Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

It's Not You Or Your Partner's Fault: Blame It On Intimacy

Intimacy brings out heightened criticism and sensitivity in all of us.

“Why do you have to be so judgmental? You’re breathing down my neck all the time?

“I am not.  You’re just hyper-sensitive, always looking over shoulder afraid your pride is being attacked.  You should just relax.”

“How can I relax when you judge me so harshly?” 

“But I didn’t even say anything.”

“Yes but the way you sighed, I could tell you were critical of me again.  You should be more tolerant.”

“Well, you should be more tolerant of my sighs.”

Such debates are common in partnership, sometimes overwhelmingly so, with partners breaking up, writing each other off as too sensitive, or too critical. 

And some are of course too sensitive or critical, and even worth leaving over it. But if you’ve had more than one partnership you might begin to recognize the pattern:

Even the calmest people can become hypersensitive or critical at close range.

It’s not a function of personality, but proximity. In intimacy, inconvenient differences of habit and style are bound to come to the surface. The closer you are, the more your differences are going to rub against each other, causing abrasion, heat, and sensitivity.

The good news therefore is that your partner may not be a bad choice, nor you a bad choice for your partner. It may not even that you have exceptional incompatibilities. It may just be that at your intimately close range you’re going to feel the differences acutely. 

Don’t blame your partner and don’t blame yourself. Blame it on the closeness. Stop fighting over whether it’s your partner’s sensitivity or your intolerance. Drive all blames to one, the nature of love at close range.

We often hear that loving tolerance is the answer to all the world’s woes. We should all just live and let live. This lofty-sounding theory is often espoused with no recognition of the difference between tolerance at a distance vs. at close range. 

It’s easy to live and let live with someone you don’t live with. Living with someone you’ll have to make a lot of collaborative decisions, where you can’t just agree to disagree or meet each other half-way. For example, if one of you needs to live in City A, and the other in City C, settling in City B, half-way between them may not be and option. If one of you likes the house neat and the other is casual about mess, it’s not easy to just agree to disagree. You’re trying to share a space and so will have to decide what kind of space it’s going to be. With decisions like these, the question is what should WE do, a joint decision with less room for compromise or having it both ways. and therefore there’s bound to be more frustration and disappointment. Even the most compatible people are going to feel their incompatibilities more acutely at close range.

For years, I’ve believed in the value of visiting the “Youmeus” questions, when you come into conflict:

  1. Is the source of the problem, you, me or us?
  2. Is the source of the solution to be found in you, me or us?

We need to remember to ask the youmeus questions because typically in conflict, we leap to the assumption that our frustration is caused by the other person:  “Look, I was fine until you showed up, so the problem must be you.”  We get on our high horse, translating “Ouch” into “It’s your fault.”

And then sometimes it’s not “you” or “me” but “us:” an incompatibility between us. 

Now I realize there’s a fourth category. Not you, me, or us, but “it,” the context, the nature of the relationship itself. You can both be trying really hard to make it work and have plenty of compatibility and still, given what happens when you hitch so intimately with each other, there will be conflict and frustration, heightened sensitivity and intolerance.

The youmeus questions are really the youmeusit questions:

  1. Is the problem you, me, us, or it?
  2. Is the source of the solution to be found in you, me, us or it?

Recognizing how much of  the conflict arises from  the special challenge of intimacy can be enough to restore calm.  Instead of saying “Wow, I’ve landed a hypersensitive freak of a partner, a hair-trigger self-defender,”  you say “Intimacy sure does bring out our sensitivities. My partner isn’t like this everywhere, just with me, and it’s nothing personal. It’s just that we’re so close. 

Instead of saying, “Wow, I’ve landed a hyper-critical freak of a partner, a hair-trigger bossy judge,” you say “Intimacy sure does bring out our frustration and judgment. My partner isn’t like this everywhere, just with me and it’s nothing personal, it’s just that we’re so close.”

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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