Hold Tight Gently

The title of this post comes from the book Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS.

One of the tricky skills you need to create satisfying romantic/sexual relationships is being able to balance the need for connection and the need for individuality. Each of them is essential, though every person has a different balance point, from moment to moment and on average. The better you get that moving towards that ever-shifting sweet spot (more of a zone, really), the more ease you’ll find in your relationships.

It’s really unfortunate that one of the dominant stories about love is that it’s all about creating more connection, moving closer, and increasing intimacy. While that’s certainly part of it, what that story leaves out is that we also need room for individuality.

Connection without individuality easily slides into enmeshment and codependency. When that happens, sex usually stops, and for good reason. Why would you want to do something that creates more connection when you’re already feeling smothered? As David Schnarch, Esther Perel, and countless others have pointed out, we need a little distance in order to enjoy coming back together. That gives us the space to see each other with new eyes.

The challenge is that it can be difficult to tell the difference between your partner asking for a little breathing room and being abandoned. Sometimes, that’s because your partner might not be graceful at asking for some space. Sometimes, it’s because they didn’t say anything until they felt trapped, so they pushed away hard. (Protip: asking for space before it gets to the crisis point makes it a lot easier to ask gently.) And sometimes, it’s because you’re running an anxious attachment pattern. Folks who do that tend to worry about being abandoned, so they grab on and not let go.

On the flip side, people with an avoidant attachment pattern generally worry about being smothered. Their big fear is that they’ll get lost in the relationship or the other person’s emotions, so they tend to hold back or withdraw when things get too intense. For them, the challenge is in learning to move towards connection without running away in order to protect themselves. They need to learn how to grab on and trust that they won’t get overwhelmed.

Of course, not everyone runs one of these patterns. Some people have a secure attachment pattern, which gives them the flexibility to move together and apart with the ebbs and flows of their relationship. In my experience, most people are actually a mixture of them- we get anxious in some situations, we get avoidant in others, and sometimes, we feel secure. We usually have a dominant pattern, and for those of us who tend towards anxiety or avoidance (or both), we each have the potential to move towards security.

Secure attachment is something that some children learn. For those of us who didn’t, we can learn how to do it adults. I find that it’s like learning a new language as an adult. It takes longer and is less intuitive than when we learn a language as a child. And it’s something we can do with time, practice, and support.

Healing your attachment patterns and moving towards a more secure one happens in a relationship. It doesn’t have to be a romantic one. Coaches and therapists can help here, as can family and close friends. Since we learn these habits in relationship (generally, parent/child), we have to grow new skills in relationship. One important piece of that is learning how to hold tight gently.

Holding tight gently means being able to let someone know that they’re important to you. It means opening up to them with vulnerability and authenticity, and inviting them to do the same. Holding tight gently also means giving yourself and the other person the room to be your individual selves, with your own needs, desires, and wants. It means learning to navigate your differences, celebrating your uniqueness, and making space to not always be in perfect agreement.

Holding tight gently means creating room for the friction of disagreement. While that friction can create sparks, it’s also how you polish each other like tumbling gemstones. Friction can ignite fear, anger, and shame, and it can also ignite joy and passion.

Holding tight gently means having the serenity to accept the other person as they are in this moment, the courage to support their potential, and the wisdom to know when (and how) to create room for growth. It’s the most healing and loving thing we can do for other people, and it’s the most healing and loving thing we can do for ourselves.

It’s also the scariest thing we can do because it requires us to look at our deepest fears. If you expect to be abandoned, holding gently will be scary. If you expect to be smothered, holding tight will be scary. When you have the courage to lean into your edges, it can be an incredible opportunity to heal old wounds and traumas, to discover new ways of creating relationships, and to be genuine and vulnerable with another person.

Learning how to hold tight gently is the path of moving towards a secure attachment style. The most effective way to do it is to practice it. Give yourself room to try different approaches and grow from the experience. When you’re starting out, you probably won’t know that you’ve gone too far in one direction or another until after it’s already happened. With practice and experience, that gets easier, and there will still be times when you realize after the fact that you held too tightly or not tightly enough.

While we can only develop these skills by trying them with another person, there are a few books that will make it easier. I’ve read a lot of stuff about attachment patterns and I think that Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller has the most understandable description of how they work.  Making Love Real by Danielle Harel and Celeste Hirschman (two of my teachers) offers some excellent skills and tips for expanding your abilities.

You’ll still need to try different approaches out and experiment to find what works for you. Reading about relationships is like reading about proper form for exercise. It helps a lot, but only if you actually do it. On its own, reading won’t get you there.

Holding tight gently a practice of calibrating things as they shift from moment to moment. It’s similar to how you adjust your speed and distance when you’re driving a car or riding a bike. When you’re new at it, you have to put a lot of thought into it. With experimentation and experience, you might not even need to think about it at all because it just happens.

Getting over that learning curve can seem scary or even impossible. If you want some support and guidance to make it happen, get in touch with me and let’s schedule a free 30 minute Get Acquainted call over Skype. We can talk about whatever is going on for you and explore how coaching can help. When you discover how holding tight gently works for you, you’ll see how much more ease it brings to your relationships and your sex life.