The Work of Relationships: Tending Love


Hate is not the opposite of love;

Apathy is.

- Rollo May

here are a number of reasons why devout people go to church, an important one of which is this: the underlying human traits that support spiritual faith require regular tending. Congregants dedicate an hour or so a week to impassioned and inspiring tutorials about good living practices that are coupled with enjoyments such as choral music, stained glass splendor and fellowship. Donuts and coffee might even be part of the scene! Church services prepare members of the congregation to reenter their lives a little better informed and a little more resolute.

No sacrilege intended, but there is much to be gained by churching a long-term relationship in secular rituals that support the faith that is also required when we promise devotion to a life partner, a child or a friend. This article describes a potent strategy for putting your commitment money where your attachment mouth is.

Relational faith

I can’t imagine where a thoughtful person would have to live on this planet for her or him not to realize relationships take work. But I also can’t imagine that many folks could specifically address what the work of commitment entails. This disconnect breaks my heart because I know when people are faced with a vague and endless task, few willingly put that task on their To Do List. The work of relating doesn’t get on the list therefore, and therefore it doesn’t get done. It’s not that individuals are unwilling to work – most people truly are – it’s that they just don’t know what to do.

In a strong relationship, both members of the dyad have faith in themselves and faith in the other. The work of a relationship, then, is bolstering this bilateral faith. But how does one do this, especially given that faith is supposed to exist in the absence of proof? It would probably be helpful to refine our grasp of the concept of faith before we work to design a strategy for bolstering it. To do so we need to make some distinctions among faith, love and trust.

Background information


The Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Passionate Marriage

- Richard Schnarch



- May Sarton


When you have faith in someone, you feel optimistic that the person has both the ability and the willingness to meet you halfway in the co-creation of a healthy attachment. You are willing to bank on that optimism as you move forward with donations of the time and the effort needed to establish a reliable bond. If your hope proves to be justified, you will be well met with reciprocal donations. Over time in a vigorous partnership, faith strengthens to support a deeper and deeper love, which, in turn, allows for an even more profound faith. This strengthening cycle occurs if, and only if, both participants are capable of keeping the faith. Like a 401k, relationship equity grows most steadily with matching contributions. As they say in shrink school, steady improvement of relational resources due to shared investment fidelity enhances the formation of an egalitarian, bilateral affiliation. Shrinks are a romantic group.

Love, such an important, foundational and pervasively misunderstood topic, is covered in depth in the previous, lengthy article. In a nutshell, I define it this way: Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and for facilitating the allocation of resources. That definition may confound you as there are a lot of words representing existential, feminist and psychological thought in it. It's only important here to understand that love is not a feeling but is a structure created intentionally between two folks. When a relationship is churched, the components underlying the structure of love are routinely inspected, repaired, maintained and expanded.

Trust is the extrapolation of trajectory. Again, probably a confounding sounding definition. What it means is we can predict the level of effort a person will likely expend in a relationship by extrapolating their average behavior over the post-courtship length of the relationship. Let’s unpack that a bit. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, but when it comes to relationships, there’s a little hiccough in the equation. It turns out that there are two basic types of behavior that occur over the course of a relationship – courtship and co-construction. And, to add to the confusion, the two overlap in time. Courtship, which feels a little like free falling, is the thrilling discovery of a potential new love. We are enthralled by the other person as we uncover all the delightful ways we line up as a couple. As if that’s not enough, we are also enthralled by the fact that they are enthralled with us. Co-construction, on the other hand, is the more effortful process of consciously establishing the covenants, conditions and restrictions of the unique relationship that is being created. (Again, for more details on the creation of relational CCRs, see the article on The Architecture of Love.)

Information from the latter stage, co-construction, is what we use to predict future behavior because it reflects an intentional, effortful performance that is most likely integrity driven. That is to say, if both of us have been able to work together to design and build our relationship, then we can more fully trust we will be able to continue doing so.

Taken together, the words “faith”, “love” and “trust” combine to define churching the relationship in this way: It is the substantiation of faith in the relationship using the trustworthiness of sustained effort which is specifically focused on studying the skills that underlie the creation of a solid love with the person to whom we have chosen to attach. Or more colloquially, churching the relationship requires two people who are willing to stop everything in order to sit with each other for the sole purpose of deepening the connection between them in the service of strengthening the relationship.

Before we get to the pragmatics of what churching entails, let me address a few ways couples bark up the wrong tree in their – quite sincere – efforts to put some pizazz back into a relationship.

Common relationship mistakes

You hear of many couples who earnestly schedule date nights in a genuine attempt to put work into their relationships. Too often, however, these dates end up creating almost unendurable pressure. Pressure to step out of a hectic week to look wonderful, feel terrific, talk deeply and follow all that with inspired sex. What is happening in this “dating” situation is that the couple is expecting both courtship behavior and courtship feelings to magically reappear in a relationship that is well beyond the courting phase. Remember, courtship is that expansive time early in a relationship when everything feels effortlessly perfect. It reflects a stage in a relationship not the state of a relationship. This crush feeling happens in romantic relationships, obviously, but also in friendships, parent/child relationships and with our pets, and it is time limited in all of them. But back to date night, when people cannot regain those past feelings of infatuation with the significant other gazing at them across the bright, white tablecloth, they fret that they are not “in love” any longer.

