Compounding the wide-scale deprivation of intimacy we actually
experience, our cultural talent for commercialization has separated out
sex from intimacy. In fact, intimacy involves both emotional and physical
closeness and openness. But we wind up confusing the two and end up
feeling betrayed or used when, as often happens, we fail to satisfy our
need for closeness in sex.
Shifts in our general views about what makes life worth living have
also contributed to a new demand for intimacy. For many generations the
answer lay in a productive life of work and service in which the reward
of happiness would be ours, in Heaven. That belief has broken down.
People want happiness here and now. And they want it most in their
Here, it's clear, we are unlikely to find it easily. Couples today
are struggling with something new--to build relationships based on
genuine feelings of equality. As a result, we are without role models for
the very relationships we need. And rare were the parents who modeled
intimacy for us; most were too busy struggling with survival
requirements. Yet the quality of our closest relationships is often what
gives life its primary meaning.
Intimacy, I have come to believe, is not just a psychological fad,
a rallying cry of contemporary couples. It is based on a deep biological
need. Shortly after I began my career as a family therapist I was working
in a residential treatment center where troubled teenage boys were sent
by the courts. Through my work I began to discover what had been missing
for these kids: They needed support and affection, the opportunity to
express the range and intensity of their emotions. It was remarkable to
discover their depth of need, their depth of pain over the lack of
empathy from significant people in their lives.
It is only in the last 20 years that we recognize that infants need
to be held and touched. We know that they cannot grow--they literally
fail to thrive--unless they experience physical and emotional closeness
with another human being. What we often don't realize is that that need
for connection never goes away. It goes on throughout life. And in its
absence, symptoms develop--from the angry acting out of the adolescent
boys I saw, to depression, addiction, and illness. In fact, researchers
are just at the very beginning of understanding the relationship of
widespread depression among women to problems in their marriages.
When I brought the boys together with their families, through
processes I had not learned about in graduate school, it transformed the
therapy. There was change. For the adolescent boys, their problems were
typically rooted in the often-troubled relationships between their
parents. They lacked the nurturing environment they needed for healthy
growth. What I realized was that to help the children I first had to help
their parents. So I began to shift my focus to adults.
From my work in closely observing the interactions of hundreds of
couples, I have come to recognize that most of what goes wrong in a
relationship stems from hurt feelings. The disappointment couples
experience is based on misunderstanding and misperception. We choose a
partner hoping for a source of affection, love, and support, and, more
than ever, a best friend. Finding such a partner is a wonderful and
ecstatic experience--the stage of illusion in relationships, it has been
To use this conceit, there then sets in the state of disillusion.
We somehow don't get all that we had hoped for. He didn't do it just
right. She didn't welcome you home; she was too busy with something else;
maybe she didn't even look up. But we don't have the skills to work out
the disappointments that occur. The disappointments big and little then
determine the future course of the relationship.
If first there is illusion, and then disillusion, what follows is
confusion. There is a great deal of unhappiness as each partner struggles
to get the relationship to be what each of them needs or wants it to be.
One partner will be telling the other what to do. One may be placating in
the expectation that he or she will eventually be rewarded by the other.
Each partner uses his or her own familiar personal communication
Over the disappointment, the partners erect defenses against each
other. They become guarded with each other. They stop confiding in each
other. They wall off parts of themselves and withdraw emotionally from
the relationship, often into other activities--or other relationships.
They can't talk without blaming, so they stop listening. They maybe
afraid that the relationship will never change but may not even know what
they are afraid of There is so much chaos that there is usually despair
and depression. One partner may actually leave. Both may decide to stay
with it but can't function. They live together in an emotional
Over the years of working with couples, I have developed an
effective way to help them arrive at a relationship they can both be
happy with. I may not offer them therapy. I find that what couples need
is part education in a set of skills and part exploration of experience
that aims to resolve the difficulties couples trip over in their private
Experience has demonstrated to me that the causes of behavior and
human experience a complex and include elements that are biological,
psychological, social, contextual, and even spiritual. No single theory
explains the intricate dynamics of two individuals interacting over time
to meet all their needs as individuals and as a couple. So without
respect to theoretical coherence I have drawn from almost every
perspective in the realm of psychology--from psychodynamics to family
systems, communication theory and social learning theory, from behavior
therapy to object relations. Over the past 25 years I have gradually
built a program of training in the processes of intimacy now known as
Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS). It is
taught to small groups of couples in a four-month-long course in various
parts of the United States and now in 13 countries.
