Since I can remember, I craved more connection than I knew how to create.
As a school kid, I considered myself shy and awkward. I was that geek you’d copy your homework from — but not have much fun hanging out with.
The awkwardness continued through teenagehood and into my adult years. Even with close friends and partners, I often mumbled my way through surface-level conversations. Getting to more juicy topics or activities seemed out of my reach, and only happened by accident.
The pandemic certainly didn’t help improve my relational skills. However, it made it painfully clear how much I was missing human connection. So when I stumbled upon an Authentic Relating course from Sara Ness, I didn’t hesitate. I went through the training and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I found the tools to create connection “on demand.”
But as I soon discovered, it wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. It was a very different thing to use those practices with a bunch of strangers in an online course than to try them on with my friends or partner. Doing this with people close to me felt waaaay edgier. As I introduced them to the idea of Authentic Relating (AR, for short), I noticed myself tensing up. I wasn’t sure if they’d be willing to go there with me.
They often felt awkward at first, too. However, each time we endured the discomfort, the rewards were bigger than expected. We discovered that, if we committed to playing an AR game no matter what, we usually came out of it feeling enriched and open-hearted. From that perspective, the initial discomfort didn’t seem like an obstacle anymore — it became the bonding agent of our connection.
In this article, I’ll give you an introduction to Authentic Relating and share five games you can try with your loved ones. Yes, it may feel edgy at first. But I’m confident that if a socially awkward, introverted girl like me could make it happen, then so can you.
Before we go any further, let’s answer one important question.
Many people assume they should experience a sense of connection with close friends, lovers, or family members as their default state. But often, this isn’t the case.
In my experience, it’s actually been the opposite more often than not. Feelings of connection were easier to come by with a stranger or at the beginning of a relationship. That’s because, at this point, you have nothing to lose. No strings attached means it’s easier to risk asking deeper questions, try on different ways of being, and be curious. All these things facilitate feelings of interpersonal closeness.
But the more time and energy you invest in a relationship, the more you want to preserve what you built together. Venturing beyond the established relational patterns starts feeling risky.
Psychologist Randi Gunther, Ph.D. explains how this may look like in a romantic partnership:
“As they get to know each other and that rate of new discovery slows, the partners become more concerned about the relationship’s future. One or both partners limit any threatening personal transformations and reward each other instead for predictable interactions. They become partners who strive to accept each other’s limitations rather than challenge them. Their initial explorations into unknown territory fall into sleep mode as the partners let the past define the future, and see those chosen limitations as true and lasting love.”
This is the case in many relationships, not just romantic ones. The longer a relationship lasts, the more established its unspoken “rules” become. Even if these rules don’t serve you, it may feel scary to challenge them.
However, a certain degree of challenge and transformation is necessary if you want to feel connected to the other person. That’s why vulnerability became such a buzzword — it allows for new openings and changes of relational patterns.
This process of opening new territories tends to stagnate in long-term relationships. To some degree, this is to be expected. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do re-ignite the “exploration mode,” even in the longest relationship.
That’s where Authentic Relating comes in.
In this article, I use the term “Authentic Relating” as defined by Sara Ness. Sara is the unofficial organizer of the AR movement, founder of Authentic Revolution and a facilitator with ten years of experience. In the video below, she explains what Authentic Relating is in less than two minutes.
Watch it now if you can. It will provide valuable context for the rest of this article.
If you can’t watch or listen to the video, here’s the essence of what Sara says:
“The thing Authentic Relating gives is a space where it’s safe enough to express more of our emotions, of the parts of ourselves that we don’t usually get to see in daily life. (…)
I think people should do it just because it gives more of a sense of possibility. Because that’s the other part of it: Authentic Relating forms incredible connections. When I’m talking with you from my inner sense of self, from the things I’m deeply passionate about, the things I’m afraid of, my insecurities, desires, what I’m really good at — all these things — you feel me more. You probably have versions of the same things and that’s what creates connection.”
