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Intimate Ecology: How the Four Elements Shape Your Relationship

For close to two decades now, I have been writing and teaching about how our understanding of sustainability applies to our most important relationships. In much the same way that we have come to understand how conserving and sustaining our current resources wisely applies to the way that we build our homes, cultivate our food, and engage in transport, we must also be committed to preserving and sustaining the vital intimate relationships that are the fabric of our lives.

Heeding the deep wisdom of indigenous peoples around the globe has never been more important – to live our lives in such a way that we can meet the needs of the present generation without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

And yet, this wisdom is rarely applied to our capacity for love, which is the life source from which all else springs. Becoming intentional with daily efforts of sustaining loving relationships adds resilience to all other aspects of life. We come to have respect and even reverence for the truth that building a family and a history with someone is truly a precious resource. Instead, we too often take for granted the huge amounts of trust, time, and loving intention that we invest in our early relationships, believing them to be easily replaceable or even expendable.

It is not until we lose the support and intimacy of a loved one that we understand just how deeply we relied on it as daily sustenance. In this light, developing the skills of loving sustainably is among the most valuable capacities we can aspire to as the currency of our health and well being.

Like all healthy and life-giving ecosystems, healthy relationships require the same basic elements to work over time. I coined the phrase “the ecology of love” in my first book Love that Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy which breaks down the developmental skill sets that sustain loving relationships. These include:

  • The ground of our thinking
  • The air generated by our communication
  • The water of our showing up
  • The fire of physical intimacy

    Although we often look to the “fire” as a barometer for the health of our intimate connection, it is really the other elements that must be attended to before any sustainable fire is possible. Here are a few things to consider about your intimate ecology and easy ways to start building the relationship muscle memory they require.

    The Ground

    The Buddha famously said “We are what we think. It is with our thoughts that we make the world.” Nowhere is this more true than in our most important relationships, and it begins with ourselves. It is very hard to be receptive to love when you have no loving thoughts of yourself.

    In turn, holding bad thoughts about your partner and your relationship is akin to poison running through the veins. When was the last time you paid attention to your thinking about yourself and your partner? Our thoughts and the way we are intentional with them forms the foundation upon which everything else in our lives is grounded.

    A few easy-to-practice thought changes that will literally shift the ground under your feet:

    • Can you give those you love the benefit of the doubt?
    • Can you give up the need to be right?
    • Can you focus your attention on what is good and workable first?


    The things you talk about with the people that matter in your life represent the air in your relationship. There is extraordinary power and grace in calling a thing by its right name. Paying attention to what you say and the tone of voice in which you say it is the first step.

    We hear and interpret differently, so being willing to listen more deeply and slow down the interaction to make sure people feel heard is key.

    Agree to talk about the moment you’re in, and avoid repeating old narratives that pull you away from what is happening in this moment. Be courageous with your willingness to disclose what is happening for you. Be kind and gracious when people take risks in telling the truth.


    How we show up for our most important people and for ourselves is what makes relationships trustworthy. Appreciate how your attention offered fully to someone you care about makes them feel loved, seen, and heard. 

    It is in the small daily choices that we feel people showing up for us – helping to make dinner or clean up instead of going off to read the paper. Engaging in conversation about the day instead of turning to a screen. Scheduling time to do something entertaining or even just taking a walk.

    Our actions do speak louder than our words in how we show up for one another. It is the meat on the bone of how we love each other.


    Most people believe that the vitality and passion of their intimate connections is a true reflection of the strength of their relationship. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. All of the elements in the ecology of loving relationships have to be aligned in order to build and maintain a healthy fire.

    Our sexuality remains one of the most mysterious parts of our identity for many, so it is not surprising that this is the part of the relationship that suffers when our thinking, communication, and ability to show up for each other isn’t working.

    Committing to all aspects of relating provides access to the transformative power of sexual connection, creating bonding in the deepest parts of ourselves.