Here are three of the insightful real-life examples readers generously shared, with a few comments of my own:
“I let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me.”
“I have let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me on most issues. That has freed up a lot of energy that would otherwise have been wasted fighting over what are essentially meaningless points. I have found that my respect for her has grown, and I hope the reverse is also true.”
Finding ways to manage differences and “agree to disagree” in relationships really does free up a lot of energy, and the part about increased respect matches my observations: when couples are able to respect differences, the overall respect for each other grows.
“The sacred pause…”
“The biggest change I implemented in my behaviour is the ‘sacred pause’. This allowed me space to then look at his words/reactions with curiosity instead of reactivity.”
“It is still a new behaviour in a middle aged woman who spent her life in reactivity so I am not 100% with it yet, but when I am successful it means that I can either hear the actual words my husband says and/or notice that whatever energy or words that may have traditionally felt like an attack on my worthiness are either not about me at all or I can now respond thoughtfully to the interaction. My pattern was definitely to take any perceived slight or any negative energy and attack, even if the interaction had nothing to do with me. If there was negativity of any kind attached to my husband I did not feel safe and I attacked him verbally. It was very humbling for me the first few times I was successful at being able to separate myself from his energy.”
“I found some awareness about myself in your article about self-regulation and co-regulation. I recognized that I used co-regulation as a tool to get out of my own discomfort and create enmeshment. I learned to shift into more self-regulation. I directly noticed a decline in the drama of our relationship.”
That got me wondering if they had experienced any loss in feelings of intimacy or closeness as a result of decreased drama (drama is often part of “the glue” in relationships, for better and for worse), so I asked.
“Some yes. When I became more solid in myself, the space between us became greater. The drama fed the tension, which fed the excitement. With less drama, the lack of a more solid connection showed. I did, and do, feel more intimate with my own self, a big win for me.”
Changing behaviours in a relationship is always a matter of “catching yourself in the act” of unconscious, reflexive, habitual responses to stimuli and choosing something different in the moment. With practice and repetition new habits are formed.
How have you changed your behaviour to improve your relationship? Share your real-life examples in the comments or on my facebook page.
Interdependence in relationships – How do we get there from here?
It’s easy to be an advocate for the virtue of interdependence in relationships. You give some, you take some, you can count on each other… what’s not to love.
The word itself has a distinctly modern ring (it peaked in popularity around 1980 and is still going strong), implying a kind of balance that many of us today crave, and reflecting the non-hierarchical ideal so popular in these times.
Interdependence is indeed an apt descriptor for relationships that are resilient, balanced, and mutually enjoyable and supportive for the people in them, and interdependence is a worthy vision and a worthy goal. But how to get there? Do you just decide “From now on I’m going to have an interdependent relationship!”?
Likely not. If interdependence is to thrive in a relationship, first the stages of both dependence and independence will probably have to be sufficiently navigated.
Interdependence comes after dependence and independence
Interdependence in relationships isn’t really a choice, it’s a developmental milestone, a marker of maturity. You don’t just one day choose to be interdependent in relationship (though your choices in general will factor), you grow into being interdependent in relationship.
To grow into a state of relationship interdependence there are, for most of us, prerequisites. One of these prerequisites is experiencing a sufficient amount of dependence in relationships. The other prerequisite is experiencing sufficient independence in a relationship. Now, if you’re a born relationship genius, a Mozart of the interpersonal realm, maybe you can skip these steps, but the rest of us are more or less bound to a certain developmental path.
Interdependence isn’t some mid-ground between being dependent and being independent; it’s a whole different level, one that is potentially reached after accomplishing the tasks at the prior (lower) levels of dependence and independence.
Dependence and independence are both negative and positive
All of us begin our life journey completely dependent on our mother (or a sufficient surrogate). In this sense dependence comes naturally. At some point we grow toward independence; we begin to recognize ourselves as separate from mother. Depending on how we come to understand our experiences, dependence and independence have negative, positive or ambivalent connotations in our life, and we bring these into our intimate adult relationships.
It is in our adult relationships that we work through our issues (most of us have them) around dependence and independence. Hopefully we learn healthy modes of both: how to lean on our partner, have them lean on us, and also how to stand on our own two feet, and allow our partner to do the same. There are healthy and necessary aspects to both modes of being in relationship.
Independence, dependence, or both?
It’s not uncommon to have strong negative associations with dependence or independence or both. Both have a dark side and a light side. Dependency can include generosity, support, and understanding. It can also include manipulation, smothering, and powerlessness. Independence can include self confidence, emotional differentiation, and freedom. It can also include isolation, disconnection, and arrogance.
Put another way, most of us have a complicated relationship with either (or both) dependence or independence. We have to reconcile ourselves with both before we can proceed to the next level.
Some of the positive qualities we can learn through dependence include –
The level of interdependence we can achieve in our relationship hinges upon how well we have integrated the best of both dependence AND independence, and how we have reconciled ourselves with our negative experiences of both. If you want to move toward greater interdependence, take an inventory of your skills in the areas of dependence and independence. Identify the gaps, work on them, and you will be working toward interdependence.
When your partner feels sad, angry, disappointed or otherwise “upset”, do you try to talk them out of the feeling? Do you give them lots of reasons why they shouldn’t feel this way? Are you afraid of them being upset at you? If this is you, you are fighting a losing battle. Here’s why –
Feelings aren’t facts
Feelings aren’t facts, which means they’re unarguable. Some feelings might be more desirable than others, but no feeling can be right or wrong. The source of a feeling might be debatable, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves (and upon close examination the source of feelings tends to shift elusively). First things first: we have to accept that our partner feels what they feel. Why do we have to accept this? Because feelings aren’t arguable. We can never win at that game, and there’s a very good reason that we shouldn’t bother trying –
Two operating systems: Feeling and thinking
When we argue against our partner’s feelings, which part of ourselves do we employ? Usually we employ our thinking; we use reason to argue why our partner should not feel how they feel. We pit our reason against our partner’s emotions, our thinking against their feeling. This is an important point because reason and emotion are like two different operating systems, and they are not very compatible. In fact, emotion and reason are each associated with different parts of the brain, and these parts of the brain have different functions and different architectures.
(Note – I am using the words feeling and emotion interchangeably here for convenience, but they are technically distinct from one another. It’s easy to find information on this online.)
Feelings aren’t rational
Feelings, by definition, are not rational. This does not mean they are not legitimate. We don’t actually choose our feelings, so trying to assess their legitimacy is a futile approach. If you find yourself de-legitimizing your partner’s feelings (or your own) you’re just avoiding some necessary work and prolonging your disconnection and suffering. Once you drop the hopeless exercise of deeming feelings legitimate or not, you might be able to take on the more relevant task of developing more tolerance for them.
Feelings aren’t behaviours
While feelings do not conform to judgements about legitimacy or right and wrong, behaviours do. A feeling is not a behaviour, but feelings often lead to behaviours. In fact, the association between certain feelings and behaviours can be very strong. This is another reason why it is important to meet feelings on their own terms first, and then assess the behaviours or impulses that go with the feeling.
For example, anger needs to be accepted as it is, but yelling may be judged as unacceptable.
Feeling craves feeling
Feeling does not respond well to the language of reason. Someone having strong feelings might say they wish to be understood, but as long as “understood” activates the operating system of reason you remain in a losing game. What feeling actually wants is more feeling. Feeling wishes to be met with feeling. When feeling is met only with reason, feeling tends to turn up the volume… “Can you hear me now?!”.
Do you feel something too?
A person who is having strong feelings does not want your analysis of their feelings. They want to see that their feelings make you feel something too. That’s what they really mean when they say they want to be understood; they want to be felt. They want their emotions to have a visible emotional impact on you. Why? Following the analogy, operating systems need to interact with similar operating systems or else incompatibility issues arise.
Departing from the OS analogy, physiologically it probably has something to do with nervous system regulation. What we know in our head, intellectually, consciously, does not necessarily translate into the body, where your nervous system and emotion resides. A person who is having a strong uncomfortable emotional experience and wants your understanding is seeking your help in co-regulating their nervous system. Things are getting overwhelming inside, and if they sense that you “get” them, it helps them calm down. It’s about soothing.
Psychologically speaking they perhaps seek a deeper connection, a desire to be seen and known, to be acknowledged in their multitudinous shades, moods, and incarnations. Chances are, even if they are upset with you, the feelings run deeper than that, and they want, even unconsciously, to touch into the source of their emotion, and they want you as a witness and ally, someone to hold the space for them to feel what they feel, so that they might perhaps reconcile something from their past, shine a light on the mystery of their feeling, or find meaning in their suffering. This is a form of intimacy.