There are no specific theories to explain why the course works. In
time that will come, as researchers pinpoint exactly which cognitive,
behavioral, and experiential elements (and when and for whom) are most
responsible for which types of change. Nevertheless I, my associates, and
increasing numbers of graduate students have gathered, and are gathering,
evidence that it powerfully, positively influences marital interaction
Studies of men and women before and after taking the course show
that it reduces anger and anxiety, two of the most actively subversive
forces in relationships. judging from the hundreds of couples who have
taken the PAIRS course, partners in distressed relationships tend to have
more anxiety and anger than the does the general population. Once they
have taken the course there is a marked reduction in this state of anger
and anxiety. What is most notable is that there is also a reduction in
the personality trait of anger, which is ordinarily considered resistant
to change. Learning the skills of intimacy--of emotional and physical
closeness--has a truly powerful effect on people.
We also see change in measurements of marital happiness, such as
the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Tests administered before the course show
that we are seeing a range of couples from the least to the most
distressed. And we are getting significant levels of change among every
category of couple. It is no secret that most attempts at therapy produce
little or no change among the most distressed couples. Perhaps it's
because what we are doing is not in the form of therapy at all, although
its effects are therapeutic. In addition to improvement in many
dimensions of the relationship, achieving intimacy bolsters the
self-worth of both partners.
Love is a feeling. Marriage, on the other hand, is a contract--an
invisible contract. Both partners bring to it expectations about what
they want and don't want, what they're willing to give and not willing to
give. Most often, those are out of awareness. Most marriage partners
don't even know they expected something until they realize that they're
not getting it.
The past is very much present in all relationships. All
expectations in relationships are conditioned by our previous experience.
It may simply be the nature of learning, but things that happen in the
present are assimilated by means of what has happened in the past. This
is especially true of our emotions: every time we have an experience in
the present we also are experiencing it in the past. Emotional memory
exists outside of time. It is obvious that two partners are conditioned
by two different pasts. But inside the relationship it is less obvious.
And that leads to all kinds of misunderstanding, disagreement,
disappointment, and anger that things are not going exactly as
The upshot is statements like "I can't understand women," "who
knows what a woman wants," and "you can never please a man." All of the
classic complaints reflect hidden expectations that have never surfaced
to the point where they could be discussed, examined, kept, or
To add insult to injury, when one partner is upset, the other often
compounds it unintentionally. When, for example, a woman is unhappy, men
often feel they are expected to charge out and fix something. But what
she really wants is for her partner to put his arms around her and hold
her, to soothe her, to say simply, "I'm sorry you feel bad." It is a
simple and basic longing. But instead of moving toward her, he moves
away. And if when you are upset you don't get what you want from the
person you are closest to, then you are not going to feel loved. Men,
too, I hasten to say, have the same basic need. But they erect defenses
against it for fear it will return them to a state of helplessness such
as they experienced as children.
At the heart of intimacy, then, is empathy, understanding, and
compassion; these are the humanizing feelings. It is bad enough that they
are in short supply among distressed couples. Yet I have observed that
certain careers pose substantial roadblocks to intimacy because the
training involves education not in humanization but in de-humanization.
At the top of the list is law. Built primarily on the adversarial
process, it actively discourages understanding and compassion in favor of
destroying an opponent. Careers in the military and in engineering also
are dismissive of feelings and emotions. Men and women who bring what
they learn from such work into a love relationship may find that it can't
An understanding of intimacy has its own logic. But it runs counter
to conventional wisdom and most brands of psychology. They hold that to
understand the nature of, and to improve, relationships, the proper place
to start is the self. 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.