Connection happens when you see yourself in the experience of the other person — and vice versa.
For example, a friend is sharing how she feels about losing her dog and this reminds you of the time your pet died. Or, as you express gratitude to your partner for how supportive they’ve recently been, they realize they feel the same way about you.
Unfortunately, as our relationships grow older, we often develop a lot of unspoken “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” around what’s acceptable to do and share. As a result, you may feel like only certain expressions of yourself are welcome — while others should be avoided. This is the very thing that limits the potential for connection.
For example: As a child, I was taught not to express anger in conversations. If I did, this made me a “bad person.” In my native language (Polish), even the words we use for “angry” and “evil” are the same. That means this emotion was demonized by the whole culture I was surrounded by.
As I grew older, I didn’t know how to express my anger safely. I was afraid that if I did, this would make my relationships fall apart. However, anger wasn’t the only experience I denied myself. Depending on the particular relationship and context, I also felt like I “shouldn’t:”
- be too proud of myself
- act too enthusiastic
- feel sad
- act silly and make jokes
- speak too much or stay too quiet.
Everyone has their own list like that. The thing is, when you deny yourself the expression of these things, you also make it impossible for the other person to relate to them. The more “rules” you follow in a relationship, the fewer opportunities for connection.
At the same time, breaking those rules also doesn’t seem like an option. It feels risky. So what do you do?
The way out of this impasse, I believe, is through games. The AR games can lower the stakes while giving you the best shot at experiencing the connection you’re looking for.
“Authentic Relating games are simple safe space to be real and create connection.” — Sara Ness
An AR game feels different than an ordinary interaction. In particular, these two changes open extra space for connection:
- You pay more attention to each other because you’re in a structured activity together.
- Your interaction is regulated by the game’s rules. This means the relationship’s unspoken “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” can move to the background.
The first change means it’s easier to tune out distractions and engage fully with the other person. The second change means more diverse self-expression is allowed.
That’s how the context of “playing a game” reduces the stakes of trying something new — even in a well-established relationship. Whatever happens, you know it’s just part of the game. Such framing helps you be honest and vulnerable with each other.
For example, saying things like “I feel angry,” or “Right now, my mind wandered and I didn’t fully catch what you said” often feels too risky for me in real life. But when playing an AR game, saying them is exactly the point.
When my friends and I agree this is what we’d be doing, we anticipate things like these to come up. Because of this anticipation, our capacity for discomfort grows. We’re able to hold space for the difficult stuff without taking it personally.
When the rules of your interaction are explicitly named, it’s easier to feel safe. Everyone knows and agrees to them in advance. In Authentic Relating, that’s called “creating a container” — i.e. setting up a context in which people can explore the interaction in line with pre-decided agreements.
You can find examples of Sara Ness’ agreements here and use them in your games.
One overarching agreement I strongly suggest you use is the “commitment to connection” (a concept I learned in Sara’s course). It starts with acknowledging that because interactions and relationships are fluid, you can’t always control their outcome. But, regardless of the outcome, you can always commit to staying in connection.
To me, this means periodically checking my own, as well as the other person’s feelings, and compassionately communicating them whenever needed. As long as people do that, it should be clear if everyone is happy playing the game and whether anyone’s boundaries are being compromised.
At the end of each game, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes debriefing. That’s a chance for everyone to share their experience, as well as yo close the metaphorical “container.”
All that said, shall we get started with the games?
The games I chose here are relatively low-stake. The level of vulnerability is up to you and your partner(s). If you’re unsure how deep to go, you can always start low-key and increase intensity when playing the game another time.
I recommend playing these games many times, even with the same people. This allows you to see how you and your loved ones show up differently on different days. This can make you even more aware of the various “parts” of yourselves — and, as Sara Ness put it, give you more sense of possibility.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the games.
Note: The credit for these games goes to Sara Ness and Authentic Revolution. I modified some of them (or their names) to work better for me and my friends. You can find all the games described below (and many more!) in The Authentic Relating Games Manual by Authentic Revolution.