Real intimacy is a daily practice. It is a deep engagement with the whole “dance” that couples do together. And just like learning to dance, we all must learn and practice the steps so we can move easily through the three phases of relationship intimacy.
We now understand that there are three predictable phases in the dance of relationships: the promise (harmony), disillusionment (disharmony) and deep love (repair). In this post I lay out Terry Real’s approach to developing the intimacy skills we must practice every day to dance well with our partner. These skills and practices are described in his book “The New Rules of Marriage”.
The science of relationships shows us that intimacy grows through the practice of new relationship habits. New habits can only be formed by daily repetition. Research at University College London has shown that it takes 66 days (up to 10 weeks) on average to form a new habit after the first time the new action is performed. This can vary from person to person and for different actions.
Forming a new habit takes 66 days. But mastery of relationship skills takes deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson, is an expert on experts who studies the science of peak performance. He says deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities. Be aware that to develop a good relationship, and to master relationship skills, we have to put in time and deliberate, daily practice of intimacy skills.
Take hope. You can break bad relationship habits and create new, good habits. Science has identified the skills that are needed to develop real intimacy. Practicing these skills helps us to dance though the three phases of relationships.
The first phase of relationships – the promise.
This is the state of falling in love and can be best understood as “love without knowledge”. We know that this phase of love can be blind. The wonderful experience of falling in love gives us a sense of completion. Needs are met that we never even knew we had.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 healed, or permanently avoided. When we look deep into our lover’s eyes, we see ourselves as whole and lovable. This is a time of “nose to nose” energy, when partners of any 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 a normal and necessary development to emerge from the cocoon of the falling in love phase to face the tasks of learning to work as a team.
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 and goals, the small daily acts of care are nourishing in a different way. They are just as essential as the dizzy euphoria of the first phase of relationships. 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 also lovers. And they must 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 it can be unsettling for many people. Somewhere in that transition something dreadful happens to most couples. The shadow, the underbelly, the incomplete past each partner thought they had healed or outwitted, reappears in their lives with a vengeance. They have entered the realm of disillusionment.
The five losing strategies
Sadly the majority of people enter relationships unequipped to face the continuing challenge of pushing through disillusionment and disconnection. In the moments when connection in the face of disconnection is most needed, each partner becomes caught in unhappy, but predictable behaviours. Because we are not taught the skills required for true intimacy, we turn to what Terry Real calls the “five losing strategies” below:
- needing to be right
- controlling our partner
- uncontrolled/immoderate self-expression
None of these losing strategies work. They create more misery and more disconnection.
Misery stabilizers and bad relationship “dance steps”
When disconnection and disillusionment happen, we often resort to using what Terry Real calls “misery stabilizers”. A misery stabilizer is anything we turn to for either comfort or stimulation. Instead of turning towards each other and facing our issues, partners turn away from each other. We use work, food, shopping, TV, alcohol/drugs, other people, affairs, over-involvement with children or pets, and excessive use of the internet to manage our misery.
Despite many different types of relationships we now have, our cultural and sexual conditioning runs deep. Similar patterns occur in relationships, whether they are same sex, other sex or heterosexual relationships. I’ll describe some of the predictable moves of Partner A and Partner B when they do an unhealthy dance during this disillusionment phase of relationships.
When faced with disillusionment, Partner A might nag, complain or criticize. But after these attempts at control prove ineffective, they will most likely retreat from expressing their truth. They fail to be clear on what they need, fearing that their partner will not be able to take it.
Partner A’s criticisms might at times be vocal, but their control moves tend toward the covert, as does their revenge, except for occasional explosions. For these people, 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. They behave according to the myth that being a “good partner” means sacrificing their needs for the sake of the relationship. What they’re not told is that along with suppressing their needs, their pleasure, sexuality, generosity and feeling eventually diminish as well.
At the same time, Partner B, at their core, is just as dependent, just as emotional, just as wired for connection. When faced with the psychological challenge of dealing with disillusionment, they find themselves incapable or unwilling to clarify their own feelings. They don’t express their feelings to their partner in a thoughtful, constructive manner. They don’t know how to negotiate for their wants and needs in a straightforward way.
The intimacy skills of introspection, communication and assertiveness in personal relationships are foreign to many people. Encountering disillusionment, rather than learning these needed skills Partner B feels a deep, formless sense of betrayal. They resign themselves to disappointment about their relationship, they silently withdraw.
Working a relationship – learning relationship skills
Lack of relationship education in our culture means that many partners don’t work their relationships very well because “working a relationship” is a foreign concept. This idea seems daunting, and the odds of success slim. Most of us have to cultivate an ability to successfully repair when our relationships are in disharmony. Most of us need help to learn repair skills.
The first step lies in understanding that skills are needed for a healthy relationship. Falling in love is mostly about spontaneity. Staying in love demands skills. And skills must be learned and practiced. It takes deliberate practice to become good at any skill.
The third phase of relationships – relationship practice
So, what does it mean to learn and practice relational skills? And what does it mean to develop deep love and be able to repair? What are the different challenges faced by all of us in relationships?
There are five essential skills:
- How to hold our self and the relationship in warm regard. (This takes self esteem.)
- How to speak. (This takes self awareness, moderation and boundaries.)
- How to listen. (This takes self esteem, self awareness, boundaries, interdependence.)
- How to negotiate. (This takes self esteem, boundaries, moderation, interdependence.)
- How to stay on course independent of our partner’s response. (This stakes self esteem, self awareness, boundaries, interdependence and moderation.)
1. Self Esteem – Holding our self and the relationship in warm regard despite our human imperfections & limitations. All of us are flawed human beings. We accept that neither we nor our partner is perfect and that life is imperfect.
Unhealthy self esteem – Leads to shame or grandiosity. Identify where you are on this grid.
2. Self-Awareness – Knowing our own experience (naming our thoughts, emotions, sensations and needs) & sharing them appropriately in a moderate way.
Unhealthy self-awareness – Lack of introspection, dissociation, drivenness, perfectionism.
3. Boundaries – Being able to to protect and contain our self while remaining connected to others. Identify where you are on this grid.
Unhealthy boundaries – Leads to a) porous boundaries (being reactive, fragile, vulnerable) or b) walled off boundaries (being disengaged, defended, cut off)
4. Interdependence – Identifying our wants and needs, caring for our self while letting others care for us appropriately. Knowing that good relationships are essential for a healthy life.
Unhealthy dependence – Leads to over-dependence (overly needy & clingy) or anti-dependent (unaware of needs and wants, pretends to be invulnerable).
5. Moderation – Experiencing and expressing our self moderately and respectfully.
Unhealthy moderation – Immoderate self-expression. Immature (too “loose”, over-expressing our self, over-sharing, nagging, yelling), supermature (too “tight”, not expressing our self enough, withholding).
A team approach to intimacy
Practicing each of these five skills means having a relational approach, a team approach to intimacy. We face each other and deal with the issues together, supporting each other in using relationship skills. At the same time we take responsibility for our own behaviours and reactions. It’s a new way of thinking, feeling and behaving. These five skills are how we practice a new vision of love. They transform intimacy from an ideal to a way of life, a daily practice of behaving differently with each other.
Can you identify the behaviours you use to cope when you’re unhappy in your intimate relationship? To get help in developing intimacy as a daily practice, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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