Why would they need or want you for this? Because you are a meaningful figure in their life, perhaps the most meaningful. They have given their heart to you. They want to see if you are capable of holding it. They hope you are, but they’ll test you until you prove it. At some level this dynamic is present in many relationships, rarely named, but present and actively running the show.
Don’t pretend your feelings are rational
A person having a strong emotional experience doesn’t help their cause when they insist that they are coming from a rational place. We live in a culture that tends to value rational thought over feeling, so many people reflexively try to justify their feelings by presenting them as rational. Ultimately this is counterproductive and only adds confusion to the situation.
You don’t have to rationalize your feelings. Remember, feelings are unarguable and by definition non-rational. But they are fundamentally legitimate. Don’t start digging up a bunch of evidence to justify what you feel. And don’t automatically turn feelings into demands, criticisms, judgements or regrettable behaviours. It isn’t necessary, and it just creates more operating system incompatibility within yourself and between the two of you.
Instead, see if you can parse out the feeling part of yourself, feel it fully, communicate it effectively, and then move into whatever requests or complaints you might have for your partner rather than bundling the whole thing into one package and dumping it their feet. Hint – You can be sure you’ve tangled up emotion and reason when you find yourself saying things like “You always…” and “You never…”.
A benefit of certain communication methods and practices (ie – talking stick, active listening, non-violent communication) is that they legitimize feelings without having to rationalize them; also they can help you differentiate between feelings/emotions and thoughts/judgements/requests/criticisms etc.
It’s common for people to mistakenly conflate feelings with thoughts and to present a thought as though it was a feeling. If you’re not sure of the difference between feelings and thoughts, here are some examples –
I feel sad (feeling) I feel like you’re being unfair (not actually a feeling) I feel angry (feeling) I feel like you’d rather be somewhere else right now (not actually a feeling)
Here’s a tip on recognizing the difference – Feelings are usually one single word, and though there are hundreds of different feelings, most can be traced back to a small set of primary emotions like joy, sadness, anger, fear. (Experts don’t always agree on the particular details of what constitutes the primary emotions, but there’s a general pattern of consensus overall.)
See the Junto Institute’s emotion wheel (click here) for an interesting visual showing the relationships between many common emotions or feelings, and their root in the primary emotions.
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.
My partner and I sometimes try out different activities for fun and to nurture our feeling of novelty, challenge, intimacy, and excitement. A while back we went to an acro yoga date night and then signed up for salsa dance classes.
The first salsa class was fun. We learned some basics, and although it felt awkward and stiff, it was also new and exciting. The second class was awful. We barely had a grasp on what we’d learned in the first class, and now we had a bunch of new stuff to learn too. There was a general feeling of frustration and failure in the room.
In the third class, something fascinating happened. For a few moments at a time I stopped counting my steps, I stopped thinking so hard about doing it right, and suddenly I said to my partner “This feels like… dancing!”
Learning to dance is like learning better ways of relating
Teaching salsa dance must be really hard. Dance is visceral, organic, poetic. It comes naturally from somewhere inside. And yet, if we want to learn a particular dance style there are formal structures to learn, and an initial lack of capability and skill to confront. Before we learn to dance salsa in a way that actually feels like dancing, we have to learn the steps in a non-dancing way, and this feels painfully clumsy.
As I considered the problems of teaching and learning dance I had a sudden insight into my own work as a couples counsellor: My experience of trying to learn salsa dance is similar to my clients’ experience of trying to apply new tools and insights.
“This isn’t what I came for”
I took salsa lessons because I wanted to learn how to dance salsa, but by the second lesson I felt the impulse to quit. Why? Because it didn’t feel like dancing. I came for dancing, but this wasn’t dancing (just like couples come for relief from relationship difficulty only to discover that they are tasked with doing something that feels like the opposite of relief)!
By the third class it started to feel like dancing, but I had to push through some very awkward steps to get there, steps I hadn’t anticipated and that tested my strength of perseverance. I had to use new muscles and new parts of my brain (just like the couples who call me for help).
I think my client couples often struggle for the same basic reason. They come to me to make their relationship better. I give them something to work with, but at first it’s frustrating. They’re quickly confronted with a disappointing realization: “This is hard. This isn’t what I had in mind. I’m frustrated. I don’t get it!”
For instance, if someone comes to couples therapy because they are desperate to get their partner’s validation or approval, they might have to first confront their own lack of self-respect.
A relationship is a lot like dancing, in fact the metaphor is so close that it almost dissolves into literal truth: it’s not too much of a stretch to say that a relationship IS dancing. When a relationship flows it feels organic, natural, sublime; we move together effortlessly with a tremendous sense of grace and presence. But to learn new ways of doing relationship is like learning salsa dancing; at first it feels like the opposite of what we came for. We want to dance, and instead we’re stuck in a sack-race in the dark.
Get ready to be challenged
After that third salsa class I thought that if I were teaching salsa I would try to prepare my students for the frustration, the awkwardness, the disappointment that they were sure to encounter. I would explain to them that before they had the experience that they came for, the experience of actually dancing salsa, they would have to struggle through a difficult stage of doing some awkward non-dancing. I would explain that it might feel embarrassing and stilted, that they might want to quit, but also that if they stick it out, they will eventually get some satisfaction. In simple terms – it takes work, it’s difficult, and it might get worse before it gets better. But if you can tolerate the discomfort there’s a reward.
Couples in therapy need the same kind of attitude. If you want to learn to relate more gracefully, more beautifully, more naturally, you will necessarily be confronted with a period of agonizing awkwardness. This is perfectly natural and unavoidable.
Many people erroneously assume that the trouble and pain they experience in their relationship is due to something being broken or “wrong.” Actually, the trouble is inevitable and the pain has a purpose. It motivates us to push ourselves into a new level of relationship maturity. It’s called growing up.
It would sound crazy to say that someone who’s never learned salsa dancing is a bad salsa dancer, and yet that’s exactly how we judge ourselves (or our partner) when it comes to our own relationships. But if we approach our relationship difficulties as motivating forces that task us with learning new steps, then our troubles gain purpose and we make progress.
Every so often I’ll have a client tell me they lack empathy. “How do you know?” I’ll ask. Generally the answer is some version of “My partner tells me”.
Upon deeper inquiry, we might discover that this person is actually incredibly attuned to their partner’s feelings, that they can read or intuit their partner’s experience in the minutest detail. In fact, what we usually discover is not that they are out of touch with their partner’s emotional experience, but just the opposite: they are profoundly sensitive and deeply moved by how their partner feels. It isn’t that they lack emotional empathy; the problem is that they don’t know how to handle it. They get overwhelmed. And so they protect themselves.
If we feel too much, and we don’t know how to manage those feelings, we resort to predictable coping strategies: We distance ourselves, become defensive, shut down, lash out, criticize, avoid, go numb, even turn to substance abuse or compulsive behaviours.
Is it empathy that is lacking… or is it emotional maturity?
When a client complains to me that their partner lacks empathy, further investigation very often reveals a different picture. What is actually lacking is emotional maturity, ie – the courage, tolerance, and boundaries required to navigate feelings effectively.
It takes courage to let ourselves feel, and to let ourselves be seen feeling. It takes courage to remain present in the face of a loved one’s strong feelings. And it takes courage to reveal (and also manage) the impact they are having upon us – positive, negative, and otherwise. This courage includes a willingness to confront, to disappoint, or to anger our partner.
If we don’t want to succumb to semi-conscious strategies of distancing, numbing, defensiveness, avoidance etc, then we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of feeling our partner’s feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. This necessarily implies boundaries; we must have ample sense of our own emotional agency, of where our experience is distinct from our partner’s. Without these boundaries we are likely to get swept up and overwhelmed by our partner’s emotions, and so trigger those protective mechanisms that look, from the outside, like a lack of empathy.
These qualities of courage, tolerance, and boundaries are markers of emotional maturity and sophistication. Without these qualities empathy may remain present, but stunted; emotional fusion, co-dependency, distancing, and angry acting out are some of the consequences.
Empathy asks us to develop emotional resiliency
When empathy is naively equated with kindness we miss big parts of the picture. Empathy is actually value-neutral in the sense that it isn’t necessarily good or bad. Empathy can cause a lot of suffering if it isn’t accompanied by emotional resiliency, ie – courage, tolerance, and boundaries. Additionally, empathy can be used intentionally or unconsciously to hurt, manipulate, and abuse people; knowing how others feel can be ammunition against them.
