Couples often enter my counselling room complaining of the maladies of life living with their partner or they indicate having a communication problem. They get caught in conflict, their dance of disconnection and the associated angst and distress that ensues.
We all long for connection, love and acceptance. Yet, many don’t know how to create it and unwittingly push away the love they long for. For intimacy, love and connection to bloom we need to create a climate conducive for them to grow.
While there may be some truth in there being a communication problem, more fundamentally the issue for many couples is about self-awareness and the need for greater authenticity. To be authentic in our most important relationship is however, easier said than done.
Vulnerability is the secret to close relationships
Many of us have not had a good model of how to cope with our emotions in response to stress or distress or loss of connection in our relationship.
Some will try to move towards their partner, seeking closeness and re-connection but they pursue this in an angry, blaming or critical way. Their perception of their partner is they are selfish, useless or can’t be relied upon. They will point out their partner’s mistakes, tell them how they need to change or improve, threaten to leave, yell or stomp around as they express their frustration.
They are not skilled at communicating their more authentic vulnerable emotions in a sensitive loving way. Their more vulnerable feelings and longings get lost beneath the expressions of criticism, blame, anger and frustration. This drives disconnection, pushing their partner away and the safety essential for deeper communication, intimacy and connection is lost. The deeper more vulnerable emotions being experienced such as fear, sadness or loneliness are covered up.
Others move away from their partners and this too drives disconnection. They may try to appear calm and reason with their partner or get rational or defensive to show their partner how they are wrong. Others try to stop the conversation, by changing the subject, turning to a task, or refusing to talk or they find an exit and leave the conversation or room. Some simply go quiet, numb out or shut down. They go into their shell or stay in their head and are not responsive.
When a partner moves away their deeper more vulnerable emotions are also lost. Emotional risk taking doesn’t occur and the person is often pre-occupied with the whirl of thoughts swimming in their head or managing how they are feeling. Instead of defending and self protecting there is a need to find the courage to be vulnerable and express to our partner that we too want to be close, feel sad or alone.
The power of authenticity to intimacy and connection in relationships
Being authentic involves being curious about our present moment experience. It is about taking the elevator down inside ourselves, noticing and experiencing what is felt and goes on inside whatever that might be.
Our felt experience can change moment to moment. We may struggle for words, pause and stammer to describe that deeper felt experience. Yet, the psychotherapy research of Eugene Gendlin indicates counselling clients that make the most progress (whatever the orientation of their psychotherapist) are those who learn to connect with and speak from their felt experience. When they stay with their more authentic felt experience moment to moment, things start to shift and open up.
When it comes to relationships, intimacy and connection is more likely to arise when couples share what they are experiencing with each other. In Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples developed by Dr Sue Johnson couples are invited to connect with their deeper emotions and share these deeper more vulnerable emotions with their partner and what they are really wanting or need. The relationship counsellor helps the couple find the words that conveys those deeper more vulnerable feelings. In the presence of such authenticity, relationship intimacy, love and connection blooms.
"Our feelings guide us in issues large and small; they tell us what we want, what our preferences are, and what we need" (Dr Sue Johnson).
If you are struggling to find courage or the words to express what it is you feel, get stuck in repetitive cycles of conflict or long for greater intimacy and connection in your relationship, the help of an experienced relationship counsellor may help you create greater authenticy and bring about change in those important areas of your relationship life.
Dr. Sue Johnson (2013). Love Sense: the revolutionary new science of romantic relationships, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Amodeo, J. (2014). The power of authenticity, a path toward deeper intimacy. Psychology Today.