An exploration of the self is indeed absolutely essential to
attaining or rebuilding a sense of intimacy. Most of the disappointments
that drive our actions and reactions in relationships are constructed
with expectations that are not only hidden from our partners but also
ourselves. From our families of origin and past relationship experiences,
we acquire systems of belief that direct our behavior outside of our own
awareness. It is not possible to change a relationship without bringing
this belief system into our awareness.
But a man or a woman exploring their personal history experiences
some powerful feelings that, in the absence of a partner to talk to, may
make one feel worse rather than better. So the very first step a couple
must take to rebuild intimacy is to learn to express their own thoughts
and feelings and carefully listen to each other. A partner who knows how
to listen to you can then be on hand when you open up your past.
Exploration of the self is an activity often relegated to
psychotherapy; in that case a psychotherapist knows how to listen with
empathy. But that is not necessarily the only way and at best is a luxury
affordable only by a few. It is not only possible but desirable for
couples of all economic strata to choose to confide in each other and
build a relationship with a life partner rather than with a paid
confidant. Both partners have an ongoing need to open up the past as well
as share the present. But there are skills that have to be learned so
that such interaction can be safe. Both partners need to learn how to
listen without judging or giving unwanted advice. Disappointment in a
partner's ability to hear is what often sends people to a psychotherapist
in the first place.
All of us bring to our intimate relationships certain expectations
that we have of no one else. On the positive side they usually involve
undivided attention--words and gestures of love and caring, loyalty,
constancy, sex, companionship, agreement, encouragement, friendship,
fidelity, honesty, trust, respect, and acceptance. We are all too alert
to the possibility that we will instead find their exact
If we are not aware of our own expectations (and how they are
affected by our history), there is no hope of expressing them to a
partner so that he or she has a shot at meeting them. More often than
not, we engage instead in mind reading.
Mind reading is often related to a past disappointing relationship
experience. We tend to expect what we previously had the opportunity to
learn; we make assumptions based on our history. And when in personal
history there are people or situations that were the source of heartache,
resentment, or anxiety, then any action by a partner in the present that
is similar in some way often serves as a reminder--and triggers an
intense emotional reaction. I call this "emotional allergy." As with
other forms of prior sensitization, the result tends to be an explosive
reaction--withdrawal, counterattack--and it is typically incomprehensible
to a current partner.
If I had to summarize how to change the hidden expectations that
work to distort a relationship, I would boil it all down to a few basic
o 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.
o 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.
o 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.
Expressing your feelings about a given situation and asking for
your partner's honesty in return is the most significant way to discover
truth in your relationship. Instead, most communication between intimates
is nonverbal and leans heavily on mind reading. The only thing you have
to go on is your own internal information, which could easily be skewed
by any number of factors. This is also why genuine responses are so
important. Telling your partner what you think he or she wants to hear,
instead of what is really going on, complicates and postpones a useful
solution to the problem.
Confiding is much more than being able to reveal yourself to
another. It is knowing with absolute certainty that what you think and
feel is being heard and understood by your partner. Instead, we tend to
be passive listeners, picking up only those messages that have a direct
bearing on ourselves, rather than listening for how things are for our
Listening with empathy is a learned skill. It has two crucial
ingredients: undivided attention and feeling what your partner feels.
Never assume that you know something unless it is clearly stated by your
partner. And you need to understand fully what your partner's thoughts
and feelings mean to him or her. Instead of focusing on the effects of
your partner's words on you, pay attention instead to your partner's
emotions, facial expression, and levels of tension. The single biggest
barrier to such empathic listening is our self-interest and
self-protective mechanisms. We anticipate and fill in the blanks. One of
the simple truths of relationships is that often enough, all we need to
do to resolve a problem is to listen to our partner--not just passively
listen but truly hear what is in the mind and in the heart.