Something similar happens when parents try to force quality time with their recalcitrant offspring. Again, the pressure of, say, a fancy family vacation often leaves the parents and kids feeling even further estranged. If the underlying skills aren’t there to support the bond and repair relational wounds, no week at a dude ranch is going to cure relationship ills.

An additional way people spin their wheels when trying to put effort into a relationship is to grab for courtship behaviors or dramatic gestures that either worked in the past or that advertisers position as romantic. Here’s my thinking on this: the commercial, courtship version of romance works only because it signifies the act of choosing. When – at the beginning of a relationship – someone brings us flowers or takes us out to a lovely restaurant or buys us a new fishing reel, that act symbolizes the fact that they are choosing us out of all the potential partners they could have chosen. That is an internal-opiate-generating situation like no other, which is why so many women have dried up corsages stuck in a box somewhere! What gets confusing is that the gesture gets conflated with the act of choosing, meaning people think that the gesture can regenerate that lovely, loving feeling. It cannot because in a long-term relationship (if it’s at all stable) the choice to be with that person has already been made. Clearly, then, a dozen roses won’t do much to jump-start a relationship that is stalled.

What is actually romantic in a partnership that is past the wooing stage is the “I choose to work with you on this” deed.

Churching a relationship represents an extremely robust version of the “I choose to work with you on this” deed.

Churching a relationship

What all couples past courting need are co-construction skills that will allow them to effectively get the relationship running again and to keep it that way. They need to church the relationship first and go on dates or show up with flowers once the relationship gears have been greased, for then those gestures generate tender feelings of safety. (Feelings of safety are hugely important in terms of relationship solidarity. For more on this see the section on sex below.)

To church a relationship is to routinize the necessary relationship practice with scheduled weekly rehearsals. In addition to concrete skill building, successful churching will create the quantity time within which quality time can occur. And both ironically and sweetly, this willingness to attend often brings back a soupçon of the crush energy we all crave.

You’d probably like me to me a little more specific, so let me back up and start at the beginning.

1. Pick a day of the week that tends to have the most flexibility for both of you in terms of scheduling.

2. Commit to having a weekly meeting of between 60 to 90 minutes on that day.

3. Find a peaceful setting with low risk for interruptions. Treat this location as a sanctuary and make it as physically comfortable, as aesthetically pleasing and as acoustically private as possible.

4. Decide together on a source of tutorials. Information can be provided by reading aloud together or listening to novels, self-help books, websites, philosophy papers, podcasts and so on; watching web talks or movies; answering relationship surveys; or any structured activity that focuses the time on deepening your understanding of how relationships work, how people work, how healing works, etc.

5. Sweeten the deal with accouterments that appeal to you both – any lovely rituals, beverages, treats, music, journals, white boards, etc. are appropriate.

6. Breathe in and begin.

Why bother?

How will this ritual help build and maintain a relationship?

First, churching a relationship reflects a commitment made real by our showing up weekly for time spent in thought, discussion and reconnection. In other words, we substantiate our relationship vows with reliable attendance and effort at weekly meetings. Additionally, to the extent both people in the relationship protect this churching time, it comes to represent an observable and frequent pledge to work together to get better at being a couple. Churching then becomes an extremely prophylactic behavior because it provides an almost constant source of stipulation to the person we purport to love, which is a very advanced and potent relationship-building skill.

Second, churching provides a stable and fairly safe forum for the partners to bring up issues when they are in their most reasonable and responsive state of mind. When both participants are maturely focused on their communication efforts, there is simply more space for listening, hearing, learning, problem-solving, and so forth. The resulting pattern of curiosity-flavored conversations teaches them that they can consistently address and resolve differences between them. During their meetings they also learn to handle the types of problems that, left unattended, tend to grow to unmanageable levels. What terrific ways to build faith in the relationship so that when stressors rattle them during the week, they can each rest assured it will often be both fitting and successful to wait until their next meeting to bring up their concerns.

Third, it creates “psyche memory” that is similar to muscle memory. Creating new relationship habits requires neurological changes that can be tricky to make during a busy week. We are much more likely to effectively grow and change in positive ways when we rehearse psychological skills under optimal conditions. If we rehearse new skills during a churching session, they will be reliably there in our minds ready for us when we need those skills in vivo.

Fourth, it doesn’t take too long for the churching process to clarify the true mechanics of building trust between two people. I cannot stress the value of this aspect of churching too greatly because misperceptions in this arena are very common and very destructive to partnerships. What I see over and over and over in couples counseling are one of two things: two people who are absolutely committed to not ever fighting so that nothing difficult ever gets brought up or resolved; or two people who are trapped in reactive rather than proactive behavior toward each other and toward the relationship meaning fighting is persistently just below the surface. These people are not idiots. What traps them is a misunderstanding around the difference between clean fighting and destructive fighting. It is wise to spend some time early in the churching process developing clean and effective fighting styles.

