We all yearn for a sense of belonging and a place in this world where we are truly, deeply loved. The image of being truly intimate with another, invokes our deepest desires. Humans thrive in connection to others; to be alone as we go through life makes the challenges we face much more difficult. We yearn to be intimately known and understood and loved by another. And yet, in my work as a couple therapist, I see how this innate desire, this deep longing often times, gets derailed through conflict, misunderstanding, hurt, disappointment, fear, betrayal and yes, even deep grief. I see how this desire for true intimacy becomes a pressure-filled expectation that we put on our partner. “You understand me so well, better than I understand myself; you know what I want, need, desire, I don’t even have to say it.” And when these expectations are not fulfilled, we quickly change our tune to, “You don’t listen, you aren’t honest, you don’t support me, you don’t share your feelings with me, etc”. In the face of disappointed expectations, the list of complaints and blame become infinite.
However, what couples often do not know is that the list of infinite complaints and the placing of blame on their partner is much more a reflection of their own fear and lack of self awareness. As my mentor, and brilliant couple therapist, Ellyn Bader says, blame often comes from a place of hopelessness and powerlessness within ourselves. While blaming helps us to avoid looking at our own limitations and contributions to conflict (which is hard to do), it also puts us in a very powerless position. When we place the responsibility for our emotions, experiences and responses outside of ourselves, we are in essence, giving away our capacity to experience love, joy, peace, and well being. We are saying that someone else determines how we feel. We are saying that someone else is more capable than we are to create our own sense of happiness and well-being.
When we feel scared, and hurt and misunderstood, it is a natural protective strategy to look for a reason outside of ourselves. In some ways, it feels safer to do this than to admit to the parts within us and our own responses that have resulted in us getting less of what we want and desire. Cultivating self awareness is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and vulnerability and honesty. But, if we choose this path of self reflection rather than blame, the conflict and struggle (that are part of every relationship, by the way, don’t let anyone tell you they are not), are transformed into opportunities for growth and learning and development. They become moments of self-empowerment and strength. Choosing this path and accepting the opportunities before us, helps us move from a place of hopelessness and powerlessness to a place of discovering that positive change begins within ourselves; and being truly loved originates deep within our own souls. Yes, the conflict and struggles within our significant relationships provide tremendous opportunities for self definition, self awareness, growth and transformation.
So how do we do this? How do we shift from a place of blame and looking outside of ourselves when feeling angry, hurt, disappointed? How do we trust that our own self reflection will help us to grow and become even stronger, more grounded and self aware individuals? It starts with being honest about and re-evaluating our expectations of ourselves, our partner and our marriage. Our society supports the myth that marriage or significant relationships complete us. Prior to finding a life partner, we are only “half” of a larger whole; that our partner should know our needs better than we know them; that, if our partner really loves us, they won’t disagree, get angry, disappoint, misunderstand, and yes, sometimes lie and hurt us. But all of these beliefs, immediately take us out of being responsible to ourselves, diminish our ability to trust ourselves by putting the focus and emphasis on “other”. They create a false sense of security and false reality in which another and our relationship becomes the source of and answer for our own happiness. They deny the reality that hurt and pain is part of loving another human being, deeply. They prevent us from trusting that we have the internal resources to come through painful emotions and experiences, a stronger person. Holding onto these beliefs contributes to feeling overwhelmed, betrayed, powerless and out of control as soon as conflict surfaces.
The truth is our partner is a human being; which means he or she is not perfect. They have their own shortcomings, flaws, and limitations. They have good days and bad days; they have moments of being oblivious, unresponsive, self-absorbed. Just like we do. Two people coming together for the rest of their lives will experience the messiness of life and love. The key is when we experience the messiness of life and love, how do we respond? Is our first response to point the finger and start our sentence with”YOU”…? Is our first response to feel entitled to an unrealistic expectation of ALWAYS being understood, and NEVER being disappointed? Is our first response to feel indignant when our partner does not make us happy or know us better than we know ourselves? Do our responses support and reflect that we are holding onto those unrealistic and unobtainable beliefs about relationships?
Or… do we slow ourselves down, breathe deeply and focus on our own scary, out of control, messy feelings? Do we explore with gentleness and self compassion what is getting so deeply triggered within us when our partner is imperfectly human? Do we take time to curiously investigate our strong reactions and hurt feelings and strive to put them into the context and the history of our lives? Do we decide to be honest with ourselves and admit to our own habits and tendencies that contribute to the messiness? Do we decide to re-examine our beliefs that keep us trapped in thinking love should feel easy and effortless?
It is only when we begin to take responsibility to understand ourselves and stop depending on our partner to know us better than we know ourselves, that we truly show up for an intimate relationship. Intimacy is shy; it requires that the participants within a relationship are taking a gentle approach to self awareness and growth. It requires a non-judgmental and compassionate exploration of one’s dark sides and shadows and internal conflict and unrest. Intimacy is not achieved by looking to our partner to be infallible. Intimacy is not achieved when we expect our partner to always understand our feelings; it is not achieved with the expectation of “I can tell my partner anything and he/she always get me”. Intimacy will not thrive in environments which support unrealistic, immature beliefs about relationships and avoid the internal work of self awareness and self reflection.
Paradoxically, one the of most powerful ways intimacy is created is through conflict, anxiety, discomfort, unrest, not knowing. It is created in the rich, scary, uncertain messiness of two separate individuals each learning how to be their own true self. It is created when we intentionally, lovingly choose and re-commit on a daily basis, to accept and love the true self of the other. Intimacy with another is achieved when we value knowing ourselves; when we take the risk to express our true self; when we stand firm in who we are. It is achieved when we listen intently to our partner so we can engage in a continual process of discovery and enjoy the delight of witnessing their growth. It is achieved when we learn how to accept the differences between us and embrace the differences as pathways to fueling our interest in each other, igniting passion and inspiring each to be our best selves. It is achieved when we no longer expect our partner to complete us or make us whole.
Through our own self reflection, we can discover that, as individuals, we are already complete; we are already whole. The choice to share our authentic selves with another requires nothing short of knowing ourselves first. It requires a deep understanding of who we are, respecting ourselves, being honest with ourselves and loving every part of who we are, even the shadow sides. When we can do this, we find within ourselves that deep place of belonging and love that we often look for outside of ourselves. Only then can we meet another and create the intimacy that becomes possible when two whole, self aware individuals decide to live courageously side by side in the messiness and imperfection of committed relationships, love and life.