Three year ago I wrote an article titled “Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know.” At the heart of this little article is one big idea… Presence matters. It matters a lot. Presence might even matter the most. You can be a great provider or parent and everything else, but if you are not able or willing to be present to your partner you are likely to find yourself in relationship trouble.
What is presence? Why does it matter?
What does presence mean in a relationship, and why does it matter so much? I will often hear a client (usually a woman, but not always) lament that their partner does not feel “present” in the relationship. This feeling of lack, so acutely felt by one person, can be a complete mystery to their partner. I’ll have someone tell me in session (usually a man, but not always) “My partner says I’m not present in our relationship… I have no idea what they mean.”
Here’s the short answer, then we’ll dig deeper into the question:
When your partner complains that you are not present in your relationship they usually mean you are distracted – in your head, on your phone, checked out, too tired etc – but underneath it probably also means that you are unable to meet them emotionally. There might be good reasons for this. You might find their emotions confusing, overwhelming, or even boring. You might not be used to engaging with someone on an emotional level (many people are raised in non-emotional or overly-emotional households and do not learn emotional skills). You might even feel cut off from your own emotions, which makes you unavailable to them. Or maybe you just don’t enjoy emotional closeness as much as your partner does, which is fair, and is probably a good thing to explicitly tell them.
The primary definition of presence in the dictionary is pretty straightforward – “the state or fact of existing, occurring” – but not very helpful. Clearly you exist, but existing or occurring is not always enough to be felt as present. The kind of presence we talk about in relationship is about the particular quality of your presence… how you show up… how you are experienced by your partner.
A second definition of presence sheds more light, “the bearing, carriage, or air of a person.” Here we begin to see how the mere fact of existing is necessarily coloured by particular qualities. But what are these qualities? What sort of bearing or carriage are we talking about?
A third definition of presence deepens the mystery, but also reveals a clue, “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen; something (such as a spirit) felt or believed to be present.” Ah! The kind of presence that many hunger for in a relationship (maybe you, maybe your partner) is actually invisible! In a sense this is true. The kind of presence desired in a relationship may be more felt than seen; it is the spirit in which you present yourself.
In what sort of spirit do you typically present yourself to your partner? It’s a good question. A spirit of curiosity? A spirit of problem-solving or solutions? A spirit of exhaustion? Limited attention? A spirit of acceptance? A spirit of denial? A spirit of confidence? Vulnerability? Receptivity? A spirit of scepticism? What is your typical bearing, carriage, or air? The possible answers are infinite, but probably you habitually show up in a narrow and predictable way just like most of us.
When a person complains that their partner is not “present” they usually mean that they do not feel seen, known, and engaged. They feel invisible, alone, and disconnected.
Presence in this sense is first about paying attention and not being distracted. Having your wits about you. Being solid, grounded, in the moment. Presence also implies a certain kind of non-judgemental attitude, a capacity to listen and to hear. When we are present with our partner we give them our attention and we allow them to be as they are. This kind of presence is simple, but also sophisticated. And these days it can be rare.
This kind of presence is also closely associated with the feeling of intimacy (I explain this more fully in my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples). This feeling runs deep for many, and it can become a deal-maker or deal-breaker in a relationship.
How to practice being present
If we want to learn to be more present in our relationship we must put aside our agenda for our partner. Most of us have an idea of how our partner could be improved – how they could be better, more happy, or more effective if only they would change this or that habit or way of being. This agenda for our partner is incompatible with being truly present. You can come back to your partner improvement plan another time, but if you want to practice being present you’ll need to put it aside for now.
Being present has zero to do with changing, fixing, or problem solving. To be present, we must develop a tolerance for the contradictions and dilemmas that our partner reveals. Our mind must remain receptive and clear, or these contradictions and dilemmas will get stuck in there and make noise, and soon we find ourselves offering advice or trying to fix our partner; in that moment our presence has disappeared, and our partner feels the pain of its absence.
Sometimes our partner has a criticism of us. If the criticism seems particularly unkind or unfair, our defences will likely kick in. As soon as we go into defence mode we have lost the spirit of presence. Addressing our partner’s criticism may be necessary, but first take a few moments to hear what your partner is really saying. Pause. Experiencing you as present, listening, attentive, might have a disarming effect. Sometimes this turns out to be all that is required.
Being present doesn’t mean being invincible; this isn’t about armouring yourself. You’re still allowed to feel the impact of your partner’s words and actions. In fact, being present makes you more sensitive, not less, but it also makes you more capable of tolerating emotional discomforts.
It also doesn’t mean being an emotional punching bag or doormat. We can potentially argue and defend ourselves and still remain present, but it’s hard to do both at once. And sometimes presence might not be called for, might not be the goal. It’s not like you have to be 100% present at all times. That would probably be exhausting. Nonetheless, for many people a move toward more presence in the relationship is called for and will have positive effects. Sometimes it turns a failing relationship around.
