of living tenderly together that is a precious gift. The ongoing experience of having our feelings treated tenderly by each other creates a profound feeling of trust in each other’s love. It feels deep and unshakable, which is of tremendous comfort. It leads us to realistically aspire to the following relationship description, which has become our favorite toast; so here’s to you, and to us:
May your (our) togetherness always be:
Feather tender, and
Moonlight in love