Fifth, people are often confused about the difference between earnest wishing and earnest effort. Let me expand on that dilemma now. The misunderstanding around the role of earnestness is created by the following process: when couples are in crisis and they move through the crisis by fighting, talking or therapy, what allows them to have the courage to tackle the crisis is an earnest wish for the relationship to continue. When the crisis is resolved, wondrous feelings of closeness occur and are inadvertently tied to the earnest wishing rather than the earnest effort. This is the result of the way our brain is designed. Earnest wishing is a strong feeling and it attaches to the joy of resolution within our minds leading us to believe that one causes the other. The crisis passes, the fears recede, the couple’s earnest wishing subsides and the two go about their business. When troubles reoccur, they will leap to the wrongheaded assumption that all they have to do is regenerate that earnest wishing. But when they do, nothing improves. If the couple can understand that it is the focused effort that brought about the euphoric sense of closeness, it becomes easier for them to imagine that ongoing relationship work can lead to greater closeness in addition to fewer crises. Churching helps couples learn that earnest wishing motivates the focused effort necessary for change, but it cannot replace it.

Sixth, many people (perhaps more often men) feel very reassured by the idea that, for at least an hour a week, they know just what they are supposed to do with respect to putting work into a relationship. In this way, tackling the novel work of churching your love can paradoxically reduce the otherwise overwhelming, albeit vague, sense that there are myriad things we should be doing at all times. So, when two people agree to limit the grinding and polishing efforts to a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, no one has to fear hearing the “we have to talk” phrase coming at them willy-nilly throughout the week.

Seventh, because churching serves as a container limiting the amount of time and energy the couple dedicates to working on their attachment, the structure and schedule provide much of the willpower needed to sustain the work. Making something a routine always makes it easier to initiate.

Eighth, good investment advice reminds us to “pay ourselves first.” This is also true in developing the emotional equity that stabilizes a long-term relationship. When we agree to church the relationship, we are agreeing to routinely endow our relationship with the time and energy needed to grow our equity. When Fate drops a problem on our relationship, and it will, we will have the psychological resources in reserve to meet the resulting challenges.

And, last but not at all least, when the process of churching goes well, the couple develops:

• a common set of relationship-building tools

• a rich relational vocabulary

• a greater ability to recognize potentially difficult boundary situations

• a greater understanding of what keeps this particular relationship running smoothly

• the ability to move between process and content during difficult interactions

• a shared history of weekly risk taking

• a calmer weekly existence

If a couple agrees to dedicate time each week to the co-creation of the love between them, they are well on their way to creating the type of relationship that others notice. Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a supple, resilient and enviable love?


Religious ministers are trained professionals who work hard on their sermons, readings, hymn selections and so forth in order to provide their congregations with both information and inspiration. It’s neither realistic nor appropriate to expect someone in the dyad to serve in this role. Yet, we must have a curriculum that can do the work of a minister because it’s not enough to simply sit down with each other and talk.

While some couples may have the ability to sort through difficult interpersonal problems using only what they already know about the workings of intimacy, most people have too limited an understanding of love to work their way out of a problem. Again, couples very often misinterpret a lack of information as a lack of caring because they look identical from the outside. Right? How can you tell if your partner is unresponsive because he has given up or because he is frozen by his uncertainty about what to do? This self-referencing dilemma can be eliminated by using input from experts in the form of tutorials. (Let me state here emphatically that it is never your fault when you have a limited understanding of an important life skill. It is ALWAYS the result of a faulty, incomplete upbringing.)

It is critical, therefore, for the couple to spend time on the selection of the material to be used during the churching. Try out any items that seem relevant to either of you as you work together to find input that teaches you both the next psychological skill you need to know or that deepens your understanding of skills you already have.

At its best, the source material facilitates the formation of an identity for the couple – “this is who we are” and “this is who we want to become” – as well as sharpening the identity of each person in the couple – “this is who I am” and “this is who I want to become.” In addition to formulating who the couple wants to be, churching can also explore what the couple wants to do as they navigate each stage of life together. These goals may sound overly ambitious or too nebulous, but I predict you will be surprised by how quickly the two of you develop common relationship vernacular, values and communication styles, three critical skills needed to form a well-articulated relationship that can and will support personal growth and change.

When you find good material, try to let it move you back and forth through time. In other words, as you listen to it, think about what the information stirs up in you from your past, the present or your dreams for your future in addition to what it tells you about your relationship. Learn to harvest those lightening quick reactions your mind has to the reading. If you need time to think, please ask for it.

And here are some questions to ask each other to jump start discussions:

What do you think that last paragraph meant?

Do you think this material relates to us? In what way?

Is this material bringing up any memories for you?

Did your parents ever talk about any of this with you?

I don’t think this is a problem in our relationship. Do you?

Can we practice this skill right now?

Does this topic seem valuable to you?

And enjoyments

You need to also spend some time designing the enjoyments. Maybe I should say you get to spend some time designing the enjoyments. All aspects of your churching endeavors are up for uniqueing. The setting, the accoutrements, the refreshments, the rituals, the budget, the timing, the frequency and so on are all yours to design. Have fun making your churching process lovely and pleasurable! And, if you send me your ideas, I’ll post them here on the website.


Here are some suggestions that can help the meetings stay fruitful.

In the beginning of your churching career, try to remember that the primary task of the churching process is to develop the ability to speak more and more profoundly with each other about the deeper aspects of being two unique humans trying to love each other. As such, strive to keep the conversations less problem focused and more proactive-learning-and-growing focused. It's not that problems won't or shouldn't come up, it's that we are ultimately working to build a well-stocked, shared toolbox full of relationship skills, both basic and advanced.