Being present first to your own inner experience helps you respond skilfully and accurately to your partner. When we are present to our own experience as well as simultaneously being present to our partner’s, we are better able to sort out our own emotionality. For example, being present allows us to discern between our hurt feelings and our anger, and thus gives us the opportunity to cut to the truth and then respond accordingly. Being present to yourself really just means that you know what you are feeling, that you’re familiar with yourself from the inside out.
Much non-presence stems from an unwillingness to see and feel without too much judgement. When we can not tolerate the truth of our self or our partner, and this is common, we will not allow ourselves to be truly present.
Presence, sex, and eroticism
It’s worth noting that the kind of presence we are talking about here can be a crucial factor for feelings of sexual connection. Without the feeling of presence in a partner, many people (especially women) do not become aroused, even if they wish it were otherwise. Presence in this sense is not the same as mere familiarity (nor opposite to it) but is instead related to the immediacy and the aliveness of the moment; presence indicates aliveness, and in a sexual context has a particular kind of feel.
This feeling of erotic presence and aliveness is difficult to define and to talk about. If we don’t have a clear understanding of it or a shared language for discussing it, the lack of erotic presence becomes all the more frustrating and damaging to the relationship.
Making your presence felt
Demonstrating presence sends our partner the message that we truly see them, that they are known. This tends to have a moderating effect on the nervous systems of both involved; it calms us down and reduces anxiety, and it just generally feels good. Regardless of the content of our verbal interactions, experiencing each other as present feels good and satisfying on a fundamental, non-verbal level.
Being present to our partner and sensing their presence with us is a way to build trust and goodwill. When this trust and goodwill is available we feel nourished from our interactions, and we are able to better weather the storms of life; we experience more enjoyment in the relationship, and more gratitude for each other. Presence also helps us navigate conflict when it arises. Presence is helpful and appropriate in times of relationship peace, love, conflict, and war.
Presence doesn’t come naturally to everybody, but it can be practiced and learned.
The first prerequisite for being present is an ability to tolerate emotion, yours and your partners. Sometimes this means tolerating strong emotions. If you habitually avoid conflict (or instigate it) you’ll need to address this one way or another.
Other qualities of presence to practice include –
Can you be curious about your partner and their experience (maybe you think you know everything about them already)? Can you be curious about your own as well?
Let all your senses be open to this person. Notice all that they are communicating, verbally and also subtly, through body language, tone etc. Let the raw data wash over you, do not get stuck in interpretation.
Notice how your body and mind automatically reacts to your partner. Where does your body tense up? Where does it collapse? What are the words, stories, images that run through your mind as you are present to your partner?
It isn’t the time to judge them wrong or right, good or bad. Let them be as they are. Practice moral neutrality. (Note – Discernment, aka judgement, is often necessary and appropriate, but it’s also worth putting it aside for a time in order to be present in a more simple and direct way.)
It takes courage to face someone exactly as they are!
Your partner’s experience isn’t yours. Feeling the boundary between you rather than taking what they say personally helps you be more present.
Even if you’re in conversation, practice listening deeply when it’s your time to listen.
Presence has a strong physiological aspect as well as mental, emotional, and psychological. Feeling “grounded” in your own body is necessary in order to be present to another. In fact, your partner’s body silently and automatically reads your body for cues (and vice versa) in every moment. These cues either agitate or calm their own physiological systems.
To optimize your own physiology so as to communicate the right kind of presence and send the right cues, use these tips –
1. Sit or stand tall and comfortably with your shoulders comfortably back.
2. Face your partner. Let the front of your body face the front of their body. Now let the front of your body soften and relax. This softened front body signals receptivity and willingness to engage.
3. Maintain eye contact, possibly more than usual.
4. Soften your facial features. This sends a signal to your nervous system (and your partner’s) that all is well.
5. Bring your awareness to your breath, to its natural pattern of rising and falling. If your breath is shallow, try deepening it. Keep your breath slow and deep, steady and strong, natural and relaxed. Let yourself feel nourished by your breath. If you notice yourself becoming agitated, falling into reaction or judgement, or otherwise losing your quality of presence, bring your attention back to the sensations of your breath rising and falling. Let the steady rhythm of your breath be the place that your quality of presence comes from.
Adopting a physical posture of presence along with the qualities of curiosity, awareness, self-awareness, non-judgement, courage, differentiation, and listening will make your presence feel even more powerful and satisfying for both of you.
Learning to improve your quality of presence in your marriage or relationship is a lifelong practice that pays big dividends. Use the instructions and outline above to hone your practice. A basic mindfulness meditation practice can also help. If you need more support, talk to a counsellor, coach, or therapist.
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