What more often happens is that, when we experience threats to our
self-esteem or feel stressed, we resort to styles of communication that
usually lead to more of a problem than the problem itself. The styles of
communication that we resort to during stress then often prevent real
contact from happening. If your partner tends to be a blamer, you will
distance yourself. You develop a rational style of relating, but no
feelings are ever dealt with. Not only is no love experienced, but at the
emotional level nothing can get resolved.
Most people tend to react to stress with one or more of four
o PLACATING. The placater is ingratiating, eager to please,
apologetic, and a "yes" man or woman. The placater says things like
"whatever you want" or "never mind about me, it's okay." It's a case of
peace at any price. The price, for the placater is worthlessness. Because
the placater has difficulty expressing anger and holds so many feelings
inside, he or she tends toward depression and, as studies show, may be
prone to illness. Placaters need to know it is okay to express
o BLAMING. The blamer is a fault-finder who criticizes relentlessly
and speaks in generalizations: "You never do anything right." "You're
just like your mother/father." Inside, the blamer feels unworthy or
unlovable, angry at the anticipation he or she will not be getting what
is wanted. Given a problem, the best defense is a good offense. The
blamer is unable to deal with or express pain or fear. Blamers need to be
able to speak on their own behalf without indicting others in the
o COMPUTING. The computer is super reasonable, calm and collected,
never admits mistakes, and expects people to conform and perform. The
computer says things like, "Upset? I'm not upset. Why do you say I'm
upset?" Afraid of emotion, he or she prefers facts and statistics. "I
don't reveal my emotions and I'm not interested in anyone else's."
Computers need someone to ask how they feel about specific things.
o DISTRACTING. The distractor resorts to irrelevancies under
stress, avoids direct eye contact and direct answers. Quick to change the
subject, he or she will say, "What problem? Let's have Sam and Bridget
over." Confronting the problem might lead to a fight, which could be
dangerous. Distractors need to know that they are safe, not helpless,
that problems can be solved and conflicts resolved.
Each style is a unique response to pain, anger, or fear, which
keeps us from understanding each other. Knowing that, the next time you
find yourself resorting to blame, you can conclude there is something
painful or scary bothering you and try to figure out what it is. If it's
your partner who is blaming, you can conclude he or she is possibly not
intending to be aggressive or mean but probably afraid of some
development. What's needed is to find a way to make it safe to talk about
the worry; find out what is bothering him or her.
How, then, can you say what is bothering you, or express what you
really need, in a way that your partner can hear it, so that your message
can be understood? This is a basic step in building the relationship you
want. For this, the Daily Temperature Reading is particularly
After partners have been heard and understood, they may need to
work on forgiveness. Of course, some things are unforgivable, and each
partner has to decide if that line has been crossed and the relationship
is worth continuing. If it is, there has to be a recognition that you
can't change the past. No relationship can recover from past
disappointments and mature unless both partners can find a way to let go
of grudges. This is one of the most important relationship skills couples
In a relationship, letting go of grudges is something you do for
yourself, not just to make your partner feel better. It is done by making
simple statements of facts, not statements of blame. "You took me to your
office party and you got so busy with everyone else you didn't introduce
me to anyone to talk to me all night. You acted like I didn't matter and
that your boss was the most important man in your life."
In the beginning, the course works best in the safety of a group,
which prevents the isolation of couples and keeps partners from getting
defensive and negative. But once they've practiced this, and it's a
simple act of confiding, couples continue it on their own far more
This is not just an exercise of the emotions. There is a cognitive
restructuring taking place during these exercises. What is really going
on is that one partner is, probably for the first time, learning the
meaning of another's experience. That by itself enhances their closeness.
