The New Resilience

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Why a “Transparent Relationship” is the Key to Emotional and Sexual Intimacy

Learning radical transparency sustains long-term intimacy with your partner

A couple drives to a dinner party in stony silence. Each is harboring feelings about a disagreement over a financial matter from earlier that afternoon. Both had shut down after a few minutes of talking about it. Neither one revealed their deeper concerns, which were the true source of the disagreement. So now, they continued driving in silence, hoping the residue wouldn’t weigh on them throughout the evening as they tried to stay engaged with their friends. But the unspoken thoughts and feelings added another brick in the wall between them.

Like many, this couple often concealing parts of themselves from each other, especially around deeper, more intimate feelings and thoughts. Practicing what I call Radical Transparency could have helped them stay connected while getting to the root of the conflict. This post explains why a “transparent relationship” is essential for sustaining intimacy in a romantic relationship.

Consider this irony: Transparency is burgeoning all around us, but relationships seem to be stuck in a last-century time warp, untouched by the changing world and the public exposure of most everything that used to be easy to hide. That is, our hyperconnected, social-media dominated world bursts with transparency via public exposure of truths and realities that appear almost immediately via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs and a host of other vehicles. The lies of politicians, atrocities by despots who try to deny their actions, ethical transgressions by corporations and their executives—all become quickly exposed to the world. 

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Couples can benefit from embracing a radical version of transparency’s rise, by making it a kind of core operating system for their relationship. It’s an antidote to the long slide into emotional, spiritual and sexual decline; or towards affairs and divorce.

 The Problem

Relationships are hard. Couples grapple with trying to "balance" work and life issues while managing careers, raising children, paying bills, and so on. Their interactions become increasingly transactional—less energized and less interesting. Conflicts and power struggles color daily life.  Hiding out, concealing thoughts and feelings, manipulation and game playing increase, and drain positive energy from the relationship. As one spouse reported, "I can't remember why we got together in the first place."

Most people don’t want to be hidden or deceptive, but they fall into those patterns, which are largely a product of how people learn to conduct romantic relationships in our culture: what I called our “adolescent model of love” in a previous post. Some sink into the sadness and emotional constraints of outwardly “successful” marriages. That is, their relationship may be surface-friendly but emotionally distant and lonely, as Virginia Woolf portrayed in To The Lighthouse: “This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this...

Couples will try couples therapy or sign up for programs to revitalize their relationship. But they are often of limited help, because, in my view, many focus too much on tweaking or modifying ways to communicate or negotiate; they don’t get to the source of sustaining an intimate connection.

The Two Parts of Radical Transparency

Radical Transparency is a way of relating to your partner in which you reveal your inner self, your internal experiences, when you’re talking with each other about personal matters or conflicts. That means exposing your vulnerabilities, fears, as well as your desires and points of view about whatever issues you’re discussing.   

Research about relationships that thrive for the long run, as well as new knowledge about positive development in general, underscore that Radical Transparency is a conduit for sustaining intimacy and connection for the long run. Or, for restoring and rebuilding it when it’s broken down.

Radical Transparency has two parts: One is being open and revealing about yourself to your partner.  It includes letting go of inhibitions or defensive feelings you might be harboring about what you haven’t revealed; but also, acknowledging your reluctance to do so. The flip side is being open and receptive to your partner's reality: his or her feelings, wishes, desires, fears and differences from yourself. It means openly encouraging your partner to express them to you.

Mounting research supports the value of Radical Transparency, including studies that find that people who are truthful about themselves experience more relationship intimacy and wellbeing; better romantic relationships. Also, people who have close relationships use more positive than negative words when communicating. Overall, studies find that positive connection and intimacy grow from being transparent about what’s inside of you, but not from making negative judgments about your partner and focusing on them in your communication.

Radical transparency can be painful; perhaps relationship-threatening. But it’s more likely to open the door to strengthening the foundation of your relationship. People who’ve reflected on lessons from divorce often discover that in retrospect, according to a new study. Research also confirms that transparency in your intimate relationships has wide-ranging, long-term impact on your physical and mental health

Sadly, so many couples report feeling alone within their relationship. That often reflects the consequence of barriers they’ve erected, blocking transparency about their emotions, thoughts, needs or experiences. For example, one couple described living, essentially, separate lives over their decade together. They had pursued their careers and personal interests, which they enjoyed.  But they also kept more and more of their inner lives private. This gradually created a distant and strained relationship. Like many, they assumed that this was part of "normal" relationships. But it kills intimacy, and it’s also unhealthy.

Some Steps Towards Radical Transparency

  • Start by revealing one thing about yourself—your inner life—to each other. Make it something you haven’t expressed before. It might involve some fears, aspirations, desires, thoughts—about anything.
  • Tell each other what you really want to be living and working for, or towards, as you continue through life—without judging what each of you reveal. Just receive it as new information about your partner.
  • Describe to each other what your sense of purpose in life is, at this point. Why you think you're here, on this planet, at this moment in time; and what that means to you.
  • Reveal how you experience your work and career at this point, and why you continue to do it.  Explain to each other why it does or doesn’t feel in synch with your true self, your capacities, your values, your vision of life. Keep in mind that research finds that an enjoyable career has positive benefits for a relationship.

Those are a few steps. But in whatever ways you practice Radical Transparency you’re saying, in essence, “This is me. This is who I am.” It’s about showing your whole person: Your fears, desires, needs, hopes, and experience of life. Your desire to know your partner and be known in return —emotionally, spiritually, sexually. That doesn’t mean that you and your partner are always on the same plane. But with Radical Transparency the two of you can face and learn to deal with where you’re not; and strengthen your intimacy around the areas where you are aligned.  

As one man said to his wife, “I’m tired of all this. No more lies! I want an integrated life, no matter where it leads.”

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2012 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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