In my experience as a couples therapist, empathy doesn’t need so much to be learned or taught, it needs to be allowed, confronted, comprehended. Biological evolution has hard-wired us for empathy. The question is how much of it we can risk feeling, and what we do with those feelings. If we can’t handle our partner’s feelings we’ll minimize, resist, or otherwise disconnect from them.
Sure, some people do truly and pathologically lack the capacity for empathy, but that almost never turns out to be the case in my couples counselling practice. I have found that rarely do people have to learn how to let their partner’s emotional experience touch them, rather they have to practice tolerating the impact, and navigating the outcomes skillfully.
Being an adult in relationship includes addressing the needy inner child.
There’s a lot of pressure to be adults in relationship, and behaving as an adult in your relationship is undoubtedly a good thing, but what about the needy “inner child” in each of us that is bound to show up from time to time? Is it necessary to indulge the needy inner child in you and your partner? Is there benefit, personally and as a couple? If we’re going to make space for our own and our partner’s inner child – an inner child who might be cranky, disagreeable and characteristically immature – how do we do it without upending our relationship and turning our lives over to the chaotic forces of a hurt or angry or demanding inner child?
These are some of the questions that The DailyEvolver‘s Jeff Salzman dives into with his guest, long-time couples therapist Tom Habib, in the attached video interview/podcast.
Their conversation caught and kept my attention because it addresses such a topical, even universal, theme that couples struggle with, often unconsciously: so-called regressive states, ie – when the inner child’s needs come to the fore of the individual and thus into the relationship arena. In simpler terms, what do you do when your partner acts irrationally and childishly?
Tom Habib offers a simple model for recognizing and working with regressive (childish, immature, irrational) states within a marriage or relationship. Rather than insisting that your partner “grow up”, Tom suggests that making room for the states in a relationship has real benefits for both parties, and he suggests a set of rules for doing so. Readers of my book “The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples” might recognize some similar themes in slightly different language.
Attachment therapy or differentiation therapy?
I’m struck by how Habib, without naming it as such, happens to somewhat integrate two apparently contradictory viewpoints within the marriage therapy community: Sue Johnson’s popular Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) which sees childhood attachment patterns as the foundation of marriage and relationships, and David Schnarch’s Differentiation-Based Therapy which de-emphasizes (though doesn’t deny) childhood attachment and instead emphasizes “growing up” and developing a solid but flexible adult self within adult relationships.
Effectively reconciling these two seemingly contradictory perspectives is no simple task, and Habib, in this relatively short interview, seems to approach some measure of success, without explicitly setting out to do so. He suggests that we can consciously trade off Adult/Child roles in relationship to each other in a way that facilitates both “inner child” and adult needs being met. In this way, regressive child-like states are held within adult consciousness, and given some room to roam. Of course, a certain amount of baseline personal development is required.
Habib offers an uncommon perspective in this interview, and it could be valuable to anyone stuck and struggling in relationship. Give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.
I received this fascinating letter from a reader recently, and she gave me permission to share it (with identifying features changed). She sent it after reading my articles and book, and feeling that what she read described her experience in profound ways. I hope you find her story as interesting and inspiring as I do.
Your post ‘Intimacy heretic’ absolutely resonates with me. It brought clarity to my confused mind. To think that I’m in the space I am in now is nothing short of incredible compared to where I was six months ago.
Six months ago I discovered (purely by accident) that Stan, my husband of nearly forty years, had been in a sexual relationship for three years and had fathered a daughter. Their daughter was an unplanned consequence. For the past eighteen years Stan has been regularly visiting and financially supporting the daughter that he loves.
I was traumatized by his revelations. After the initial numbness came the excruciating pain. My emotional roller-coaster began… I didn’t know this man. He was a stranger to me. His actions had crushed me.
Stan said it wasn’t me; it was him. He said that he’d always loved me but went his own way for a while… was purely self-indulgent. He begged me for another chance. He’s not the sort of guy that begs. He told me he was so very sorry for the hurt he’d caused; that he’d be a better man. It was heartfelt from him.
We got back together after some time apart. We are sixty-three years old, so should at least try again. But how on earth would I be able to ever trust him? How could I ever believe in him again, or even like him? I had to get my head around the fact that their affair began two decades ago. I had to try to accept that it was in the past (apart from his daughter who continues to be a small part of Stan’s life).
Justice, I find your term ‘tolerate’ is far more doable than acceptance. That changes my mindset – I can tolerate it now.
There were so many challenges to overcome. I had to get my power back. I had to live in the present moment. I needed to ground myself and calm my over-active mind because that was just causing me more anguish. I had to make myself important for myself.
During the challenging times, I had to remind myself of progress we were making. When I was in a dark place or overwhelmed with pain, Stan held me – no words – just held me as we went to sleep. Surprisingly, he recognized that’s exactly what was needed, or maybe he was at a loss to know what to do and it was instinctive. When he rubbed my back, my mind and body was eased.
He’d become present! A huge milestone. He soothed me; I could feel his love, his tenderness and also his pain. This was a new experience for us both. We’d never shared such deep heart-felt intimacy like that before. So simple, but the benefits are amazing. You talk about this in your book “The Re-connection Handbook for Couples”, which I read and found very valuable.
Again Justice, your insightful words “being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures… given as a gift” is spot on. I would not have made it if this hadn’t happened. I also realized that Stan also needs to be soothed – he’s been in pain too – that it’s not all about me and my needs.
What we have now is a much deeper level of intimacy. It’s extraordinary. I have felt quite confused by this, and yes, a bit embarrassed too. How did we get to this point when there was so much heart-breaking conflict and our future looked so bleak? It just seemed too weird to have reached a place where we now have a certain kind of wonderfulness. Couldn’t get much better so it’s actually pretty cool. We will surely have more obstacles, but at least know they can be handled.
Justice, your insightful writing has solved the mystery and has had a profound effect on me: the fact that not feeling full trust or emotional safety doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, that in fact it can have the exact opposite effect and bring richness… amazing.
Close friends gave us a card that read “It’s Amazing how much Right-side-up can Come from Up-side-down”. That’s certainly true.
I recently posted a short piece on instagram suggesting that certain kinds of intimacy can actually be limited by an insistence or over-emphasis on safety, trust, and validation in relationships. Someone asked a great question in the comments – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Rather than address this question on instagram, I thought I would take the time to unpack it more thoroughly here. First, here’s what I said about safety and intimacy in my original post –
There’s nothing “wrong” with expecting your partner to provide safety and validation in order for you to reveal yourself to them, but making this a condition of your honest self-disclosure puts limits on the kinds of intimacy that will be available to you.
There’s another category of intimacy altogether, rooted in the personal integrity, emotional risk-taking, and self-validation required to confront and reveal yourself in front of your partner, regardless of their active participation. The idea that intimacy is always a two-way street, inherently dependent on partner reciprocity and validation actually keeps us cut off from some of the more profound experiences of intimacy that might otherwise be available.
This might be a difficult idea to accept. Don’t accept it, test it. Can you have your own experience of intimacy through courageous self-examination and self-disclosure in front of your partner, even if your partner does not validate you, make it “safe” for you, or share your feelings of intimacy?
Back to the question – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
To answer this question we need to include other questions: What kind of safety are we talking about? What does it mean to be trustworthy in a relationship?
We should also probably ask: What is intimacy anyway?
And underneath these questions another more essential question is implied: What are relationships for?
Whew. That’s a lot. Now you can see why I didn’t want to get into this too deeply in the comments section on instagram! Let’s work from the bottom up and start with the essential question –
What are relationships for?
Relationships perhaps have as many purposes as there are hopes and fears in the world. They’re complex, evolving systems with multidimensional purposes and qualities. Books – long and dense – could, and have been written on the subject.
Nonetheless, we might simplify the complexity of relationships by acknowledging two primary psycho/emotional needs that relationships fulfill: the need for comfort and the need for growth.
Relationships are a place of refuge and soothing, and also a place where we are challenged, broken, and perhaps put back together in new ways.
Most people like the idea of being supported, validated, soothed, and generally loved unconditionally in a relationship. Few people actively seek the kind of heart-breaking conflict that inevitably comes with a relationship as it matures. And yet some people will eventually, perhaps begrudgingly, come to acknowledge and even embrace the role that relationship conflict has in their personal growth and development. It is these people who are most likely to come to appreciate and practice a kind of intimacy that is not dependent upon partner validation or reciprocity, or even upon safety and trust per se.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is a deeply subjective feeling that is difficult to wholly define. In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I offer this – ” Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another.”
