Lovers & Friends Part I:
The holidays are over and it’s time to start the New Year. That’s right, New Year’s resolution time! We want to start fresh and work on things like better health, enjoying life more, reading more, leaving work on time, controlling our tempers, and improving our relationships. Many older and wiser people suggest that you marry your best friend and you won’t go wrong. I think maybe another way to understand that is to treat your partner as you would your best friend. It makes me think of that Ever Us Two Stone diamond jewelry commercial…. “One diamond for your best friend. One diamond for your true love.” So many of us have such limited capacity for true intimacy because we are afraid of intimacy, and with good reason. It’s because we didn’t see it represented for us growing up and we didn’t experience it with our own parents.
When Things Get Ugly
We have a tendency of thinking that intimacy means that we have sex, party together, work out together, read next to each other, or engage in any other shared pleasurable activities with our partner. Regrettably, we also mistake unfiltered self-disclosure about every little thing as intimacy, especially in our culture of social media. For me, true intimacy means feeling compassion, experiencing a level of connectedness that you fiercely defend your partner, and understand the world from your partner’s eyes to the point of naturally assuming your partner’s positive intention. Have you ever watched a couple argue? Do you remember how uncomfortable it made you feel? It almost makes you want to turn your head at just how icky it feels. Well that’s because arguing is an intimate interaction. The couple is trying to work through some things that are clearly significant to each of them. Even though, those of us who are observing the conflict wish they would do it somewhere else, like in private. And what about the couples that argue so ugly and dirty that it makes you want to vomit? As a friend or family member, I feel sad and repulsed. However, as a therapist, I feel hopeful that with the assistance of therapy they can identify what’s triggering their defenses and learn better conflict resolution strategies. I listen and fantasize about using a mirror to show them all of their misguided ways that they are using to get their points across. But what if someone turned a mirror onto you and your partner? Would you notice the same things? Hmmm…
What Makes Things SO Ugly
Usually when the relationship is new, there is much more compromise during disagreements. The experience of conflict actually seems to build intimacy, especially when used constructively. However, as time goes on, we become so merged with our partners that we assume that our partner should be able to read our minds and we lose some of our patience with and compassion for our partner. We have our own internal beliefs that we become attached to. We start to criticize and attack their character, by asserting things they “always” or “never” do. “You never listen to me.” “You’re always working.” “You never want to do what I want.” “You always come home late.” The list could go on; but just to clarify, no one ever always or never does anything besides breathe. It’s just not possible or plausible when you think about it. We point fingers as though we are blameless in situations and instead place the blame solely on them. “It’s your fault we have no money.” It’s your fault I can’t go back to school.” “It’s your fault we’re always arguing.” “It’s your fault our son behaves that way.” During the intensity of the argument, we’re so preoccupied with talking (or yelling) at the same time, we’re not able to actually listen? Both partners have a step in the dance, meaning both partners share some responsibility. Sometimes we get so frustrated that we hang up the phone during arguments, ignore our partner’s calls or walk away during conflict. This sort of withdrawal is counterproductive. It may selfishly give you an opportunity to cool off, but often it causes your partner to become more infuriated by feeling rejected or abandoned. I remember times when I’ve felt this helplessness and I felt so angry I wanted to scream. Finally, we make threats, name-call, and insult our partners because we’re angry, and expect that all is to be forgiven when the dust settles. This has to be the most emotionally brutal because it is devaluing and contemptuous toward someone you claim to love. There is a proverb that says “The tongue has no bones, but it is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.”
Commitment Plus (or Minus) Intimacy
Dr. John Gottman referred to these patterns of interaction as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because they are so destructive they will eventually destroy your relationship. True intimacy doesn’t involve thoughtlessly criticizing, defensiveness, withdrawal, or contempt. We have to be able to put down our weapons, take off our armor, and move past our fears of being vulnerable with our partner. We want our home to be a place of peace. It feels awful when home feels like a place of war. I feel satisfied in knowing that I can share my thoughts and fears with my partner without fear of judgment or torment. Who wants to have to walk on eggshells with someone you love?
What sort of romantic relationship would we have without intimacy? We’ve seen whirlwind romances like Katy Perry and Russell Brand, Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphreys, Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom. These couples made long-term commitments based mostly from passion alone, without really knowing or understanding how the other partner operates in the world. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed those relationships unfold, and soon dissipate. True intimacy involves compassion, and that means practicing new patterns for interacting and resolving conflict. I’m definitely not implying that passion isn’t vital to a relationship. But without intimacy, what happens as time passes and the eroticism starts to fade? Hmmm… but does it have to fade? Is there a way that couples can remain lovers? In Part II, I’ll discuss how to maintain, or regain, passion in relationships. Because let’s face it, we want to be lovers and friends!
If you’re struggling with intimacy in your relationship, please feel free to give us a call.