Having said that, don't be surprised if problems come up early and intensely, making the process of learning how to church the relationship feel messy and chaotic. You may need to tinker with the timing, source materials or speed of the work in order to find the right combination that allows each of you to work at your best (more on this below). If, however, the initial attempts too often degenerate into fighting, it may be smart to use a professional therapist to guide you through the process a few times before you try it on your own.

It doesn’t appear to be helpful to have each person read the source material ahead of time with the expectation that the couple will jump in to discuss it when they meet. A lump of material will feel just like that – a lump – when you try to start talking. It is much easier to unspool the information by reading it aloud together. An effective pacing will evolve for each couple that optimizes their ability to make the most of the subject matter as each person gains confidence in terms of setting the pace, stopping to discuss points or just stopping the discussion to regroup.

But the coolest thing about reading the material aloud together is that it’s sexy to do so. No kidding. When we share psychologically-minded material real time with a partner, intimacy automatically follows. More on this below, too.

Any way you parse the reading material is fine. Sometimes the entire session is filled with the reading. Sometimes it only takes one paragraph or even one sentence to launch a generative discussion. The only trick here is to be sure each participant feels entitled to stop the tutorial when they want to think, talk or review.

It is wise to NEVER use any of the insights that arise during tutorials and discussions as ammunition to promote gripes you have about the other. It would not be helpful, for example, to take step seven from a list of effective relationship behaviors to exclaim, “See. Just like I’ve told you a thousand times, you should…”

It’s also wise to refrain from EVER using self-disclosures presented to you as weapons down the road. When anyone is courageous enough to share a vulnerability, that disclosure is unutterably sacred. Throwing it back at the person, even in the most subtle and this-is-for-your-own-good way, is always both mean-spirited and counterproductive. Mean-spirited because we know better than to throw earnest moments of sharing back at the person who shared, and counterproductive because it amounts to punishing good behavior. Weaponizing self-disclosure is surprisingly difficult to avoid, so be vigilant for statements ready to come out of your mouth like “You even said yourself that you need to work on being more tidy.” or “I was very impressed when you told me last week that you realized you are emotionally shut down.”

Do not feel despair if the same issues get revisited and revisited. Insight and behavior change often require diligent effort in order to traverse a long, long practice plateau. When you’re on that plateau, you may believe that you are not getting anywhere as a couple, but you are. What you are acquiring, in very real terms, is a track record of a willingness to engage. That is the action of love – being willing to stay committed to working out the details of life together. It is important to remember that nowhere in the definition of love, trust, faith or commitment is the requirement that the couple solves every one of its relationship problems. All relationships have long-standing troubles that take years and years to smooth out. And some relationship problems are the result of cultural issues that our entire human species hasn’t even figured out. So, please be patient with your progress and proud of the sustained effort. Many experienced couples develop a humorous shorthand for their more resistant problems that can help everyone relax a bit while the work of repair is being done.

Speed of understanding is not a virtue, especially when churching a relationship. If one partner is slower to grasp the essence of the material, that person gets to dictate the speed of the conversation. It is often the case that women, with their parallel-process wiring, are able to integrate emotional information faster than are men, who are wired more in series. The astute woman checks in regularly with her male partner to see if he has blown a fuse. If so, it is time to revisit the material and talk it through more thoroughly.

Anxiety needs to be anticipated and understood. Both thinking about and discussing existential, relational issues raise anxiety, so churching can be expected to increase your heart rate a bit. But if anxiety is seen as something painful to be avoided, then folks (again, often the men folks) will start to believe that thinking and discussing are too uncomfortable to tolerate. While it’s true that high levels of anxiety are truly painful, it’s also true that low to moderate levels of anxiety often indicate high quality engagement with life. The goal here with respect to anxiety is to find the highest level of invested nervousness that both can tolerate. Thus, if either member of the team feels greatly unsettled by anxiety, this would be a good topic to study and master together before proceeding to other areas of relationship building. It also might be helpful to study appropriately constructed defenses as well as healthy fighting styles early on in the churching process.

Action items are helpful. If, at the end of a churching session, each member of the couple has a specific relational task they want to practice, there’s a lot to be said for jotting it down and keeping it somewhere noticeable. (I think the fellow who invented sticky notes may have done as much for humanity as all the therapists ever born!) Another nag, however. It’s not nearly as effective when the action items come from the other person. Self-described tasks are always more likely to be implemented.

Critical input, like salt in soup, should be carefully introduced. Discussion without critique can be bland and unproductive, but you don’t need much to spice things up. Effective critique occurs when the speaker is skilled at both assertion and empathy, so these might be two articles to also put on your agenda for early in the churching process.

Note: It is important to remember that research indicates we should routinely be experiencing five times more positive thoughts about our honey than critical thoughts. I’m not talking about thoughts that precipitate sweeping feelings of passion when I say positive thoughts. I’m talking about the fleeting observations and reactions we are all having continuously to our world – including, obviously, to our significant other. These micro-moments of attachment need to be honestly registered and often shared, even when we are miffed at our spouse. Again, there is an article here that would be helpful to review early in the churching process. If this positive ratio is not true in your relationship, if the very foundation of the partnership feels shaken or if feelings of loathing seem to dominate one or both members of the dyad, it would be prudent to seek out a professional assessment of the relationship. Additionally, because critical input is so valuable in a partnership, if either or both members of the relationship feel devastated by even gentle criticism, it is time to find an excellent therapist.