Further into the chapter I go on to suggest –
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.
Two kinds of intimacy
David Schnarch, in his many books and decades of clinical practice as a sex and marriage therapist, has defined two kinds of intimacy: Other-validated and Self-validated.
Other-validated intimacy is the kind of intimacy that most people are familiar with, and defines most peoples’ experience and expectations of intimacy. As the name implies, it requires validation from the “other”. It also assumes reciprocity, safety, vulnerability, trust etc. The intimacy model understood and promoted by most therapists, coaches, and teachers is other-validated intimacy.
There is nothing wrong with other-validated intimacy. This kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are primarily places of refuge, support, safety, and comfort.
Self-validated intimacy, by contrast, rests on the principle that we can get “the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another” without our partner’s explicit reciprocity or validation, rather we are able to validate ourselves regardless of our partner. This is difficult, much more difficult than relying on guaranteed validation from our partner. It is precisely this difficulty that brings self-validated intimacy a unique intensity and meaning.
In other-validated intimacy, your experience must match your partner’s; all kinds of agreements – explicit and implicit – must be enforced in order for intimacy to be felt as real and legitimate.
In self-validated intimacy, your experience can remain distinct from your partner’s. The sense of intimacy comes not from merging, but from engaging in self-exploration, self-confrontation, and self-revelation, all in front of your partner. Your partner must be sufficiently willing to remain present, but little more is required of them.
In conventional thinking, conflict is the opposite of intimacy. In self-validated intimacy, even conflict and disagreement can potentially feel intimate, for one or both of you. Recalling the question “what are relationships for”, this kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are not just places of safety and refuge, but places where difficult and uncomfortable personal growth happens.
Intimacy and vulnerability
While we’re slaughtering the sacred cow, we might as well throw “vulnerability” into the mix. Vulnerability in relationships, due in no small part to the excellent work of Brené Brown, has been glorified in the extreme. I fully understand and appreciate the power of vulnerability in this context; to finally shed that armour and really let someone IN… that’s powerful stuff. But the flipside of vulnerability is not necessarily emotional armouring; it can also be confidence in one’s self, a sense of unshakeable truth and personal integrity.
How does this fit with intimacy?
In the conventional intimacy paradigm, we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to experience intimacy. We share something deep; we might get hurt (vulnerability means the possibility of being hurt).
But in the other kind of intimacy, we’re not so worried about being hurt. We recognize that we hurt ourselves when we betray our own truth and integrity much more than our partner can hurt us when they reject our truth and integrity. No matter how our partner responds, we know who we are, and we’re willing to face the consequences, come what may. Yes, these consequences might hurt us, but they’re not our central concern. We know we can handle pain, we find meaning in it, we accept the fact that it is necessary for our growth, and so we are not particularly “vulnerable” in the common sense of the word.
Confessions of an intimacy heretic
In today’s social-media-self-help culture, the idea that intimate experiences do not necessarily rest upon safety, trust, validation, and vulnerability is nothing less than heretical. It’s so far out of the recognizable intimacy paradigm that it actually makes some people angry.
Other people are skeptical, but curious. When I shared my original instagram piece on facebook, a few people offered their (welcome) input –
One person declared, “I’ve dabbled in this a handful of times. It doesn’t feel great.”
Another added, “Not sure I’d be able to do it again and again. If it does truly encourage positive experiences then how can I do more of it without it feeling wrong?”
A great point and a great question.
Intimacy of any sort doesn’t always feel good to everyone, though in the other-validated form of intimacy, the potential for good feelings is fairly obvious, ie – I’m going to reveal something that makes me feel vulnerable, and then you’re going to demonstrate your unconditional acceptance of me, and we’ll feel extremely close for a time.
Self-validated intimacy does not hinge upon feeling particularly close or “joined” with our partner. Instead, the good feeling comes from the sense of satisfaction at telling the truth about our experience in front of someone who means a great deal to us, full stop.
A brief story –
A couple in session were coming to terms with the different relationship paradigms that they each inhabited. It was personal work that they were doing in full view of each other. One of them was realizing (and revealing) that they believed relationships were primarily a place to soothe each other and make each feel safe. The other was realizing that they believed that relationships were primarily a place to challenge each other (and themselves) for the sake of personal development.
I watched this couple (listened, more precisely, as we were on the phone) confront this fundamental difference more directly than they ever had before. They were being unreservedly honest with each other, but more importantly they were being unreservedly (aka “brutally”) honest with themselves… in front of each other. The tension was palpable.
Both of these individuals were deeply invested in the relationship, and each cared deeply for the other. At the end of the session, no conclusion had been reached. Then one of them spontaneously remarked how good it felt to confront this difference with their partner, to “own” their own feelings, even though the future was as unknown, as unsafe, as ever. This person was getting a taste of self-validated intimacy. It was spontaneous and it felt surprising to the one experiencing it.
Fore-mentioned author and therapist David Schnarch calls intimacy “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” This was the experience my client was having. Notice the emphasis on the primacy of one’s own “awareness of the self” rather than on any experience of safety, trust, validation, or even connection provided by the other.
The good feelings potentially associated with self-validated intimacy take some getting used to. Other-validated intimacy is more familiar, easier to comprehend, and easier to enjoy. Self-validated intimacy tends to be more of an acquired taste, and many will never do the work it takes to acquire it.
People who are easily triggered, who identify strongly with their woundedness or trauma, or who insist on being handled very carefully will have a more difficult time appreciating the idea or enjoying the feeling of self-validated intimacy. This is not to say it can’t be achievable for anyone who wants it and works at it. I’ve seen people who have been in therapy for years previously and who consider themselves deeply traumatized individuals begin to develop a capacity and enjoyment of self-validated intimacy in just a few months of couples therapy.
Developing an understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of self-validated intimacy can potentially be healing and productive for people who suffer from trauma-related symptoms, especially when they have experienced relational trauma or abuse.
Other-validated intimacy is easy to comprehend because we’re born wired for it (it is the familiar intimacy between mother and child), while comprehending self-validated intimacy requires a level of personal development in the area of emotional differentiation and individuation of self.
In the hierarchy of emotional development in individuals, other-validated intimacy is more primary, it comes first; self-validated intimacy follows, but only if we do the personal work required.
The beauty of togetherness, of unity, the sense of merging is celebrated loudly and often. But there is an equally poignant beauty in recognizing separateness, in all its ache and desire, in lovers feeling the distance between them, their own autonomy and their partner’s, the unbridgeable gap… feeling all this right there in front of each other… This beauty is less often celebrated, probably because it is more confusing, more paradoxical, and frankly, more advanced; recognizing it requires a kind of psychological maturity or sophistication.
Intimacy after affairs and near-breakups
Conventional wisdom would assume that intimacy after the revelation of an affair would be at an all-time low. After all, the feeling of safety in a relationship at this time is pretty much nil, and the trust is gone too.
And yet, it isn’t uncommon that people who come to therapy after an affair report feeling a strange new kind of intimacy with their partner. They have a difficult time explaining it. They don’t understand it. They’re often disturbed by it. They’re pretty sure they shouldn’t be feeling intimate with their partner in this situation. Sometimes they even feel guilty or ashamed at admitting what they feel.
If safety and trust are not foundational to the intimacy that arises in these situations, what is? What can we attribute it to? How shall we make sense of it?
Upon extensive inquiry I’ve discovered that this intimacy that can arise after affairs matches very closely Schnarch’s definition: “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” In this case, the “other” has become symbolic of betrayal and pain – basically the opposite of safety and trust – and yet… intimacy. Apparently intimacy does not necessarily require safety and trust. In fact, sometimes it seems to require the opposite: couples have reported to me that they have not felt so intimate in their marriage EVER, as they have when confronting an affair.
What is the “awareness of the self” that happens in these cases? I think it has something to do with an awareness of one’s ultimate separateness; call it existential separateness if you like. In the face of betrayal, we remember our separateness profoundly. Some kinds of intimacy, it turns out, depend upon this awareness of our separateness – an awareness felt most strongly “in the context of another” – rather than depending upon feelings of closeness, trust, safety, reciprocity, and validation.
A similar phenomenon can also occur when a marriage or significant relationship ends, or hovers on the brink of demise. At these times too my clients sometimes report intense feelings of intimacy.