All it requires is listening with empathy, and the experience becomes a
source of pleasure for both of them. At the same time, there is
conceptual understanding of what each is doing that deprives the
relationship of pleasure and what they need to do to make it
Because the past continually asserts itself in present experience,
both partners in a relationship are obligated to explore themselves,
their beliefs, needs, and hopes, and even uniqueness of personality
through their family's emotional history. Most people operate in the
present, using messages and beliefs silently transmitted to them in their
family of origin. Or they may be living out invisible loyalties, making
decisions based not on the needs of their partner or present
relationship, or even their own needs, but on some indebtedness that was
incurred sometime in the past.
Particularly at issue are messages we acquire about ourselves,
about life and love, trust, confiding, and closeness. Those things we
take as truths about love, life, and trust are beliefs we had the chance
to learn from specific people and situations in the past. It is on this
information that we make the private decision to ourselves: "Nobody
cares. It doesn't matter what I think or say, you're not interested in
me." If, for example, you grew up in a family where your mother or father
drank or was depressed, or was otherwise emotionally unavailable, you may
have drawn the conclusion that no one was really interested in
It is vital to know the lineage of our beliefs because we transfer
onto our partners what we were dealt in the past. One of the decisions
often made unwittingly is, "I don't trust that anybody is really going to
be any better to me." It can become a way of saying, "I'm going to get
even for the way I was treated." You wind up punishing your partner for
what someone else actually did.
When you displace the blame for past hurts onto you present
partner, you are activating a dynamic that psychiatrist Ivan
Boszormenyi-Nagy, M.D., describes as "the revolving ledger." At certain
periods in your life, important people, or even life itself, through
events that affected you, ran up a series of debits or credits in terms
of what you needed. Time passed. You walked through life's revolving
door. And now you hand me the bill. And you hold two hidden expectations.
"Prove to me you are not the person who hurt me." In other words, "make
up to me for the past." "Pay me back." And, "if you don't, if you do one
thing that reminds me of that, I will punish you." The emotional transfer
Freud described this as transference and identified it as a crucial
part of the therapeutic relationship. In fact, it is part of our everyday
transactions in relationships. It is crucial to understand that this
emotional transfer often does not take place early in a relationship. It
sets in after a couple has been married for some time--when you are
disappointed and discover what you expected or hoped to happen isn't
That is the point when we transfer the hidden expectations,
especially the negative ones, from our history, from any or all of our
previous close relationships, whether to parents, siblings, former
spouses, lovers, or friends. It is one of the core emotional transactions
of marriage. And making it explicit is one of the psychological tasks of
The problem is, the person to whom you hand the bill is unaware of
the account books in your head. The result is endless misunderstanding
and disturbance. In fact, the attitudes you hold tend to be outside of
your own, awareness. I believe that they can be found through personal
Otherwise, you find yourself thinking of your partner as the enemy,
someone to hurt, someone to get even with, to punish. And because you
don't recognize the ledger as the motivating power behind your behavior,
you rationalize. You seek reasons to treat your partner as the enemy. You
are really just evening up the balance on someone else's account.
Roger called his wife Jenny at work. She was in the middle of a
staff meeting and so she was particularly abrupt with him. When she got
home, she found a note from him. He was gone. From somewhere in his past
experience he was so sensitized to demonstrations of lack of interest in
him that her behavior constituted absolute proof. One misstep--one hint
that she was anything like whoever ran up the debit--was all she was
allowed. This is a common pattern in relationships. And the "proof" of
disinterest could be anything. Perhaps she didn't look at him. Perhaps
she was tired. Perhaps she was sick. One reason men are often intolerant
of a wife who gets sick is that she isn't there for them. It is a painful
reminder of other accounts from the past.
Not only do couples maintain revolving ledgers, but they also carry
over feelings of indebtedness and entitlement from one generation to the
next. Invisible loyalties thus accrue in a family over the generations,
whether or not we end up acknowledging them. An artistic man buries his
creative longing because his family legacy calls for being a success in
business. For each of us, behavior is greatly affected by the family
ledger of entitlement and indebtedness.