It is both fun and productive to revisit reading material after you’ve been at this a while. It’s fun because we can see how far we’ve come in building those relationship skills. It’s productive because a review of past studies can deepen our understanding of the psychological constructs, allowing us to integrate them more fully into our operating system rather than relegating them to a mental bookshelf.

Great expectations

Expectations always have the potential to get us into trouble. When they are too low, we may struggle to maintain both our focus and our patience as the benefits of an endeavor slowly unfold. When they are unrealistically high, we are set up for disappointment – an all too common entry point that our petulance or our procrastination can use to hijack our best selves. But expectations, like hope, arrive unbidden in our minds in excess of 250 mph – way before we have any chance of stopping them.

So please let me predict what you can expect from the first six months of churching to help you align your thinking not only with what will likely happen but also with each other.

In most relationships there is one person more dedicated to the relationship and clearer in the act of having chosen their partner. There is also regularly one person who has had more experience with the deep satisfaction and resilience resulting from a healthy attachment. This is very often the same person and it is very often the female in heterosexual relationships. These facts add up to the reality that most men are neither as interested in nor as adept with attachment processes as are their partners. It follows that it is generally the men who find it difficult to dedicate themselves to the process of churching. If a couple is forewarned that this may be the case, they can take extra care in the beginning to neutralize that threat by contracting to an experiment of 6 months of churching and an agreement to reassess at the end of that time period. If one of the partners is unwilling to pledge approximately 26 hours of structured and straightforward relationship work spread out over half a year, I recommend that the couple find an experienced therapist without delay.

What also follows from the fact that women tend to be more skilled in attachment behaviors than men is this: it appears to be much more helpful for the men to do the actual reading. It makes sense to allow them to both see the material and pace the reading to their personal processing speed.

Don’t look for either smooth sailing or an instant comfort with the process. As I mentioned above, it can take several months for a couple to find the timing, setting, materials, rhythm and so on that will suit both their needs. If you can each remember that this trial-and-error process is normal, you can sidestep the unhelpful reactions of blame or disillusionment. Expect a lurching progression with weeks that help the couple feel closer and safer with each other and weeks when issues can seem insurmountable.

But let me stress here, it can be a positive sign when you have a working session that is a bit rocky. If you remember that the opposite of love is apathy, then the fact that you both care enough to get emotionally activated can reassure you that you are both still capable of passionately engaging with each other. A rocky session can also be an indication that you have hit upon an important issue that has been festering under the surface for a while. If you can take a deep breath as a couple, try to figure out what that issue is and perhaps look for resource material to address that issue more directly (or step out of churching briefly to seek couples therapy), your relationship can take a large and potent step toward cleansing then stitching up the old wound.

It helps to know that very often a great session will be followed by a not-so-great one or two. This happens when one or both members of the couple feel too exposed and vulnerable by the transparent sharing that happened in the good session and the seeming fragility of the resulting closeness. A natural and appropriate reaction to feeling exposed is to withdraw a bit. A few guarded sessions are just a way to self-protect and need not signal a problematic resistance or unreasonableness. The articles on defense systems and building trust can help the couple recognize what is happening in order to work more quickly through it. Again, if both people see this as normal and predictable, they can rest assured that no one is intentionally trying to sabotage the work.

There will also be developmental steps in the process of making the secular sacred as a couple puts churching practices in place for themselves. A rookie couple will tend to over investigate every blip that happens between the two participants. This is analogous to pulling a tiny seedling out of the ground to see how well the roots are developing. Clearly not a helpful strategy. In contrast, an experienced couple will tend to have a long-arc view of the process. They will recognize the patterns described above so will, for example, laugh their way past a bad session that has followed an unusually fertile one. They will also remember that bland isn’t bad. A wise person remembers that quality moments are always embedded in a quantity of moments. They can even cherish those odd instances that would rattle a novice couple. I once fell asleep during a reading session (my husband has a very soothing voice), but we both understood that my doing so was a function of my feeling safe and relaxed in our ritual rather than being uninterested in the material or disconnected from him. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t get teased about it a bit.

Silence can be ok during the relationship meeting. In fact, it can be extremely productive. If your partner is exhibiting a head-tilting ponder, try to either tune in to your own thoughts and leave them to their ponder, or settle into a physical state of waiting by checking your breathing, relaxing your muscles and turning your mind loose with permission to free-range think. If, on the other hand, your partner appears to be stone-walling you with their refusal to share their thoughts, rewind the session to look at the material again. Perhaps there was too much information in that last bit and your partner needs help sorting through it. Or it may be that the subject matter has overwhelmed your partner, in which case the Three Day Rule needs to go into effect. (They get three days to sort through their thoughts and then check in with you.) If the latter is the case, try to pick up at that point at the beginning of the next relationship meeting.

Finally, the positive data that arise over the weeks can be difficult to notice and assess. Let me explain.

First of all, when first instituting the churching process one or both members of the dyad can have a mental storage unit filled with unresolved resentments and hurts. Even if the work on the relationship is starting to pay off, it can be very hard to let go of some of those negative feelings long enough to allow for a kinder and more sincere closeness to occur. If you find yourself thinking more and more positive thoughts about your significant other in the weeks following the initiation of churching and you bravely admit to yourself that you have been a bit stingy about sharing those due to either ongoing bitterness or fear of not hearing positivity coming back to you, please gently urge yourself to bring that up during a work session. And please do so without feeling shame for your lack of generosity. And please consider reading the long and complicated and vital article on love together.