What is happening in these cases? How to make sense of this?
One of the things that is happening is truth-telling. Feelings that have been hidden, covered up, denied, sometimes for decades, are revealed.
Not everyone has to cheat on their spouse or leave the relationship before they experience the self-validated intimacy that comes with truth-telling and confronting one’s own existential separateness. In fact, I recommend otherwise if at all possible.
What’s wrong with safety and trust in relationships?
If you’ve gotten the idea that I am arguing against the value of safety and trust in relationships, please let me clarify. I think it’s obvious that a certain sense of safety and trust must be present for most people to thrive in a relationship. What I’m suggesting is that another category of intimacy exists that is available only when we relax our grip on the idea of the centrality of other-validated safety and trust in relationship. It’s not that safety and trust don’t matter or don’t exist, it’s that we come to see them differently.
The same goes for vulnerability. It’s wonderful, and necessary, to make space for vulnerability in a relationship, to feel our openness and willingness to be hurt, to offer our throat to our beloved from time to time. But contrary to common belief, an intimacy beyond the vulnerability of putting our heart in our partner’s hands also exists.
Similarly, being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures (a treasure I personally cherish), but it’s most valuable when asked for openly or given as a gift rather than being an implicit or explicit condition of self-disclosure. The intimacy experience that arises regardless of partner soothing is of a different calibre from the intimacy that demands it. Unlike other-validated intimacy, self-validated intimacy requires us to soothe ourselves. This self-soothing is an antidote to co-dependency (emotional fusion), and a prerequisite for inter-dependency (emotional differentiation).
Returning to that question from a reader on instagram –
“If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Such a great question, two questions actually. Let’s examine both.
Why would you bother trying for intimacy with a person who does not always make you feel safe? Why would you be open to the idea of intimacy when you are not feeling entirely safe?
Maybe because you value the challenges that are being presented; especially the challenge to represent yourself honestly despite the absence of any guarantee. Maybe because growth and safety are not always compatible, and you’re committed to growth. Maybe because you recognize that your demands for safety come from the ancient, reptilian part of your brain, and you want to practice engaging the cognitive, human fore-brain. Maybe because you’re beginning to suspect that your safety doesn’t actually depend on what your partner thinks or how they react. (Of course I am talking about perceived emotional safety here, not actual threats to physical safety.)
In the simplest terms, growth and the self-confrontation that growth requires rarely feel safe. If feeling “safe” with a partner means they protect you from the pain that their true feelings might cause, then your safety is very precarious indeed. Consider, the difference between the pain of woundedness and the pain of growth can be difficult to discern; sometimes the difference is all in the meaning we make of the experience.
Also, if feeling safe with a partner means they spare you the pain of facing existential separateness and existential loneliness, this safety becomes a hurdle, an Achilles heal in your own self-development. Being open to feelings of intimacy with a person who does not make you feel entirely safe is not necessarily an act of self-betrayal or foolishness; sometimes it is an act of maturity and courage.
Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?
It depends what one means by trust and trustworthiness. Are we talking about trusting our partner to tell us the lies we half-want and expect to hear? Trusting our partner to listen to anything we have to say without having a contradictory view or experience? Trusting our partner to keep the peace despite the war they might feel inside? Trust in our partner to prop up our self-esteem because we’re unable to do that for our self?
Or do we want to be able to trust our partner with tolerating difficult truths, both the telling and the receiving? Can we trust our partner to represent themselves honestly, even if it hurts us, or them? How about trusting our partner to allow us to face our own existential pain without trying to rescue us from it because it it makes them uncomfortable? Most importantly, do we possess the self-respect that allows us to trust our own response-ability in the ever changing landscape of our relationship? Can we trust our own judgement, our own perception? If so, our partner’s perceived trustworthiness becomes far less important.
Ideas of trust and safety are complex and multidimensional; neither should be assumed to be wholly virtuous, without shadowy aspects.
The most profound truths are difficult truths, and difficult truths rarely feel “safe.” They feel like the opposite of safe; they feel dangerous. If “trusting” our partner means that they must respond to our difficult truths with validation and make us feel “safe” in our self-disclosures, then cycles of inauthenticity (ie- lying and pretending) are established within the relationship and will certainly contaminate our experiences of intimacy.
I have observed that the safety and trust that is most profound in relationship tends to be hard-won, a product of difficulty and growth rather than of agreements, demands, compromise, or negotiations. There’s a trustworthiness and safety in knowing that your partner will stand their ground even in the face of your discomfort, but this is a truth that not everyone comes to recognize.
In closing, none of this is meant to be absolute or prescriptive. We all have to wrestle with the personal and subjective meanings of safety, trust, validation, and related themes in our relationships.
My intent here is to add some flesh to the bones of an idea I shared recently in brief; the idea that there is a kind of intimacy that is different from the conventional version. These ideas can never be expressed fully enough; an experience like intimacy is so deep, so unique, and so subjectively personal that it is, in a way, futile to try to define it or map it or even talk about it. And yet there’s some beauty even in the futility.
In some way, writing this has been an intimate experience for me. I reveal myself, presenting an idea that may be unpopular. It’s not entirely safe. I don’t trust that you will agree with me. I don’t need or expect you to validate what I have said. And I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings, whatever they are, because I’ve confronted my own, right here in front of you.
Communication tools for marriage and relationships
Many people are in love with the idea that there is a communication tool that will solve their marriage or relationship troubles with a minimum of discomfort or risk. The fantasy rarely comes true, for reasons I discuss elsewhere, but there is one tool that does change everything. Ready for it?
I call it… Telling the truth.
Telling the truth is one of the simplest, most difficult, and most terrifying “communication tools” available to us in relationship. It’s far more intimidating than trying to learn your partner’s love languages, remembering to use “I-statements”, or practicing active listening.
Interestingly, popular communication tools and techniques that promise to create more intimacy in relationships often succeed at doing precisely the opposite, while telling the truth remains one of the surest paths to authentic intimacy. So why do we avoid it?
Telling the truth is hard
When we tell the truth we put ourselves on the line. When we tell the truth we open ourselves to our partner’s questioning, judgement, criticism, rejection, even disgust.
Sometimes we try to bargain away the risk of truth-telling – “I’ll tell you but you have to promise not to get mad or to judge me.” An angry or judgemental partner is apparently more than many people can tolerate.
Obviously not all truth-telling is wise or constructive, though the most profound truth-telling does inevitably carry a risk of destruction. Our innocence may be at risk of being destroyed. Or our upper hand, our righteousness. We might risk destroying something in our partner: their image of us, their sense of safety; we may fear destroying their happiness, or their love and acceptance of us.
What does it take to tell the truth?
The truth might be painful, but real truth-telling is not cruel, it is courageous. It is not manipulative, it is genuine. Cruelty and manipulation is a misuse or distortion of telling the truth. Real truth-telling presents something unarguable, something deeply subjective, something from our experience for the other to consider. Real truth-telling draws a line between our experience and our partner’s experience. It is an act of respect, integrity, and differentiation.
Telling the truth might mean confessing an action or behaviour, but the most significant truth-telling more often involves revealing difficult or complicated feelings –
“I don’t like being touched like that.”
“I’m not sure I love you anymore.”
“I don’t feel attracted to you.”
“I don’t think I want children.”
“I’m having doubts.”
“I’m attracted to someone else.”
“I want something different.”
“I’m having a hard time with something you’ve done.”
“I’ve been deceiving myself, and you.”
“I hide myself from you.”
“I punish you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t respect you.”
“I want more.”
“I want less.”
Notice that there is no technique. Nothing fancy. The truth is straight-forward and needs no special dressing up.
Each of these examples opens the door to what we imagine will be difficult conversations. Telling the truth opens doors, but it may also close them. Most relationships are normally built, at least partially, upon untruths, and these untruths provide an uneasy equilibrium. Truth-telling is destabilizing at first; it narrows the path and demands growth. No wonder we avoid it; we’d rather find a technique that allows us to keep our relationship more or less status quo, but also somehow “better.”
If we’re really honest, we want communication tools that will make our partner understand us, even as we hide the most difficult and salient truths from them. And if we’re even more honest, we might admit that when we say we want understanding, we actually mean we want agreement; we crave some tool that will make our partner validate us and hopefully see things our way, even when we don’t have the courage to tell them the truth in plain language.