Every couple needs to trace the source of behaviors and attitudes,
many of which turn out to have been handed down through their families of
origin. Much unhappiness in relationships can be traced to the fact that
one partner learned as a family rule never to express anger, or even
perhaps happiness. Many people grow up learning to subjugate their own
needs and feelings to those of others. Still the feelings influence
present relationships, and until they can be brought into awareness and
spoken, it is very difficult to improve current relationships.
Once a couple has done this and discovers where their beliefs come
from, they can review them together and decide which legacies they want
to keep, which they'd rather discard. They each work out their personal
history so they do not punish the one who's here now.
At this point I find that couples do well if I introduce an
experience in bonding that is usually very emotionally powerful.
For men, these experiences are revelatory. Men, because they are
often cut off from the emotional part of themselves, are especially often
forced to piggyback their need for intimacy on sex. They have no less
need for intimacy than women, but it usually gets suppressed and denied.
Or they attempt to satisfy their need for closeness through contact
sports and roughhousing. They don't know how to work things out in
man-woman intimate relationships. But when they learn, they almost always
feel an enormous sense of wholeness and relief
In growing up men have learned that the only thing they are
supposed to need to be close to a woman is sex. They discover that
bonding is a valid need in its own right, and needing physical closeness
doesn't mean they are going to regress into helplessness and never
function again. It doesn't weaken you, it strengthens you.
But this is not learnable merely by cognitive statement. Having the
experience illuminates the point and changes the thinking. The exercises
are important because they integrate the emotional acceptance, the
behavioral change, and the cognitive understanding that occur.
It is no news that sexual problems in a relationship are frequently
the by-product of personal and relational conflicts and anxieties. For
too many couples, sex has become a substitute for intimacy and a defense
against closeness. Most poor sex stems from poor communication, from
misunderstandings of what one's mate actually wants--not from
unwillingness or inability to give it.
In the realm of sex as in other domains of the relationship, you
cannot expect your partner to guess what pleases you. You are obligated
to figure out for yourself what stimulates, delights, and satisfies
you-and acknowledge it. It is not enough to give and receive, you also
have to be able to speak up or reach out on your own behalf and take.
Ideally, sexual love will be a flow of this give and take, but it has to
go both ways to keep desire alive.
Before sex can be rewarding for both partners, they have to first
restore the ability to confide and reestablish emotional openness, to
establish a sense of camaraderie. Then physical closeness has meaning,
and the meaning serves only to heighten the pleasure of the physical
experience even more.
Of course, intercourse is not the only avenue to physical pleasure.
There is a whole range of physical closeness couples can learn to offer
each other. Being together. Hugging. Holding each other. Caressing each
other's face. Massaging your partner's body. In fact, taking pleasure in
each other is a habit that some couples actually have to acquire. But
taking pleasure in your partner is the very thing your partner needs most
THE DAILY TEMPERATURE READING
Confiding--the ability to reaveal yourself fully, honestly, and
directly--is the lifeblood of intimacy. To live together with
satisfaction, couples need clear, regular communication. The great
intuitive family therapist Virginia Satir developed a technique for
partners and families to maintain an easy flow about the big and little
things going on in their lives. I have adapted it. Called the Daily
Temperature Reading, it is very simple (and works for many other kinds of
relationships as well).
Do it daily, perhaps as you sit down to breakfast. At first it will
seem artificial--hokey, even. In time you'll evolve your own style.
Couples routinely report it is invaluable for staying close--even it they
let it slide for a day or two when they get busy. It teaches partners how
to listen non-defensively and to talk as a way to give information
arather than to stir a reaction. Here are the basics:
Sit close, perhaps even knee-to-knee, facing your partner, holding
each other's hands. This simple touching creates an atmosphere of
acceptance for both.
1. APPRECIATION. Take turns expressing appreciation for something
your partner has done--and thanking each other.
2. NEW INFORMATION. In the absence of information,
assumptions--often false ones--rush in. Tell your partner something ("I'm
not looking forward to the monthly planning meeting this morning") to
keep contact alive and let your partner in on your mood, your
experiences--your life. And then listen to your partner.
