Silent Intimacy Killers
Quoted in Reader’s Digest
Stephen Duclos and Dr. Holly Richmond, Couple and Sex Therapists
“A snarling wife on the balustrade is more than a man can bear” Charles Bukowski
Our partners, male or female or in between, are convenient targets for our own insecurities, anxieties, and disappointments. Therapists from Carl Rogers in the the 60’s, to David Schnarch of today, suggest that the pathway to intimacy is inward. An intimate relationship can continue to develop if there is an effective process for expressing our own feelings, including negative ones, like anger. A relationship flourishes only if it is moving forward.
What kills intimacy in a committed relationship? Almost everything: children, work, pain, fatigue, context, money, substances, adolescence, withering sexuality, technology, loneliness, and regressed identity.
What are the unseen symptoms? Here are a few primary signs:
- Anxiety: We begin to worry about what our partner is thinking about us.
Our anxieties increase with every raised eyebrow. We interpret silence as blame. We overreact to every perceived slight. We begin to avoid the possibility of hurt. We look for the negative, and we find it, even if it is not really there. All of this supports the neurobiology of anxiety. Like children lining up all the red cars and the blue cars, we organize our landscape into a field of anxiety.
The antidote is a simple question that keeps us in the present: What is going on with you? And then we listen, carefully, and accept our partner’s answer, and then we move on. We may ask another question or two, but then we are done. Finished. And then it’s about lunch or dinner. We do not choose to carry our anxieties like bricks in a backpack until we finally find a reason to unload on the most important person in our life. Ask, listen, move on. Look for the positive in every situation, and keep looking.
2. Resentment: Happy wife, happy life.
This is one of those common phrases that manages to be both sexist and emasculating at the same time. For a couples and sex therapist, it is cringe inducing. It suggests that unilateral action from the husband, his giving up on his perspective, somehow improves the relationship without the need for his partner’s perspective being articulated or interrogated. All this does is build resentment in both parties.
Resentment is self inflicted and a major silent killer. It occurs when one person agrees to give up something essential that they cannot possibly live without. It is a delaying tactic that backfires. It gives the resentful person apparent cause to criticize the other. It supports anxiety in the person and the relationship. It stifles emotional growth. It does not recognize or accept difference. It stops the relationship from moving forward.
If a person realizes that she/he is resentful, then we need to play the movie back. At what developmental point did I agree to something reluctantly? How much did I lose, and why did I do that to myself? This is not my partner’s fault: I agreed to something that was not possible for me. This can be something as mundane as agreeing to fold the towels in one particular way, which cannot be done by me, to agreeing not to initiate sex until 2021.
3. Touch: Why can’t I connect with you any more?
A common dynamic in couples is the Pursuer/Distancer arrangement. Most couples can quickly identify whether they are the pursuer or the distancer in their relationship. This is an unconscious process that leads to problems of communication. It is also a process that will not substantially change over the life of the relationship. Understanding it, and countering its effects, allows for emotional and sexual development.
The distancer does not want to be touched by the pursuer because touching means foreplay and unwanted sex and possibilities for arousal that I cannot possibly perform right now because the baby is crying and I still have 97 emails to respond to before midnight. I can control this by allowing touch on my terms, usually in a group of our friends, or at public events, which is confusing for my partner. The pursuer initiates sex most of the time, as much as 100%, but typically 80 or 90%. Thus, touching and sex are connected, even when both partners just want emotional contact.
Without touch, mammals will die. Monkeys whose mothers die at birth will choose touch over food. Without touch, relationships will die. The pursuer needs to back off so that touch is just touch and not foreplay, and the distancer needs to make allowances for different kinds of touch. This dynamic needs to be processed in a counter-intuitive way. The pursuer needs to understand their need to pursue, and to decide to distance, and the distancer needs to understand the need to distance, and to initiate. A small change in this dynamic, where the distancer initiates sex 25 to 30% of the time, for example, makes a significant difference in the joint perception of intimacy.
4. Responsibility: My partner is responsible for my happiness, and needs to support my perspective or I will feel hurt and disappointed.
John needs to lose weight. His partner, Jane, does not. Jane does most of the cooking and shopping. John asks Jane to purchase and cook foods that will support his dieting, and to not bring into the house any food or desserts outside of his dietary frame. When Jane objects, John is hurt, and feels unsupported.
It is not Jane’s responsibility to go hungry so that her partner can lose weight. John needs to take more responsibility for his own life, which would help John to grow, and lessen his resentment and anxiety. A long term relationship, moving forward, supports identity differentiation. We need to be curious about how our partners become, not how we want them to be. This also increases the attractiveness of the other, since we do not view our partners as static ciphers of our imagination.
Silent intimacy killers lie hidden beneath the beds of most couples. We do not have a means of talking about our loneliness because it might offend the other, causing defensiveness and hurt. This shows up in stilted, infrequent sex that serves as a metaphor for the relationship: we are unable to talk about our own sexual needs either when we are standing up or when we are lying down. And if we cannot talk about our own sexuality, then we do not have a method for talking about ourselves.
When couples feel that they have a way of talking about their needs, and a process for discussing their lives, then we can account for all of those messy, unpleasant fantasies and expectations that vex us. If we can talk about our own sexuality, and own it, then we can deal with the problems of laundry.
Conversations between couples that express satisfaction in their relationship are brief, in the present, and unburdened by either disappointments of the past, or future imagined difficulties. And couples who see their relationship as positive, understand that there remains work to be done, processes to be refined.
The end of couples therapy occurs when each partner in the relationship realizes that they are thinking differently, from an empty mind centering on the present, unburdened by what their own mind might have been negatively imagining. The need for creating barriers to intimacy is replaced by a tolerable vulnerability that is jointly managed from one day to the next.
Couples stop communicating because it becomes ineffective. If we are not being heard, why bother expressing our thoughts and feelings? Dismissal and disregard are two of the most harmful behaviors in intimate partnerships. If we tell our partner that we were hurt by something they said or did, and their response is to tell us we are over reacting or that we are wrong for feeling that way, it essentially invalidates our perspective. If that happens enough, we learn to stop trying. A common refrain becomes, “This conversation is pointless. You don’t hear me.”
The first step to start communicating in a more effective way is to set an ideal scene. Texting is an absolute no. I have never seen an argument via text turn out well. You lose inflection and body language—two essential pieces of the communication puzzle. Ask your partner if now is a good time to talk, find a quiet place without distraction (no TV or phones) and sit side by side but turned toward each other so that eye contact is easy. Eye contact equals vulnerability equals intimacy. An important part of being heard is being seen.
It is vital partners understand that just because the other’s perspective is different, it isn’t wrong. If a feeling, such as hurt, is expressed authentically, the partner’s job is to validate it, sit with it for a moment and try to understand. The trying to understand piece is empathy, or literally the ability to say, “Oh, I can see how you would feel that way.” Reflective listening is a great way to practice this. For example, if your partner says, “I’m furious that you were so late to our dinner date. How could you do that to me?” You say, “I get that you are really upset with me right now and that I’ve hurt your feelings.” You do not say, “Oh I was only 20 minutes late. What’s the big deal?”
Simply being heard and understood goes a long way toward regaining intimacy. We’ve all heard intimacy broken down like this before: in-to-me-see. It’s an effective go-to thought. Our job in relationships is to relate, which means validating our partner’s perspective and doing our best to understand it.