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Sustainable Intimacy in Relationships

By Alison Poulsen, Ph.D.

"What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility." --George Levinger

Many people confuse intimacy with closeness. They think relationships will improve if we communicate with more validation and acceptance. Intimacy, however, does not thrive where there is too much all-accepting, all-validating closeness with another person.

Too much unconditional positive agreement results in fusion between each partner's inner parent and the other partner's inner child. With the dissolution of boundaries between partners, anxiety becomes extremely infectious, and the ensuing bonding patterns will smother intimacy, vitality and passion within the relationship.

Squeezing validation out of your partner
It's a myth that people lack intimacy because they don't communicate. The problem is that many couples use communication to squeeze validation out of each other, through manipulation, whining or complaints.

"Don't you love me?"
"You're always taking his side!"
"Don't you think that's unfair!"
A subtle look of disapproval is often enough to cause your partner to agree with you. Silence and withdrawal work wonders to pressure a person into certain behavior.

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying validation from others, we end up paying for it when we pressure or manipulate someone to provide it for us. The expectation of having to provide for someone's well-being ironically increases anxiety, disappointment, and resentment--all contrary to well-being.

Take care of my inner child
Validation, in contrast to sincere compassion or appreciation, is an attempt to soothe the other person's anxiety in order to soothe our own. Many partners have an unspoken agreement to validate each other. Each partner becomes the parent to the other partner's inner child.

Everyone has an "inner child" (or several) that wants to be taken care of in some way, for example, through admiration, appreciation, affection, acceptance, or financial security. Rather than learning to parent one's own child, one makes an implicit compact with one's partner:

"I'll admire you, if you will accept me."
"I'll take care of you financially, if you make me feel wanted."

The Good Child
Each partner identifies with their inner "good boy" or "good girl," doing and saying what's wanted by the partner's parent self, while repressing parts of him or herself that would provoke the partner. Implicit in handing over the care of your inner child to another person is the threat of withholding reciprocity:

"Take care of my child or else I won't take care of yours."
This pattern of obligatory reciprocity creates a stifling dependence on the other person for validation. Mutual dependence and fear then run the show, rather than independent choice, honest appreciation, and affection.

Self-presentation
A person who is dependent on validation or "parenting" from others often screens his or her behavior, showing only those selves that will generate the desired validation. People then stop challenging themselves and their partners to explore and develop new parts of themselves.

"I'd better laugh at her joke or she'll be hurt."
"I'd better not disagree with his ridiculous political view, or he'll get upset."
"I'd better not leave her side at this party, or she'll feel insecure."
"I'd better not wear this stunning dress, or he'll be upset if other men start looking at me."
Selective disclosure of selves is antithetical to intimacy. We hesitate to develop selves that are powerful, romantic, silly, smart, or passionate, for example, to prevent our partners from feeling threatened. We hide or stop developing parts of ourselves that enable us to become more whole and multifaceted individuals.

Stagnation
As more and more aspects of ourselves remain unexpressed, fear of rejection increases. When we stifle our selves, we stagnate. We shrivel up and resent our partner for lack of courage, intimacy and vitality.

"I'd better not talk about quantum mechanics, or he'll feel inadequate."
By continuing to hide parts of yourself, your relationship starts to feel flat and dead. This positive bonding pattern no longer feels so positive. It loses feeling all together. What happens to the repressed parts?

Sickness and depression
Repressed feelings and thoughts don't go away; they go underground. Repressed parts of the personality may gather energy in the unconscious, and ultimately seep out in the form of depression, sickness, or a secret affair.

The Rebellious Child
Over time, the good-child self may become rebellious, retaliating for feeling oppressed or for not being taking care of adequately. A negative bonding pattern ensues. Each inner-child self demands, complains, or punishes the other for what it's no longer receiving.

Anger and control
Repressed feelings and thoughts manifest themselves in different ways. Sometimes, they erupt unexpectedly in anger. If your sense of well-being depends on how your partner reacts, it becomes important to control your partner. Someone who can't tolerate disagreement or disapproval becomes controlling, angry, and sometimes violent, choking any spontaneity, freshness, and life out of the relationship.

"Don't disagree or I'll be angry!" permeates the atmosphere.
Tolerating intimacy
People say they want more intimacy, yet often they can't tolerate much of it. True intimacy requires the ability to take care of one's own vulnerabilities when developing new aspects of oneself. For instance, a woman with low tolerance for intimacy will first ascertain her partner's probable response before expressing a novel part of herself, e.g., being more sensuous, trying a new sport, or going back to school. If she thinks he won't validate her, she might limit her expression to what's tried and true between them.

In order to develop greater intimacy, then, we need to stop limiting ourselves due to fear of our partner's reactions. Once we can tolerate the discomfort of their reactions, we no longer need to feign agreement, laugh at a poor joke, wear the ugly dress, or dumb down our conversation to avoid upsetting our partner.

Parenting your inner child
Emotional separation allows you to be intimately caring without needing to control the other person's reactions. You become emotionally separate by learning to parent and take care of your own inner child and its vulnerabilities.

For example, when you crave admiration, resist the temptation to pressure your partner to admire you. Admire yourself if possible.

If you're the type who works like crazy in the hope of receiving some appreciation, but never asks for it, parenting your inner child might involve asking for appreciation in a positive way:

"I made this fabulous dinner. How do you like it?"
Implicit in this request is the existence of the very appreciation sought after. Ironically, one needs to appreciate (or accept, admire, etc.) oneself before one can expect appreciation (acceptance, admiration, etc.) from others. On the other hand, in desperately seeking appreciation from others, and clearly not providing it for oneself, we repel others, sending the message that we are not worthy of their appreciation.

If you've counted on others to provide for you financially, developing a financially-capable self by learning job and financial skills will powerfully enhance your ability to have adult relationships based on equality, mutual choice and affection.

Expressing disagreement
Emotional separation allows you to accept the fact that your partner is disappointed or disagrees with you. You can also express disagreement or make requests without being angry or scared. Uncomfortable, yes; but angry, no.

Fused Couple: Paul states he does not want Sally to visit her sister. Sally doesn't go, but is angry for days. Or Sally says she's going anyway, and Paul stays angry for days.
Emotionally-separate Couple: Paul says he wishes he could go on a trip with her and is sad that she'll be going without him. Sally says she'll miss him, she's sorry he'll be lonely, but it's really important for her to spend some time alone with her sister. Or Sally says that he's welcome to join her if he can get away.

Growth and development
When we are not excessively worried about another's reactions, because we are taking care of our own vulnerabilities, we can be truly intimate, that is, we can express our thoughts, emotions and new parts of ourselves more freely and deeply. When we are less hindered by our partner's anxiety, we can grow emotionally, sexually, intellectually, and spiritually, bringing vitality into our lives and often enticing our partners to do the same.

Existential aloneness
Underlying emotional fusion is a fear of being separate and alone in the world. When we recognize that we can never be fully united in thought and feeling with another person, we can relinquish impossible expectations that our partners will save us from our basic humanity, separateness and mortality. We can then more fully enjoy connection with others, without insisting on controlling it, or resisting it to avoid the pain of its eventual loss.

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