3. PUZZLES. Take turns asking each other something you don't
understand and your partner can explain: "Why were you so down last
night?" Or voice a question about yourself: "I don't know why I got so
angry while we were figuring out expenses." You might not find answers,
but you will be giving your partner some insight about yourself. Besides,
your partner may have insights about your experiences.
4. COMPLAINT WITH REQUEST FOR CHANGE. Without placing blame or
being judgemental, cite a specific behavior that bothers you and state
the behavior you are asking for instead. "If you're going to be late for
dinner, please call me. That way the kids and I can make our own plans
and won't be waiting for you."
5. HOPES. Sharing hopes and dreams is integral to a relationship.
Hopes can range from the mundane ("I hope you don't have to work this
weekend") to the grandiose ("I'd really love to spend a month in Europe
with you"). But the more the two of you bring dreams into immediate
awareness, the more likely you'll find a way to realize them.
Most people put a lid on the hurts or fears of the past: "It
doesn't bother me anymore"; "It isn't that important." But I find that it
is essential to lift that lid--in the context of the current
relationship--to close the revolving ledger.
o Choose a time when you are feeling somewhat edgy.
o Put on some soft music in the background.
o Lie down with your partner. Lie on your sides cradled into each
other, both facing the same direction.
While your partner is holding you, quietly reveal something he or
she does that triggers a full-blown intense emotional reaction in you. It
might be that she doesn't listen to you. Or he interrupts you constantly.
Or doesn't call when he's away. Or rejects whatever you suggest. "When
you do this, I am very upset." As you are speaking, your partner is
holding you and listening.
Now tell your partner what experience out of your history your
reaction connects to. Perhaps his not calling infuriates you because it
arouses the fear you felt when a parent left or died. Or your first
husband walked out.
Now comes the remarkable part. Tell your partner what you would
have needed to happen in your history that would have helped. What
actions would you have preferred to have happened? What words would you
have needed to hear?
Now let your partner tell you what you needed to hear, while you
take it in. Your partner is free to say it in his or her own way: "I'm
sorry that happened to you"; "I wish I had been there."
And now discuss the price you are paying in your current
relationship for having this emotional reaction to events of the past.
Perhaps it is that you don't talk to your partner, you withdraw,
withhold, get even.
What you talk about next is what you can then do to help yourself.
"How can I signal you neutrally to let you know when you trigger this
response in me."
At this point you are talking about what will help you in the
future. You are jointly and consciously outlining useful behaviors,
constructing a relationship in which actions and experiences have the
same meaning and same effect for both of you. This is essential for
happiness to occur in a relationship.
Rarely in long-term relationships do we talk about what we
appreciate in our partner. Yet it is not possible to sustain a
pleasurable relationship without that. I have found that most couples
need to rediscover what it is they value in each other.
I have developed an exercise that can quickly restore a sense of
priorities, of what is important in life and in a relationship. Don't be
misled by its simplicity. I ask a couple to talk about what they never
talk about together--death and loss. This usually turns out to be an
experience with a dramatic--literally and figuratively--emotional
Choose a quiet time and a quiet place when there are no immediate
pressures on you or your partner. Plan ahead to set aside the time. Allow
about an hour.
Lie down on the floor, eyes closed, arms crossed or at your side,
as if you were dead. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to relax,
but remain still.
Your partner now gets to imagine that you are gone, and talk to you
as if you were. Your partner must speak about what he or she will miss
about you, any regret, etc. Give him or her time to get into the
experience. All you do is lie still and listen. Then switch places, while
you speak about what you will miss.
Most people are profoundly moved by the emotional discoveries they
make about themselves, their partner, and their relationship. They
realize they have something they don't want to throw away.
But in the days to come, don't stop there. Use what you have
learned to construct a more rewarding relationship. Sit down in a spirit
of goodwill, voice your appreciations, make a specific request for
behavioral change, and jointly negotiate the steps that will preserve the