Real intimacy is a deep engagement with the whole “dance” that couples do, the ways we interact in an endless dialectic of harmony, disharmony and repair. There are three facets/phases to a healthy relationship – the promise (harmony), disillusionment (disharmony) and deep love (repair). Each facet or phase of a relationship can occur over years or over one conversation. In this post I’ve summarised Terry Real’s words from his book “The New Rules of Marriage”. Intimacy as a daily practice means developing new relationship habits.
The first phase of relationships – the promise.
This is the state of falling in love and can be best understood as love without knowledge. The wonderful experience of falling in love is not only real, it also gives us a sense of completion. Whether we admit it or not, many of us fall in love with the promise that in surrendering to the beloved, all of our unhealed places, all the old wounds we carry from the past, will be rectified, or at least, permanently avoided. When we look deep into our lover’s eyes, we see those parts of ourselves we need and never quite had. This is a time of “nose to nose” energy, when partners of whatever age find themselves acting like teenagers, when nothing is as compelling or fascinating as the beloved.
The second phase of relationships – disillusionment.
Sooner or later, the bubble bursts. The couple moves from “nose to nose” energy to “side by side”energy. They now face outwards to the world, shoulder to shoulder, ideally unified toward a set of goals like creating a life together, getting ahead, paying the mortgage, raising children. It is normal to emerge from the marvelous cocoon of the falling in love phase.
Think of intimacy as comprised of two intersecting lines, like a cross. The vertical line represents the “nose to nose” energy – it is the capacity to be fully present in the moment, the capacity to face one another. Really looking at one another in relationship is intense – it is sexy, nourishing, stimulating and romantic. The horizontal line represents the “shoulder to shoulder” energy: it is the capacity to sustain connection over time, to be thoughtful, responsible, to build trust. In living a good life together, sharing common values, goals, the small daily acts of care are also nourishing in a different way, and no less essential. There is a cozy comfortableness that comes from a strongly established horizontal line.
A healthy relationship needs to be able to move back and forth between both aspects of intimacy. Couples often need to get out of the house, break routine, and get away from the kids to remember they are lovers. And they must also learn to work together, as a team, to accomplish their goals. The shift out of the early, intense, erotic phase to a more settled one, is natural and necessary. Yet somewhere in that transition something dreadful happens to most couples. The shadow, the underbelly, the incomplete past each thought they had healed, or at least outwitted, reappears in their lives with a vengeance. They have entered the realm of disillusionment.
Unfortunately the majority of men and women enter relationships ill equipped to face the continuing challenge of pushing through disillusionment. Some version of the unhappy, yet often predictable, process of control, revenge, and resignation seems virtually inevitable. In those critical moments when connection in the face of disconnection is most required, each partner, gives up. Faced with disillusionment, a woman might nag or complain, but after her attempts at control prove ineffective, she will most likely learn to retreat from expressing her truth and draw back from insisting, fearing that her relationship (meaning her man) will not be able to take it. While women’s criticisms might at times be vocal, their control moves tend toward the covert, as does their revenge, except for episodic explosions. For many women, love’s deterioration reads like this: you begin to push less, you begin to fight less, you begin to give less, and you begin to feel less. To be a “good woman” means sacrificing your needs for the sake of the relationship. What you’re not told is that along with your needs, pleasure, generosity and feeling eventually diminish as well.
At the same time, the traditional gender arrangement fails to acknowledge that men, at their core, are just as dependent, just as emotional, just as wired for connection, as women are. When faced with the psychological challenge of dealing with disillusionment, a traditionally socialized man finds himself relatively incapable, and mostly unwilling, to sit down with his own feelings, bring them to his partner in a thoughtful, constructive manner, and straightforwardly negotiate his wants and needs. Such skills of introspection and communication in personal relationships are as foreign to conventional masculinity as direct assertion has been to femininity. Encountering disillusionment, many men, rather than accessing these needed abilities, feel instead a deep, formless sense of betrayal. After all, they’ve done their job. They’ve been reasonably civilized. Each day, without much fuss or complaint, they’ve headed off to work. So where is the loving caretaker they were promised? Where’s the payoff?