I’ll leave you with this quote from psychologist and author James Hillman. I like how he connects truth-telling to shame and fantasy for another perspective –
When Freud’s patients lay down and began to reminisce, they found their fantasies embarrassing. Freud also found them embarrassing. Alone with each other and these fantasies, teller and listener did not look at each other. Their eyes did not meet. Why are our fantasies embarrassing to tell, and why are we embarrassed hearing the intimate tales of another’s imagination?
The shame about our fantasies gives testimony to their importance. This shame is now called professionally ‘resistance’. but what function does this resistance perform? I do indeed resist telling my daydreams, my scorching hatreds, my longings and fears and their uncontrollable imagery. My fantasies are like wounds, they reveal my pathology. Resistance protects me. Fantasies are incompatible with my usual ego , and because they are uncontrollable and ‘fantastic’ – that is away from my the relation to ego reality – we feel them alien. We are not embarrassed in the same way about our will and intelligence; indeed we proudly exhibit their accomplishments. But what breeds in the imagination we tend to keep apart and to ourselves. Imagination is an inner world – an inner aspect of consciousness. These affections and fantasies are the imaginal or unconscious aspect of everything we think and do. This part of the soul that we keep to ourselves is central to analysis, to confession, to prayer, central between lovers and friends, central in the work of art, central to what we mean by ‘telling the truth’.
When: March 3, 1-4pm
Where: Flow Yoga – 58 Adams Rd. Campbell River
Cost: $69 + GST/person
To register: Email email@example.com or call 250 204-3301
*** Register early to reserve your place. Space is limited. ***
Healing Misunderstanding in Relationships
The longing to feel understood runs deep in every marriage or relationship, and most of us know firsthand the frustration, pain, and conflict that feeling misunderstood can cause.
In this first instalment of the Relationship Skills Workshop Series, we’ll explore what it means to feel “understood.” We’ll learn tools for cultivating the kind of understanding that helps relationships thrive, and also tools for healing the misunderstandings that cause resentment. Join me and learn –
~ Why feeling understood is so important (and why misunderstandings hurt so badly)
~ How to untangle two distinct types of understanding (and work with both successfully)
~ Communication tools for creating understanding (and healing misunderstandings)
~ How to get to the real issue hiding within most misunderstandings (and make it better)
This workshop is for couples who want to actively nurture, deepen, and improve their marriage or relationship.
When: March 3, 1-4pm
Where: Flow Yoga – 58 Adams Rd. Campbell River
Cost: $69 + GST/person
To register: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250 204-3301
*** Register early to reserve your place. Space is limited. ***
Justice Schanfarber is an internationally renowned marriage counsellor and author of The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. The Relationship Skills Workshop Series is an ongoing exploration of the most pressing relationship themes and issues of our time. The format combines lecture, discussion, live demonstrations, and practical skills building exercises.
Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.
Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.
Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.
To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries.
Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.
In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!
Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.
Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.
This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.
Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own anger as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.
Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –
The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.
On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.
As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –
Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.
Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”
Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.
This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.
In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.
“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”
“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”
The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.
As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.
This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.
Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.
As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.
Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.
Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.
You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.
So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?
First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.
When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.
People come to marriage counselling and couples therapy largely because they seek to understand (or to be understood). They want to understand their relationship, their partner, their selves, their situation. They want to understand why things have happened the way they have, why they feel the way they feel. They want to understand how to repair a rift, how to heal pain, how to make change, how to re-connect, how to move forward.
To understand is to comprehend, to gain insight. The word itself gives us a strong clue as to how we might orient ourselves in order to best gain the insight or comprehension we desire: Understanding requires that we stand under, that we view from below.
Standing under a thing gives us access to soft bellies, to hidden and vulnerable parts. From above we see the armoured shell, the prepared mask, the sunlit tip, the socially acceptable, the obvious. To under-stand we must get below. And yet this is so rarely the perspective we take. We prefer a bird’s eye view. The light of day. Brightly lit surfaces. We prefer the view from above.
The view from below
Viewing from below requires that we descend, that we drop down. Viewing from below – a thing, a person, an idea, a relationship – requires a certain quality in the viewer; it requires a deepening. To truly under-stand another, we must find our own depth, and we must perceive the depth of that which we seek to under-stand. Mere surfaces will not suffice.
Under-standing is essentially different from viewing from above. Standing below, gaining insight from a place of depth, requires us to develop senses in and of the dark. From the darker depths, the qualities of things are not revealed through the normal daylight processes of reflected light entering the retina and creating images in the brain. The images created and qualities revealed from standing below come in an entirely different manner. To gain insight from the dark, we hone our nighttime senses… Imagination, feeling, intuition, paradox, poetry. Rejected, exiled, and invisible parts may be revealed.
If I want to comprehend my partner and my self, to gain insight into my marriage or relationship, I might be tempted to use the senses I know best; daylight senses, senses of sight. I might climb the mountain of rationality in order to obtain a brightly lit view from above. This I do regularly, in my personal life and in my professional practice. This broad, well lit view gives valuable perspective and helps create the maps we use to navigate the terrain of relationships and life; the view from above gives us family systems theory, attachment theory, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness practice, general discernment, a sense of morality, and so much more. But the map is not the terrain, and some of the most important parts of the terrain are actually sub-terrains. To penetrate these sub-terrains means going below, where it’s dark.
Synchronistically, this poem was shared with me by a Farsi-speaking friend as I was working on this article. Hafiz would have needed to venture below in order to understand that which he gleaned about loneliness; something hidden, elusive –
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
From above, from normal daylight perspectives loneliness is something to be avoided. Hafiz’s insight comes not from viewing the sunlit surface of loneliness, but from descending below it, standing under, and feeling its soft underbelly.
In my own poem below I too needed to descend beneath the obvious daylight judgements and beliefs on the topic of failure in order to find hidden insight –
Oh failure –
take me in
work me like
my shape, my
Breathe life into
me, real life,
the life that
raw, to the
brothers, to the
loneliness at the
end of my
street, to the
Oh failure –
cradle me and
then kick me
out, drop me
off, let me go
With your wounds
and your blessings
I can find
To truly under-stand a thing like loneliness or failure or love or relationships we may need to delve deeply into the underside, where time runs errant, rivers run backwards, and daylight fails to penetrate. An underneath perspective that includes unknowing, dreaming, and nightmares may be required. This underneath perspective must be in some way temporarily (few want to take up permanent residence) entered; not merely viewed from a safe distance.
Disintegration and initiation
To enter the below places, initiation is in order. For the client couples in my counselling practice this initiation into the non-rational, imaginative, disorienting, contrary, and sometimes nightmarish underside of people and things takes the form of a disintegrating marriage or relationship. This initiation is painful and frightening, and like all initiations we go it alone, but we also join others who have come before. It’s lonely, but it softens too. It feels like failure, but it opens us up.
A disintegrating marriage or relationship can provide the disorientation necessary to give up daylight living for a time and descend to the deeper subterranean realms. From here we might stand under the marriage or relationship, under self or other, and in this standing under, in the dark, in the depth, we might discover a different sort of insight.
The insights we get from descending, from going below, from standing under do not necessarily tell us the “why” of a thing, but rather they reveal other hidden qualities: texture, flavour, depth, and meaning.
From below, we might not learn the cause and effect equation that explains why our spouse makes such a great friend, but a lousy lover. Perhaps their clingy neediness (or our own) still resists a rational explanation. But… we might glimpse the depth of their desire. Or their pain. Or their dilemma. Or our own. This might not solve a problem directly, but it deepens our experience, which can have an unexpected impact, and can change everything.
Years ago I went to a couples counselling session with my partner. It was through my partner’s health benefits plan; half hour sessions, brisk, with a problem-solving focus. At the time I was quite withdrawn in the relationship. Like many of my clients today, I felt hopeless. Frustrated. Resentful.
We found the office building; large, concrete and glass; we paid for parking, entered the building, took the elevator up in silence. The receptionist had us wait for a few minutes, then we entered the tiny office and met a smartly dressed woman who wanted to know the problem. My partner spoke in her soft prepared voice and I recall saying very little.
I never went back to meet with that counsellor, although my partner did. In their next session the counsellor encouraged my partner to leave me. She mistook my quietness to be disinterest, and she quickly drew the conclusion that if I was unwilling to speak up in our first counselling session and unwilling to return for a second then I must be finished with the relationship. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
It is true that I kept my deeper feelings hidden during that first counselling session. It’s also true that the counsellor was not interested in understanding my experience from the point of view of “standing under.”
