Fostering an Open-Hearted Relationship

December 20, 2015

The heart is an amazing organ. Whether you are a cardiac surgeon fascinated by its physiology or an athlete dedicated to expanding its capacity, a poet writing to capture its mystery or just an average person loving another person, the heart has long been considered more than just muscle pumping oxygen to the cells of the body. It is the metaphoric center of our feelings of love.

Research on the rhythm of the heartbeat reveals that when a person is feeling openhearted, compassionate and loving, the heart beats in a smooth, regular pattern. The feeling of warmth or glow is a physiological reality, not just a metaphor.

Conversely, when a person is angry, anxious or afraid, the heart beats in a more jagged way. Communication between heart and brain is irregular and a chain reaction is set in motion that of constricted blood vessels, heightened blood pressure, lowered immunity. The heart clenches.

Our intimate relationships…with spouses or partners, parents and children, siblings and friends…can trigger both the opening up and the closing off of the heart. We draw closer to one another with a desire for emotional connection and when we experience the interest and enthusiasm of the other person, our heart opens up. But when we sense disinterest or rejection or when our interactions trigger anger and hurt, our heart closes off. Sometimes our efforts to connect with those we love lead us unexpectedly to places where old wounds are reopened.

We can choose to foster an open-hearted relationship—by being more self-aware, by staying interested in and paying attention to others and by working through the sometimes painful feelings that cause our hearts to close. Here are some tips for greater self awareness:

Breathe. Invite your heart to do its job—to deliver all the oxygen you can draw into the lungs with each deep breath you breathe. It is hard to stay closed off from your self when you breathe deeply. Connection with the breath can also mean connection to the spirit. Most spiritual traditions include traditions or disciplines that invite the opening of the heart, through prayer, meditation, or physical practices such as yoga.

Pay attention. Observe the condition of your heart. Is it clenched and closed off in anger or fear? Do you feel judgmental? Hurt? Or is it relaxed and open? Do you feel compassionate, peaceful, loving? Take time to notice what you are feeling and to be curious about why you are feeling that way.

Open yourself to give. Awareness of your own desire for connection can open your eyes to the needs and desires of those you love. When we consider others, rather than ourself, we often can find a way to reach out. Keep the mindset that this reaching out—through interest, attention, time and caring—is a gift. When we focus on others, we rise above feelings that keep us closed off, like shyness or fear of rejection.

Open yourself to receive. Notice how others reach out to you. Sometimes we miss another’s expression of caring because they don’t match our expectations. When we are as relaxed and open about receiving as we are about giving, we notice an abundance, rather than a scarcity, of gifts.

Talk. Sharing your desires and reactions with the person you want to connect with opens communication. You have the chance to find out if your efforts to reach out had the effect you had planned, to ask questions, to explore your connection. And if you find yourselves tapping into inner hurts or conflict between the two of you, seeking help from a relationship counselor can help you find a deeper connection.

This poem by e. e. cummings: “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond” captures the delicate dance of intimacy: it’s desires, frailties and promises.

somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Dr. Sara Corse is a staff clinician and the Director of the Community Partnership Initiative. She is also the author of “Cradled All the While: The Unexpected Gifts of a Mother’s Death.”