Second, even when both people in the relationship are eager to see improvements in the bond and are willing to demonstrate better behaviors, much of the improvement between the two folks will be the absence of negative behaviors. It is much harder to spot missing actions – when your partner stops correcting you in public, for instance, or your both resist the temptation to let your tone of voice slide toward snarky. Experienced couples often check in at the start of a relationship meeting with a review of their week, acknowledging forward progress and recognizing both the absence of irritations and the presence of new warmth and closeness.

All this is to say that calm curiosity is simply the most effective way to navigate through the process of building churching skills between you and your partner. Again, I invite you to send me your experiences with the churching process – especially around expectations and results – so I can include any concerns I’ve left out.


Sex during a typical courtship tends to be pretty straightforward. Excitement is built into the set-up. We relish the sense of being chosen and of finding someone we can happily choose. Oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine flood our system as we crush on someone while someone crushes on us, and all systems are go.

Good sex in a post-courtship relationship is more complicated. It requires two things that are built over time: a sense of safety and a sense of vulnerability.

Safety between two people evolves when both of them have come to believe that they are predominantly loved for who they are. This is not being loved unconditionally, which is a romantic red herring that can lead us very, very far astray. It is, rather, being loved for the fact that we are trying as hard as we can to live our life with the fewest missteps possible. Day after day after day.

Interpersonal vulnerability occurs when we sidestep image management and risk disclosing – in real time – who we actually are. Danger increases as we reveal more of our inner workings, especially around those places where we haven’t got a clue about what we are doing or why we did what we did. Revelations are risky because there may be a red line relative to our work-in-progress status, past which the other person will find it harder to love us. Both toxic childhoods and the current judgy, perfectionistic Western culture heighten the precariousness of sincere self-disclosure.

Great sex in a post-courtship relationship requires only one thing: a sense that the two people joining together in intimacy know that they are both slightly different people than they were the last time they slept together. As such, each partner can be aroused by the idea that there is a new part of themselves being discovered and stipulated by the other. And each is simultaneously aware that there is a slightly new person in their bed.

Churching allows for the two requirements leading to good sex to evolve, and it creates the potential for developing the key ingredient to great sex. I’ll bet you want me to expand on that last sentence.

In terms of good sex, if you realize that sex is a physical conversation between two people, it follows that routinely entering into undisturbed, careful and intimate talks (churching) will foster both a willingness and an ability to have undisturbed, careful intimacy (sex). So merely the act of talking deliberately and thoughtfully each week will improve the couple's sexual conversations. That last sentence reveals a secret known to most women and very few men.

But in order to have those titillating conversations, one must have some sense of trust.

The hallmark of trust is transparency. And trust-building-through-transparency demands both the courage to be forthright in our communications and a willingness to keep the other person’s communications in context. We tell our stories, we listen to your stories and we both learn more about the other person This may sound so basic as to be inane but there is usually an imbalance in a couple in terms of willingness and skill with respect to transparency. And this cannot be overstated – the couple’s ability to be intimate will be limited by the skill level of the less able communicator.

A well-structured and practiced churching habit will optimize the chances of these two critical relationship skills (sharing openly and keeping the other in context) developing equally in both members of a dyad. When we have had successful experiences with considerate sharing, we are calmed by the belief that further exposure likely won’t ruin everything. It will, in fact, most often deepen our attachment. Thus a couple skilled in balanced transparency (a level of straightforward sharing comfortable to both participants) will engender a reliable blend of safety and risk.

But even better, there is a tenderness that occurs spontaneously when you hear someone’s inner stories – whether they’re poignant childhood tales, contemporary earnest wishing or the wry telling of an embarrassing mishap. To sidestep image management is to enact earnestness, and there is simply no stance more conducive to fostering attachment than earnestness. Think about tiny puppies for a moment. Why are they so universally appealing? It’s because they epitomize earnestness which pulls for kindness and generosity in a healthy individual. Golden retriever pups are so unabashedly vulnerable, needy, curious and affectionate – what’s not to love? And tenderness is a precursor for successful sexual encounters because it enhances both a sense of safety and a willingness to risk greater exposure through earnestness.

Did you notice that the word “exposure” showed up in both of the last two paragraphs? This is no coincidence. Sex is all about exposure. Unmasking by talking – again if handled with kind curiosity – leads very naturally to a willingness to uncover physically. To take chances during sex that might lead to new physical experiences with your partner. That is the safety/vulnerability balance that stimulates good sex.

In terms of great sex, novelty spices up intimacy for both men and women. And the most mature form of bringing freshness into the bedroom is to hold open the space for your partner to be a new version of themselves. This is much, much, much harder to do than one would think. As described above, there are many human foibles that interfere with seeing our significant other in significantly new ways.

• Change is slow and subtle, so unless we look diligently, we will probably miss some of the finer new moves our partner is making.

• The distractions of our lives don’t allow for careful observation.

• Our competitive sides can be more focused on who is “winning” the maturity race.

• Our petty sides can be more focused on what still needs to be “fixed” in our partner.

• Our resentful sides cannot release our hold on prior wrongs perpetrated by or limitations manifested in our partners.

If we want to replace a superficial sense of what our significant other has been up to this week with a more fully revealed set of data that is existentially interesting and impressive, we might want to participate in a sincere weekend update.

