I was feeling melancholy. Sad. I’d had a disappointment or two, and I was also disappointed in myself. I was exhausted. It showed. And there was something unnameable, a kind of causeless grief. I was just letting it wash over me.
My partner asked me what was wrong. I wasn’t sure how to answer. It didn’t feel like something was wrong exactly. She asked me how she could help. I replied simply that I didn’t need helping.
Then she paused for a moment and asked me something that caught me completely off-guard…
“How would you like me to be with you right now?”
I couldn’t help but smile, and she caught it, returned it.
“Just like this. Thank you.”
One question changed everything
In an instant she flipped the script – from judging me as somehow broken and needing fixing – to expressing a genuine desire to enter my world. It was like plunging into a cool, calm, refreshing pool. Her simple curiosity, her conscious choice to withdraw her judgement, her willingness and ability to just be with me… it meant a lot to me, and I told her so.
“You’ve taught me” she responded without missing a beat. It’s true. I’m reminded how if we can discern and articulate what we actually want (no small task), and if we have willing and capable people in our life, we can indeed teach them how to care for us.
The question “How would you like me to be with you right now?” has become part of our relationship vocabulary, and part of our relational awareness. It reminds us that our presence can be given (and received) as a gift, and that there are various ways we can be with each other, various ways to be there for each other.
The question also prompts a question we must then ask ourselves: “How do I want my partner to be with me right now?” Exploring the answer to that question opens up new doors of self-inquiry, and gently puts the responsibility for getting our needs met squarely where it belongs.
Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.
Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.
If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.
Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.
Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship
It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)
Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.
Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.
This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.
By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –
Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”
Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”
Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”
Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?
Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”
Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”
Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”
Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”
Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.
Feelings… Strength or weakness?
It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.
I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.
Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.
Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.
On Friday I wrote a short piece called Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know. Three days later 500,000 people had read it. Something struck a chord. People are reading the article and seeing themselves. Many, many women have shared their relief at knowing they are not alone in their desire for deeper connection.
Men are responding too. “Presence is so damned hot!” says one. Another laments “If only I’d read this two years ago.” A few have pointed out that the roles are reversible, that men want the same things and suffer in similar ways. I agree. Which begs the question – Why are women so much more likely to show up in my office BEFORE they drop the hammer, while men tend to wait until AFTER the hammer is dropped?
We’re ALL subject to social patterns and structures, and gender figures heavily. Assigning blame is a dead-end that always gets us less of what we truly want. Trying to understand what drives our behaviour – collectively, individually and in marriages is potentially enlightening. And so I take the approach of inquiry.
Let’s start with Why are women staying in marriages for years when their husband is emotionally absent? I’ve had numerous women confide that their relationship strategy is basically this: Somehow hold out until the kids are grown, then bye-bye. Which leads us to… Men – how did you not see this coming? Why did you do nothing? (Again, you can flip the gender to suit you.)
Frustrating as the questions are, honest answers exist. I hear them all the time, but never through smiling lips.
I didn’t know any other way.
I hoped it would get better.
I was busy with work.
That’s just the way it is.
I didn’t want to screw up the kids.
These sorts of answers can make us want to confront our partner with “ARGHHH… but, but, but… you, you, you…” But it’s confronting ourselves that will reap benefits:
I wanted to avoid conflict so I abdicated my responsibility to myself.
I always got away with it, so I kept doing it.
I feel lost and disconnected from my own life.
I didn’t know I even deserved attention.
Forgive me if I make self-awareness sound easy. The insights above can be extremely hard-won. Of course it takes time, and tears, to get to this place of acknowledging our own part in a painful relationship. We avoid it because it offends our ego. But truth wants to find you.
Therapist David Schnarch says something like “Only marriage can prepare you for marriage.” What he means is that the problems we encounter in relationship are the right ones, at the right time. They reflect our current level of maturity or development. No one expects someone in eighth grade to ace grade twelve exams. But that doesn’t mean exam time isn’t stressful for everyone.
Once we begin coming to terms with the reality of a relationship in crisis, we may turn our attention to how we respond in the face of change. Change happens. It’s not negotiable. Yesterday’s experiences changed us, and we are different today. Our choice lies in how we align ourselves with the change process.
Whether or not a couple chooses to stay together when they hit their crisis point, some kind of change will be required. Often one partner makes a decision that changes everything. That’s reality. Avoiding reality has big costs. As Byron Katie observes “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” So do we actively participate in the reality of change, accepting the discomfort and uncertainty along with the exhilaration of growth? Or do we resist because change is scary and painful? (Hint – the first one gives us more and better options.)
They feel terrible about it. It tears the heart out of them. But they do it. They rally their courage and their resources and they leave. Women leave men with whom they have children, homes and lives. Women leave for many reasons, but there’s one reason in particular that haunts me, one that I want men to understand:
Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present.
Women in my office tell me “Someone could come and sweep me off my feet, right out from under my husband.” Sometimes the realization scares them. Sometimes they cry.
Men – I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m telling you what I see. You can get as angry or hurt or indignant as you want. Your wife is not your property. She does not owe you her soul. You earn it. Day by day, moment to moment. You earn her first and foremost with your presence, your aliveness. She needs to feel it. She wants to talk to you about what matters to her and to feel you hearing her. Not nodding politely. Not placating. Definitely not playing devil’s advocate.
She wants you to feel her. She doesn’t want absent-minded groping or quick release sex. She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time.
If you think you’re present with your wife, try listening to her. Does your mind wander? Notice. When you look at her, how deeply do you see her? Look again, look deeper. Meet her gaze and keep it for longer than usual, longer than comfortable. If she asks what you’re doing, tell her. “I’m looking into you. I want to see you deeply. I’m curious about who you are. After all these years I still want to know who you are every day.” But only say it if you mean it, if you know it’s true.
Touch her with your full attention. Before you lay your hand on her, notice the sensation in your hand. Notice what happens the moment you make contact. What happens in your body? What do you feel? Notice the most subtle sensations and emotions. (This is sometimes called mindfulness.) Tell her about what you’re noticing, moment to moment.
But you’re busy. You don’t have time for this. How about five minutes? Five minutes each day. Will you commit to that? I’m not talking about extravagant dinners or nights out (although those are fine too). I’m talking about five minutes every day to be completely present to the woman you share your life with. To be completely open – hearing and seeing without judgement. Will you do that? I bet once you start, once you get a taste, you won’t want to stop.
<Note – The gender dynamic outlined above is reversible. It can go both ways.>