American sociologist Deborah Tannen said: “Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. To survive in the world, we have to act in concert with others, but to survive as ourselves, rather than simply as cogs in a wheel, we have to act alone.” I’ve been thinking a lot during the past few days about communication and its impact on intimacy in a relationship. As many of you aware, five months ago I entered a treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and at the time, I had no idea how much my life would be transformed by finally coming to terms with this childhood trauma. One of the gifts I have received was to be asked to co-facilitate with my wife, Mary-Anne, a Partners’ Group at the treatment centre.
One of the issues that has come up has to do with communication within a partnership and its effect on intimacy. When there is a dysfunction in communication between a couple, it is manifest in hurt, silence, misunderstandings, and false expectations. Many of us in our generation have grown up in a world where the commercialization of sex is rampant. I believe that this has led to a separation of “physical closeness” from “emotional connection”. In essence, physical contact is now equated with sex and superficiality, and it has been completely disassociated from authentic intimacy. It’s as if we’ve been programed to believe that intimacy can not occur without sex. I think most of us agree that a genuine bond can’t be built in the absence of equality, so if sex has become a pawn in a power match between partners, intimacy is next to impossible.
Since the genesis of modern psychology, we’ve known the importance of being held and touched, and how infants who are denied this intimacy fail to thrive. As adults, we need this element of touch to feel security, connection, love, and validation. But what happens when one partner feels uncomfortable with being touched, either because he/she does not want it to escalate to sex, or because he/she may be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or of some other trauma?
It all boils down to an issue of communication between partners, and each one feeling safe enough to express what he/she needs from the other partner. What I, and many people I know, struggle with is how to express that most intimate of needs. We find ourselves in relationships without the tools, the vocabulary, to have these conversations. Sadly, it’s a dance that each couple must learn, and it's an organic process indeed.
American psychologist Lori H. Gordon, who has worked with hundreds of couples, believes that intimacy is established in the absence of anger because it’s in this space, that empathy can be nourished. Most psychology theory starts with the premise that the primary element to psychological well-being is to fully understand “self”. Dr. Gordon believes the complete opposite is required to establish, or reestablish, intimacy in a relationship. Gordon goes on to say: “The thinking is that you need to understand yourself before you can confide in a partner. But I have found just the opposite to be true.” When we become attuned to what our partner is “really” saying, we respond from a place of compassion and we start to evaluate our own reactions, and in so doing, we get to the heart of what drives our thoughts and behaviors. It is through empathy, that we learn to see ourselves in others, and this opens the channel to authentic intimacy in a relationship.
What I find most helpful about Lori H. Gordon’s work is what she has to say about how our deep-rooted expectations inevitably sabotage our relationships. She proposes a few simple rules to counteract this problem:
1. If you expect a partner to understand what you need, then you have to tell him or her. That of course means you have to figure out for yourself what you really need.
2. You cannot expect your partner to be sensitive and understand exactly how you feel about something unless you're able to communicate to him or her how you feel in the first place.
3. If you don't understand or like what your partner is doing, ask about it and why he or she is doing it. And vice versa. Explore. Talk. Don't assume.
So, how am I learning to build authentic intimacy in my relationship with my wife? It all begins with empathy and learning to really listen to what my partner is saying. Next, I’ve needed to learn to be “alone”, and by this, I don’t mean “isolated”, but rather, comfortable “in me” and who I am. I’m also learning to build bridges of connection and letting go of unarticulated expectations. I also find it extremely helpful to remind myself why I fell in love with my partner in the first place. It’s in this space, that I learn to value the relationship, and we all know that we tend to look after the things we “value” most.
Let me end with a lovely quote from the American philosopher Sam Keen. “We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”