Your partner is likely changing in two ways – one, as a result of the churching process and two, as a result of being out in the world existentially chewing on life issues. It is the height of respect to assume that the person before you this Monday is a new and improved version from last Monday.

So, in contrast to trying to notice change while burdened by the hurry sickness plaguing our days, we need to enact a more profound awareness of the growth in our partner than commonly occurs within the relationship meeting.

Here are two final mechanisms of churching that can improve your sex life:

It is quite intimacy building to read thought-provoking articles together because professionally constructed material can shine a light more deeply on the inner workings of each member of the dyad. Beyond that even, robust source material can guide a couple through psychological portals they didn’t know existed and into passionate relationship territory far beyond their wildest expectations. And, because tutorials often set them both outside their familiar world, the partners will be equal in their naïveté, lowering the need to be defensive. This is why just sitting down to talk absent source material isn’t nearly as effective as trusting in professionals. Using professional material has the potential to create a new stage of the relationship itself, meaning both sexual partners get new and improved bedmates.

It is extremely difficult to maintain guardedness over the long haul of churching. Despite ourself we start to reveal our inner workings little by little and – lo and behold – we find out that it is wonderful to be able to do so. The other person often has helpful input, stipulation, respect and love to offer us when we venture to show how wobbly we are inside. We are rewarded also by earnest revelations from our partner so that we can see more and more that we are not alone in our wobbles. Over time, we are delighted to find that there is one person in the world who is aware of how we are growing and changing inside and what that maturation has cost us in terms of sustained effort and courage. If the partners can take that discovery energy into the bedroom to let their bodies communicate that new perspective with each other, then, wow.

Gender, churching and sex

There is an additional way that working on a relationship enhances physical intimacy and that is this: by bringing the less involved person more completely into the relationship, the partnership regains balance. That more balanced state allows the more involved person to reconnect with their confidence. A confident person is naturally more able to access a sensual and lusty attitude toward life.

Because males are still encouraged to be stoic and independent, in heterosexual relationships the less involved person tends to be the man. (For a dated but still timely example of how stark the difference is between men and women in terms of emotional intelligence, see the short novel Anger by the gifted May Sarton.) While there are men out there these days who are emotionally skilled partners, let me address the more common reality that most women face.

Men rarely direct their curiosity toward the inner workings of other people. Unfortunately, understanding the inner workings of a mind is how we establish intimacy. As described in many places on this website, the internal conversations between the amygdalae (the feeling centers of the brain) and the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain) are how we get to know ourselves and, to the extent we can articulate those conversations to others, how they get to know us.

Women live in this interior world. They pay attention to what their feelings are telling themselves about their reactions to their world. They work to decode, clarify and perhaps modify these feelings with an increasingly maturing executive functioning. They come to understand that the attributions they make with respect to the raw data of feelings determines in large part how coherent and reasonable and interesting a person they are. This amazing existential skill is, to me, something that all men should be eager to learn from their women folks. Unfortunately alexithymic men have no idea that a much more vivid life is available to them through their internal affective information which would improve just about every aspect of their lives – including sex.

Men, due to their cultural and familial training, live more in the world of behaviors and they decode feelings into the simplistic mad/sad/glad/bad categories. This limits their fluency in the affective intelligence realm, meaning that men are less committed to, adept with and therefore less interested in the general workings of the emotions that underlie a relationship. This is not necessarily men intentionally being stingy with their affections. The disconnect is much more likely caused by the men not knowing much of anything about successful post-courtship practices.

Maybe I’d better stop here a second to describe effective post-courtship practices. Snarky Freud aside, adult women know what they want in a partner. They want a male who has reached adulthood as a result of either a solid upbringing or self-construction (or both). A man who is emotionally grown up shows up in the following ways:

• He takes his role as partner seriously, an attitude that should precipitate in him a solemn desire to learn how to do the job well. Because he understands his upbringing left him unprepared to be an emotionally proficient partner, he will seek out topnotch information on how relationships work in order to discover which skills may be weak or missing in his repertoire. In order to be even minimally successful in this he must willingly and curiously up his level of emotional intelligence.

• He holds himself accountable for his behavior in interpersonal interactions. This relational responsibility requires an ongoing self-awareness that can take some practice. Self-awareness necessitates at least a minimal self-knowledge which means being able to converse between the amygdalae and the forebrain. Getting to know your feelings doesn’t necessarily require an interest in a contemplative life or frequent emotional scenes. It treats emotions as data to be quickly registered and honestly analyzed. The key concept here is that high relationship integrity is only possible between two people who come to understand that the attributions they make with respect to the raw data of feelings determines in large part how coherent and reasonable and interesting a person they are.

• He finds the fact that he is in a relationship with this person delightful. People delighted with their situation naturally show up and put in the effort. The effort should be guided by both his empathy and conversations with her. Further, there should be the expectation that what feels attentive to her will change from over time. What tend to feed intimacy in the post-courtship phase are behaviors that reflect tender, relationship-specific, mutually designed routines, sources of humor, building projects (both physical and psychological) and goals. In a way, all that women want is to be a member of a dyad that provides the challenge and support for joint growth with oases of lightheartedness.

• He is committed to living an existentially robust life which means he dedicates himself to reaching for the potency of mastery in several areas of his life. He is stimulated by his life. As such, he is grounded in robust self-esteem and, ergo, will not be threatened by her quests for mastery. When both partners are invested in mastering their gifts they are creating a genuine existential power couple. They will both be interested and interesting to each other (and, clearly, others).

