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.