She made no attempts and showed no interest in delving deeper into the experience that was hidden below my surface. She was apparently a counsellor of surfaces, of daylight comprehension only, of clinical reports and checkmarks. Getting under surfaces was not part of her practice. I don’t hold any of this against her. She works in a high volume, get-it-done-in-four-to-six-sessions, insurance provider paid, utilitarian, fix it paradigm.
Understanding a relationship from the point of view of standing under, of depth, of soft underbellies and hidden treasure; this takes time. It probably can’t be done in four or six half hour sessions. The real work of understanding has nothing to do with an intention toward solutions or fixing, it has to do with curiosity, capacity, courage, and a willingness to be profoundly mistaken.
The kind of understanding that we generally seek, daytime understanding, the brightly lit view from above, results in answers, equations, explanations that are testable and replicable. The kind of understanding that comes from descending into the dark spaces and standing under a thing or person or relationship, this never provides dependable data. It gives us nothing to count on. It stirs rather than calms. And yet stirring is often in order, and stirring always gives way to calm, eventually, though not on our timeline or according to our agenda.
While the counselling experience I’ve described was certainly not immediately satisfying or recognizably beneficial at the time, in retrospect it deepened certain things, and that deepening came to be illuminating. By having my depths and hidden parts essentially ignored and dismissed by a professional couples counsellor, by an expert, I was forced to confront my own depths and my own legitimacy directly. I increased my trust in myself. What choice did I really have? And I had a laugh too, mixed with the tears. I mean, who goes to couples counselling early in their own counselling career and has their counsellor tell your wife she should leave you?! That is some seriously funny shit! There seems often to be a kind of poignancy that comes with the bittersweet.
These days I will sometimes find myself in session with a couple where one person has very little or nothing to say. I remember my own experience, and I consider what it means to understand in the way I’ve described in this writing. I let the quiet one be quiet. I let myself stand under their reluctance and their silence. Sometimes I even prop it up from below – “It’s OK to have nothing to say right now. You can take your time. You’re welcome to just listen. I trust that you’ll contribute when you’re ready.” I know there are hidden worlds below the brightly lit uncomfortable silence. I know the silence has its reasons and its own hidden nature.
Daylight understanding, with its maps, formulas, cause and effect equations, and defensible rationalities has many benefits, but the darker kind of understanding, where you feel your way from below is also called for. Experiment with both. Practice moving between upper and lower worlds as you seek insight and satisfaction in relationships, love, and life.
As well as asking great questions, Lee shared experiences from his own relationships, including his challenges, learnings, and foibles. He talks openly about his history of manipulating his partner to try and get the upper hand, and about his hypocrisy in punishing his partner for her contradictions while assuming the right to his own.
One of my favourite moments of the conversation is when Lee shares that, immediately after reading the section of my book about sex, he acknowledged to his partner that he unconsciously uses her for sexual release. Although she’s not surprised by his admission (“Yes, I know…”), his apology touches her, and I can imagine the tenderness of the scene playing out between them.
I found myself admiring my host’s willingness to confront his darker aspects publicly throughout our conversation. Listening back on the recording, it strikes me as a rewarding mix of humour, ease, tension, and poignancy. Lee’s revelations from his own relationship experiences ring true for me, and I bet you’ll find his stories and lines of inquiry illuminating.
Learning about relationships at Westcoast Bound kink and BDSM conference
I recently attended a conference on relationships where I got to learn from some of the most passionate, skilled, and experienced facilitators that I’ve ever encountered. This wasn’t a psychotherapy conference, or even a conference specifically on attachment theory, Imago, active listening, neuroscience, or empathy, although many of these topics were touched upon.
The classes at this conference were on topics like…
Passion, Joy, Fear and Healing at the end of a Whip. BDSM, Sex & Shame. Nonverbal Power & Surrender. Control & Dominance Moves with Rope. The Good, the Bad, and the Poly.
It might seem a strange place to learn about relationships, and a strange place for a marriage counsellor and couples therapist to continue their own learning, but here’s my profound discovery from my weekend at Westcoast Bound: The cutting edge of relationship work is being honed at the margins.
Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Isn’t it always the pioneers pushing the edges who bring their discoveries to the rest of us, providing tales of adventure, and exotic spices to enrich our lives? Perhaps it makes sense that those pushing the edges of relationship would make discoveries that eventually touch us all.
You may not enjoy being erotically flogged, or you might, but the communication, care, and visceral energy that goes into and comes out of such a scene is illuminating for anyone. The idea of whipping or being whipped by your beloved may create cognitive dissonance and be on your list of hard limits, but watching the dance of the whip in skilled and caring hands, its gentle kiss against trembling skin, and the intimacy between the people involved (despite the bright-light conference room setting) rivals the feeling of the most evocative dance performance you’ve ever witnessed.
Over the course of my career as a couples counsellor, and in my life as a human being hungry for connection, growth, and understanding, I’ve been to many workshops, retreats, and trainings. Many of these have been about communication, intimacy, and relationships. The part that is often missing is about what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that arise in relationship, how to work with the darker aspects, shadow, contradiction, paradox.
If you visit the Westcoast Bound website (click here), you will see a striking image of a woman wearing a gas mask, with electrical tape in an x shape across her nipples. You’ll probably see some irreverent quotes and potentially confusing language. What won’t be immediately obvious is the tenderness, courage, authenticity, presence, and playfulness – all crucial qualities for relationship – that is cultivated and celebrated at the event, to a degree I’ve rarely seen at other types of gatherings.
An interesting thing about empathy, compassion, and even intimacy and eroticism, is that they often arise more or less spontaneously out of duress, from experiences that feel raw and risky. Westcoast Bound is a place for screaming and begging, uncomfortable squirming, laughter along with tears. People here are creating experiences for each other that raise adrenaline and endorphins. It’s not for the faint of heart. Neither, for that matter, is an extraordinary marriage, a difficult conversation, or true intimacy.
If we want to create a sense of risk and courage to make a relationship feel more exciting and bonding, and we want to do this safely and well, we better develop skills – both physical and emotional. And so a conference like this is about developing these skills, both hard skills and soft skills.
A fingerbanging and g-spot orgasm workshop, it turns out, is as much about tuning into your partner’s experience as it is about perfecting a certain way of using one’s fingers. It becomes a class on intimacy and communication. Along the way there’s humour, and a few jaw-dropping spectacles (I’ll let you use your imagination).
With its x-rated language and startling imagery, a BDSM community – any BDSM community – creates a sort of boundary (“You must be THIS tall to enter”). An initiation is required. Can you handle the shock? Do you have a relationship with your darker side? Beyond this boundary of initiation lies a surprisingly rich landscape of relational, emotional, and conceptual riches, but only for those who can tolerate or are attracted to certain discomforts.
Speaking as someone who delves around the many edges of relationship, sex, and intimacy, and who also very happily works smack dab in the middle, with many conventionally minded “vanilla” couples, I urge those who dwell somewhere toward the centre to strike out and explore the margins. You needn’t embrace everything you find there, but you’re likely to discover something valuable. This is no prescription, rather a humble invitation.
By the way, tickets for the Westcoast Bound weekend cost around, wait for it… a hundred and fifty bucks. Hard to find that kind of value for a three day learning event. There are plenty of fetish nights in any city that will show you the shiny surface of this world of kink and BDSM, but if you want the depth, the grit, this is the type of conference to look for.
Some of the workshop presenters have been teaching for thirty plus years. They’ve written books and directed films. Many have lived through prejudice if not outright persecution. There’s an incredible collection of experience, wisdom, and diversity in this place. You will learn something from these people, although probably not what you anticipated.
You’ll be exposed to an intersection of trans, queer, kinky, poly, Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch people and communities, and, if you are willing, you might emerge changed. Your world will get bigger. Your eyes may bulge, judgements flair. If you make it to the dungeon parties, you may be shocked by the unabashed sadism and masochism you witness. And you may be surprised by the… normalcy of it all. We all have a sadistic and a masochistic side. Some are willing to play with these aspects of self, wrestling them into consciousness. Others hide them away, setting the stage for being bit in the ass later, or doing the biting, neither consensually nor with awareness, let alone enjoyment.
Here are some words I overheard after the event –
I’m pretty proud. It was an incredibly cathartic experience. I let out tears and screams that I’ve been holding in for many years. I’ve been seeing therapists for 5 years and I was never able to release them. But in this environment I was able to let go. I felt so safe and accepted. This weekend was a life changing experience.