Despite the fact that traditional roles are changing, many men feel cheated. While far too many men lash out in frustration, the vast majority manages to remain decent enough. With a disgruntled sigh, they retreat further from a relationship they come to find less and less gratifying, and more and more bewildering. They shoulder disappointment about their relationship in the same way they’ve learned to shoulder almost everything else, silently. Their women will “out feel them, out negotiate them, out talk” them anyway, because they’re good at this game. Most men don’t work their relationships very well because “working a relationship” is a foreign concept; the prospect seems daunting, and the odds of success slim. Most of us have to cultivate an ability to successfully repair. Most of us need help. For men in particular, the first step lies in understanding that skills are needed at all, that while falling in love is primarily about spontaneity, staying in love demands craftsmanship. And craftsmanship must be learned.
Before a couple can even begin to learn the new craft of intimacy, however, both partners must establish a safe, sober space to be intimate in. Attending to the preconditions for intimacy is a critical component to relationship recovery that is frequently overlooked. Counsellors often skip over this concern, acting as though all parties were “on board,” when, in fact, the application of intimacy skills doesn’t stand a chance of succeeding in the couple’s current circumstances. Is one or both partners drinking/drugging excessively? Is there an ongoing affair, sexual acting out, or aggressive acting out? Is there a threat of physical, emotional, or financial danger? Are either or both partners suffering from an untreated psychiatric disorder, anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD? Is there an eating disorder? Does someone need medication? Does someone need a job? Are finances spinning out of control?
Most often, a chronically unhappy couple “stabilizes,” that is, renders its misery tolerable, by recourse to a “third leg of a triangle”- booze, work, affairs, heavy internet or porn use, exercise, over involvement with a child or pet. So long as a partner can easily take the position of being “fed up,” turning for solace to his or her favored comfort, that person’s willingness to stay engaged during instances of disillusionment will be compromised. Three domains need to be addressed before repair work on the couple’s relationship is appropriate: addiction, violence, and psychiatric disorders. If one or both partners are self-medicating, physically or psychologically threatening, or subject to a serious emotional disorder, the relational system is out of control, and no amount of coaching, counselling or good intentions on anyone’s part will yield results.
However, just cleaning up such negative circumstances, while necessary, is still not in itself sufficient. Beyond “sobriety” a stage must be set, a space cleared away, for connection to occur. Partners need a place in which to be intimate. In our overcommitted, work-focused, child focused culture, intimacy comes last in the time-debit line. Generally speaking, helping a couple learn relational skills is not as difficult as helping them become ready to use them.
The third phase of relationships – relationship practice
So, then, what does it mean to learn relational skills? And what does it mean to develop deep love and be able to repair? And what are the different challenges faced by men and women as they begin? There are five essential capacities: how to hold the relationship in warm regard despite its imperfections, how to speak, how to listen, how to negotiate and how to stay on course independent of your partner’s response. Each of these five skills comprises a relational approach, a new way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Taken together, these five skills operationalize a new vision of love. They transmute relationality from a way of thinking to a way of life. In systematizing these skills, my aim was to extend the work of Pia Mellody.
1. Self Esteem – Holding self in warm regard despite imperfections & limitations
Dysfunction – Shame, Grandiosity
2. Self-Awareness – Knowing one’s own experience (thoughts/emotions/sensations) & sharing them appropriately
Dysfunction – Disassociation, Perfectionism
3. Boundaries – Ability to protect and contain oneself while remaining connected to others
Dysfunction – Too porous (reactive), Walled off (disengaged)
4. Interdependence – Identifying one’s wants and needs; caring for self/letting others care for one appropriately
Dysfunction – Overdependence, Antidependent (needless/wantless)
5. Moderation – Experiencing and expressing oneself moderately
Dysfunction – Immature (too “loose”), “Supermature” (too “tight”)
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