In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve observed a remarkable pattern in the lives of people who are striving for a life filled with healthy intimacy. As I describe in my book Deeper Dating, this pattern is marked by three distinct stages, some of which may feel surprising or bewildering. All three stages are marks of real progress, yet few of us are taught to prepare for them or to negotiate their challenges. I invite you to consider which stages relate to your own intimacy journey.
Please remember that these stages are not ironclad. We may occupy a few stages at once, or go back and forth between stages. This process of relationship growth may occur in our romantic life, our family life or our friendships—or in all of these categories at once.
Stage One: A Shift in Attractions
It is fascinating to note that as our sense of self-appreciation increases, our attractions actually begin to change. This issue of self-appreciation is particularly relevant around attributes which I call "core gifts." These attributes encompass our places of deepest sensitivity. These are the aspects of our nature where we can be touched most deeply—or hurt most terribly. These highly charged parts are as unique as our fingerprints; they are hallmarks of our "authentic self." At times they might feel like true gifts, and at other times like deep flaws. This unsourced quote captures the point: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Until we learn to embrace our core gifts, we will be continually attracted to people who devalue us. (I write about these gifts in more depth in a number of my posts, including this one.)
As we learn to value and express the very qualities which have made us feel different and vulnerable, our attractions begin to change. We start to lose our taste for relationships which chip away at our sense of self-worth. We become less “sticky” to what I call attractions of deprivation—and this is a wonderful thing. Now, we can begin the real work of intimacy—cultivating our attraction to people who feed and nurture us, and vice versa. In our friendships and in our romantic life, we can now start to seek new relationships, improve current ones, or, when necessary, take distance from those relationships in which we feel repeatedly devalued.
This first stage can be very frightening. When we expose our core gifts and are met with disinterest or even derision, it’s all too easy to retreat back into our old insecurities and defensive patterns. Gandhi wasn’t kidding when he said “Love is the prerogative of the brave.” Intimacy isn’t found in smug, pat answers. It’s found when kindness and truth wrestle their way toward a new and hard-won synthesis. All the things which nourish and inspire you—supportive and insightful friends, creative expression, your pets or your early morning run—can help you navigate this scary step.
Stage Two: Temporary Dormancy
When we change or let go of negative relationships, new and better connections rarely come rushing in. In fact, stage two is often marked by a bewildering quietness. This stage may feel boring, discouraging or frustrating. It seems as though nothing is happening. However, this period, (which often seems to last far too long) is an essential part of the process of change. Something is happening—we just can’t see it yet. Like a bulb which needs a period of dormancy as it gathers forces, deep changes are happening which haven’t yet manifested in new bonds. In cases where we have ended abusive or painful relationships, we simply need time to heal. In the early part of this stage, there is often a need for alone time or some form of healing or rebuilding. As this stage progresses, we start itching for our new life, and when it doesn’t come as quickly as we anticipated, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Here, it is useful to remember that stage two is a part of the process, and to keep our eyes out for early signs of stage three.
Stage Three: The Gradual Emergence of Deeper Intimacy
In stage three, new, healthy relationships gradually begin to enter our life—and the relationships we've been working on begin to bear new fruit. This stage usually begins with glacial slowness, as a new generation of relationships springs up in small new shoots. Often, this happens so subtly that we don’t even notice its occurrence. We find a new and inspiring friend who really appreciates our emerging self. Or perhaps our calendar now shows some new events with people we respect and admire—and with whom we feel emotionally safe. Perhaps our sex life with our partner begins to touch new levels of intimacy and experimentation. Old and dissatisfying friendships become less a part of our day-to-day lives, and richer relationships begin to move center stage. Often I need to point this change out to my clients. It happens so gradually that they don’t even notice it. If you are single and looking for a romantic relationship, it is likely that these changes will begin in your friendship life and then find their way into your dating life. If you are partnered, or wrestling with these changes in your friendships, these same changes begin to shift the old ecosystem you have with your loved one. This may be scary, but if these changes allow you both to step into deeper intimacy, the results are well worth the risk. Sometimes this shift can be very difficult and you both might need help in navigating it.
In time, we find that our relationship life has become richer and more vibrant–yet emotionally safer at the same time. This is worth celebrating. The pleasure we feel in these new relationships doesn’t come from conquest or momentary validation, but from an essential quality of contentment we feel with our loved ones. We don’t feel consistently bigger or smaller than the other person in our new relationships. In some basic way, we feel what the twelve-step programs call “right sized.” And as our lives become more rich with intimacy, we will be able to look back with gratitude for our loved ones—and for all the hard work we've done to get to this point
Take a moment to think about which stage captures where you are in your own intimacy life. Each stage is a sign of progress, and a real and solid indication that you are moving closer to the life-giving intimacy you rightfully desire.
© 2013 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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