In my writing, I sometimes talk about the need for finding healthy expressions of sadism and masochism in relationships. I talk about acknowledging the power struggles and power dynamics that are always present in relationships. I talk about nurturing playfulness and erotic tension (WCB presenter Midori on BDSM – “It’s like cops and robbers… with fucking!”). I also point out the benefits of talking explicitly about sex and desire in relationships, and about the pain and shame that keeps us silent. All of these crucial relationship themes are woven throughout the Westcoast Bound experience.
In my work counselling couples, the root of the trouble turns out rarely to be the thing we began with, the core stuff is rarely the “presenting issue.” More often we discover that it is something about how a couple thinks about their relationship that needs addressing. Adding to the problem is that most of the people in our lives think about relationships more or less the same way we do. The messages we get about sex and relationship tend to reflect our own, and we find ourselves trapped in a cultural echo chamber. Without new ideas, new influences, we remain imaginatively and creatively stuck.
The purpose of therapy is, amongst other things, to broaden our perspectives, our thinking. Some of the most celebrated researchers and thought-leaders on sex and relationships come from the world of academia and psychotherapy – Murray Bowen, John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, John Bowlby, Harriet Lerner etc – but we need the wisdom from the margins too, people who have used their lives to dive into the darker depths, and then report on what they find.
A weekend immersed in a different way of seeing sex and relationships (kink and BDSM being just one possibility; certainly there are others) might not be therapeutic exactly… but it might just end up making us somehow more whole.
Below are links to some of the presenters I saw at Westcoast Bound 2017. Check out what they have to say. Sign up for their newsletters. You might find them challenging. You might disagree with them. But you might also find something that you’re ready, or even hungry, for.
Midori – Kink author and educator. Check out her books and workshops.
Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –
“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”
It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.
What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?
For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.
I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what: The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.
As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)
In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.
That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify, express, and reconcile our darker feelings about each other – to each other – we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.
“If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”
Are negative emotions so bad?
Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?
There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.
So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)
Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.
Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.
There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.
Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?
Contradiction asks much of us. On the one hand, there might be an opportunity to create greater congruence in your life by confronting the contradictions embodied in your own speech and actions. On the other hand, it takes great capacity to hold opposing points of view and disparate experiences without rejecting one or the other or both. I call this “holding opposites.”
The possibility for re-connection in our marriage or relationship is related to how we handle the contradictions we inevitably encounter; how we hold opposites. Our ability to tolerate, and as we’ll see, transform, our experience of contradiction into something more powerful requires a certain kind of personal capacity.
“Capacity” is an important concept in couples work. When I talk about capacity, imagine a cup. When the cup gets full, it overflows. In relationships, our cup gets full from anxious feelings that come from, amongst other things, an inability to tolerate the contradiction all around us.
When the cup overflows, these anxious feelings are expressed as rage, withdrawal, criticism, blame, denial, exasperation etc. We can try to iron out the contradictions we see in ourself, in our partner, in our life, in the world… or we can work on making our cup bigger. The advantage to making our cup bigger is that it holds not just the anxious feelings of contradiction, but ALL the complicated feelings that give life its richness and depth.
We may wish for simpler times in our relationship, a time when things were more black and white, but re-connection doesn’t want that. Re-connection wants you to grow your cup, to expand your capacity for holding the complexity that comes with a deeper, maturing relationship.
Some people habitually sniff out the contradictions in others and feel obligated to point them out. They believe it is their job to iron out the wrinkles they see in their partner. This includes playing “devil’s advocate.” If this is your tendency, please consider that this kills eroticism, dampens desire and attraction, breeds resentment, and makes re-connection difficult. Your first task in re-connecting with your loved one is to catch yourself in the act of using contradiction against yourself or others. I’m not asking you to ignore the contradictions you observe. On the contrary, please continue noticing them. I’m asking you to orient around contradiction differently, to change your relationship to contradiction. Stop treating it exclusively as a problem to be solved. If you will practice accepting contradiction as a normal aspect of life, you will be preparing the ground for re-connection in your relationship.
Much conflict and disconnection between lovers and spouses is due to a misunderstanding about contradiction. Contradiction is normal and healthy. It’s inevitable. If we see our partner’s inherent contradictions as a flaw or weakness, we essentially take a stand against their basic human-ness, and that is the real disaster. We also very likely take the same stand against our own human-ness. We remain apart, separate, because we have rejected a real part of being human.
Paul watched his wife Marilyn eating pie for dinner after they both came home late from a frantic day at work. Just yesterday she had confided to him that she wanted to eat more healthfully. Now as he watched her hungrily annihilate two pieces, he pointed out how her actions were in complete contradiction with what she had said yesterday. When the three of us talked about this in session, Paul maintained that he was trying to support her. Marilyn erupted in frustration. She felt anything but supported. This was an ongoing dynamic that was becoming a major obstacle and source of disconnection in their relationship.
When we are feeling combative, it’s easy to point out contradictions in the other as evidence of their shortcomings, implicitly making them “wrong” or “bad.” This reveals a narrow view of contradiction and it misses the deeper gifts and insights that working with contradiction can provide. If we believe, even unconsciously, that we should do away with contradictions, we have become too perfectionistic and are likely to find ourselves frustrated and lonely; disconnected.
We can judge ourselves and others based on the contradictions we observe, or we can inquire into these same contradictions with a curious mind and open heart. We might ask ourselves “What are the various parts of this person that are trying to have a voice?” We might try assuming that both sides of any contradiction hold an important truth, and rather than pitting them against each other, we might experiment with “backing up” until our perspective is broad enough to include both sides. This type of inquiry asks us to soften our focus.
We’re accustomed in this culture to seek answers, facts, quantitative data, to narrow our focus until we’ve solved the problem. It’s a reductionist way of seeing each other and the world, and it keeps us from finding solace in the mystery; it keeps us from experiencing the sweet surrender and easy humility of simply not knowing. “Simply not knowing” is a wonderful state of being. Have you practiced it? When we allow ourselves to be washed over by waves of contradiction, and we stop insisting on sorting out each one, we might find ourselves on new unfamiliar ground, a place where fresh experiences and re-connection become possible.
With some practice allowing contradiction, it begins to transform. Contradiction that is allowed, that is honored, can begin to mature into its wise relative: paradox.
Contradiction is that annoying know-it-all brother in law who seems oblivious to the way he rubs everyone the wrong way. Paradox, on the other hand, is that enigmatic uncle, mysterious and calm, whom you feel good around, even if he’s strange and maybe a little bit crazy. Contradiction is two dimensional, black and white. Paradox is multi-dimensional, full of colour. Contradiction is blunt, a dead-end, right and wrong, end of story, a door closing. Paradox is a door opening. As much as contradiction is confusing and deadening, paradox is illuminating and enlivening. Contradiction cuts us off. Paradox connects us. Contradiction is an annoying problem of logic. Paradox, like love, is mysterious and awe inspiring, unsolvable. When we see only the contradictions in our partner, we are looking at them like problems to be solved, like broken machines. When we are able to look at our partner and see the deep paradox underneath the contradictions, we begin to see them in their fuller mystery. We view them with our heart’s intelligence, not just our reasoning mind.
You don’t need to figure this out entirely to work with it. It’s ultimately not any technique, but rather plumbing your own depth and growing your own capacity that turns contradiction into paradox and enriches your life and relationship. If you will simply allow contradiction in your life, in the world, in your partner, rather than fighting against it, you will have begun this practice.
Mindful Marriage –
Self awareness tools for happier relationships
Where: Ocean Mountain Yoga
1121 Cedar Street (Second floor)
Campbell River, BC
When: January 16, 2016
1pm – 4pm
To register: Call 250 914-5435 or email email@example.com
Marriage and relationships can be full of contradiction and confusion even as they offer hopefulness and joy. Being fully present through all these experiences is perhaps both our hardest task and our greatest reward on the journey.
In this 3-hour workshop we will explore –
~ Supporting your partner without betraying yourself
~ How to communicate for connection and clarity
~ Finding your way through patterns of conflict
~ Paths to intimacy, pleasure and desire
This workshop is for individuals and couples of all genders and orientations.
About the presenter –
Justice Schanfarber is a mindfulness based counsellor and Certified Hakomi Therapist helping individuals and couples in Campbell River BC, and worldwide by telephone and skype. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com
Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –
Hold on vs Let go
Trust yourself vs Trust others
Take charge vs Surrender
Stay the course vs Embrace change
Try more vs Try less
Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
Take vs Give
Rational vs Emotional
Simplicity vs Complexity
Individual vs Group
Self control vs Self expression
At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.
Neither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.
As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.
Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.
A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.
Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?
The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.
It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.
Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.