In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

The Space Between Us

Before you can be intimate with another, you must become intimate with yourself.

"Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky." Rainer Maria Rilke

Apart from the strong bonds of family, those people we choose to enter into intimate relationship with have perhaps, the greatest influence and the most profound effect upon us throughout our life. In the best-case scenario these partners enhance our existence by their very presence; they are truly there for us “for better or worse,” fully supportive, loving and encouraging, adaptable and flexible to meet life’s changes and challenges.

But some intimate relationships are difficult, fraught with conflict and anxiety, and often test our patience, love, and fortitude to the limit. How often have you observed a relationship in which one person overshadows the other; where the needs and desires of one person require far more attention; where the personality is way too big to allow the other to comfortably stand beside it without getting crowded out?

Some people really are just simply bigger than life. Have you noticed people who need to “have the floor” or “hold court” most of the time, who turn the conversation around, using your thoughts and ideas, your conversation, to further their own cause? Or people whose dramatic postures and gestures scream, “look at me,” a constant need, and sometimes, a cry, for attention.

Fortunately, we don’t have to respond to these behaviors in dealing with most people. But imagine what it’s like if we choose, knowingly or not, to live with someone who demands this kind of attention, who feels entitled to get whatever he or she asks for, and who places conditions on our behavior, insisting that we participate out of love and obligation in this high-maintenance exercise. Or worse, that the person we once thought was a certain way, well…turns out to be quite different than we had ever imagined or expected.

It’s pretty much of a given that most of us will have at least one or two “learning experiences” before we settle down with someone who is on the same page with us. No reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed when you reflect back at those times in your life when you were just a little insane, or naïve, or just chalk it up to inexperience. While it’s clear that experience is a great teacher, taking the “lessons learned” into any new relationship is the crucial next step.

If you don’t leave old beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors behind they will inevitably come back to haunt you in the “new” people you choose. Simply put, you will find people who will allow you to repeat all of your old patterns, and as much as you may want to blame them for whatever doesn’t work out, the bulk of the responsibility rests with you and your choices.

There’s much to say about what it takes to have a healthy, satisfying relationship---and to keep it going. Here are a few of the essentials---the qualities of a good relationship.

Trust: According to Erickson’s theory of the psychosocial stages of life, our first essential task involves trust vs. mistrust. It should be no surprise that our very first goal in life is to master trust since that is the basis for all of our relationships moving forward. For many of us our earliest experiences have been positive enough to allow us to adapt a trusting attitude. Some though, have had a harder time learning to trust, perhaps as a result of instability, inconsistency, invasion of boundaries, and even actual threat of harm or alienation. Mistrust can foster isolation and avoidance of intimacy.

As a corollary to Erickson’s theory, every psychosocial task can be revisited and ultimately, healed. There is always the time, and the hope, as long as you are alive. But eventually the resolution of the conflict is required in order to learn to trust. Healthy introspection, a realistic and honest self-examination of your emotions, feelings, and beliefs, is essential on the way to discovering your own identity.

Before you can be intimate with another, you must become intimate with yourself. The goal is to learn to care for yourself first and foremost, to keep your most cherished values, to firmly set and support healthy boundaries, to be impeccable in your judgments and decisions, and to be unwavering about your purpose and mission.

Commitment: Once trust is established your focus shifts to a decision about whom you will invite to share the most intimate parts of your life; to those you will commit your full attention, time, and energy. This kind of commitment is reserved only for those people who have proven that they are capable of sticking around for the long haul and are ready, willing, and able to share themselves with you.

Respect: The word literally means “regard,” “to look back at.” Interesting, since most of us would probably say that respect has come to mean having a deep reverence for someone or something. And certainly, those with whom you are most intimate deserve this, as do you. But the origin of the word shows us something very different. Although respect is about “looking back at,” reflecting on what has happened, when it comes to an intimate relationship it’s about the mutual mirroring of emotions, feelings, and beliefs. Respect says, “What I see in you I hold as important as what I see in myself.”

Communication: Good communication that is. This can mean any kind of transmission between people, including nonverbal. Sometimes, communication seems to be at cross-purposes. People are talking but not really listening; their own agenda is far too important to include, or even consider yours. Good communication is facilitated by---you guessed it---trust, commitment, and respect. We communicate in a healthy relationship for a common purpose; which also, by the way, is what the word actually means. We are trying to express how we feel and what we believe and need to do so in an environment that is safe, supportive, and accepting; one that is totally free of judgment, criticism, and alienation.

Rilke’s quote creates a beautiful visual and sums up what a healthy relationship requires---the space to be yourself, first and foremost, the need to maintain your personal integrity, and the deep appreciation that it is the separateness, the distance between you and your partner that really creates the intimacy.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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