• He values social connections as sources of both energy and growth, demonstrating this by his compassionate and effortful behavior in his friendships. He comes to understand that he can learn much from his primary relationship that can further enhance the quality of his friendships. If there are children in the picture he works closely with his partner to come to know each child as a unique and precious entity.

Post-courtships practices, therefore, appear not as flowery gestures but as behaviors that substantiate his mature passion for life.

• He listens carefully to her with the assumption she is the authority on herself because he wants to keep learning about her. He also assumes she is probably more expert in managing relationships.

• He demonstrates his accountability to the relationship by willingly volunteering internal psychological processes for discussion.

• His delight shows up with creative displays of kindness, positive feedback, empathy and stipulation.

• He disciplines himself to leave the relationship regularly in pursuit of his mastery projects and then carefully reenters the relationship a slightly new person.

• He monitors his social environment to maintain a lively social support system for himself that will both challenge and support him as he moves through his days.

You can see how churching can be an inaugural instantiation of love leading to an ontological transformation – all created through the care provided by the woman. Put more pragmatically, all these post-courtship skills can be learned and fine-tuned within the structure of the churching process; and, as day follows night, these skills will transport the man into the existential land of living color. He will come to see he is certainly not in alexithymia Kansas anymore.

You can also see how difficult and dangerous these behaviors can be. His willingness to attempt to learn and try them out is relationally a brave thing to do – the type of bravery that deeply affects women. It takes courage to face the reality that women are better at relationships than are men; that women can offer men a deeper and more rich way of living; and that their women will never be happy unless the degree of openness between the two of them allows for an ongoing mutual exploration of their life together. (And remember, being brave is tiring, so everyone should be alert to the need to rest and refresh and stipulate during churching.)

When he starts to up his game after some successful churching episodes, the result is an immense surge of relief on the part of the woman. Because her sense of safety, of being chosen and of being able to be vulnerable in the partnership is absolutely dependent on his willingness to reciprocate in kind, you can see how the depth of her participation in the relationship is held hostage by him. There's a feminist adage that suggests that if men don't feel they need something, women won't get to have it either. That is what I'm talking about here. If men don't understand that intimacy only stays alive through an ever-deepening knowing of the other and if they don't need that, women won't be able to have it.

Nor can I overstate this – it will astound men to realize how very little transparency and interest it takes on their part in order to allow her to continue to invest in the relationship. And further, how stunningly obvious it is that all he has to do is maintain an investment of one quality hour a week to keep her feeling safe and chosen.

As mentioned above, it is very likely that this upgrade in his engagement with her will lead to a much improved balance within the relationship. This balance will tend to generalize to the sex life of the couple in both his willingness to listen more conscientiously, explore more deeply and express empathy more skillfully, and her willingness to speak up more routinely, request more honestly and participate more confidently. (It needs to be said here that there are certainly women who are less committed, less emotionally intelligent and less relationally skilled than their partner. All the messages to men in the above section would pertain to these women, too.)

Fear kills the desire to engage in sex. Transparency soothes fear. Therefore anything that improves transparency improves sex.

Sex is about communication. Communication is about transparency. Therefore anything that improves transparency improves sex.

Churching improves transparency.

Silverback female

I have been a therapist for a long, long time. Please let me pass along to you two additional tidbits.

With regard to churching a relationship, I have never seen it fail. Yes, the process can be lurching and messy in the beginning, but all the dyads in my practice who have put in the time to learn how to church have been successful in significantly strengthening their relationships.

With regard to source material, everything I have learned from all those years of scholarship and practice has been included in the articles of this website and organized in the order I have found to be most helpful to folks as they try to improve their psychological health. If you and your partner read through the 50 plus articles in a careful and thorough manner, there's over a year of material here for you. So, if you and someone you love are starting to feel couched in sloppy relationship habits, please let self-construct help you reenergize and recommit.

In conclusion

Like a secular church service, weekly work on our relationship will send us back into our week with more insight and more resolution, for we will have been substantiating faith in our relationship using the trustworthiness of sustained effort which is specifically focused on studying the skills that underlie the creation of a solid love with our life partner.

Rachel Naomi Remen said, “Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”

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Now. As a little addendum to this article, I want to make the point that it’s also sensible to church your relationship with yourself. Life is difficult and I think a certain understandable inertia can result from facing that truth. Daily struggles to stay true to our best intentions, the profoundly confusing unknowns in life and the people we encounter who are behaving poorly all threaten to cripple our existential enthusiasm. If we let ourselves get too drained, self-doubt and apathy start to creep in. It’s always generative (or regenerative) when we connect to the people whose well-constructed lives are the purest examples of living in good faith. We can do that by routinely exposing ourselves to these people, be they authors, thinkers, speakers, neighbors or whomever. The more reliably we connect to the existential GPS system of these folks, the less far afield will we wander. I highly recommend taking the time and putting in the effort to curate materials and people that inspire you and train yourself to make the space weekly to select one item or person from your collection to absorb and enjoy. And, of course, we also deserve a well-designed, comforting environment for our weekly self-growth ritual. Let's hear it for exotic coffee served in the coolest mug with the crunchiest biscotti while listening to a clever podcast.


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