- In most relationships, one partner sees themselves as being more emotionally mature or intelligent than their partner.
- The other partner is usually cast as being less aware, less emotional, less mature, or less committed to being intimate.
- Viewed systemically, both partners are actually unwittingly colluding in a constraining dynamic.
- By taking ownership and balancing the playing field, both partners can take steps to become more vulnerable together, in a more equitable way.
This occurs all the time in the clinic:
Couples come in with one partner complaining that there’s no intimacy or love in their relationship because of their partner.
The Intimacy Queen
This partner (often the female in a heterosexual couple) is dying for more intimacy but hasn’t been getting it for years. In her mind, her partner is the sole reason she doesn’t have that intimacy that she craves and deserves. She shares that she has very deep relationships with friends and family, just not with HIM.
I playfully call this partner “the intimacy queen” (or king). She usually experiences herself as a martyr who is tired of trying to open up her mute partner. Being the emotional martyr has several gains, such as a sense of emotional superiority, while blocking the need to confront herself on her own intimacy problems. It is the intimacy queen who is usually the force that drives the couple to therapy, or enters therapy for herself.
The Emotionally "Disabled" Partner
Across from her usually sits a more silent partner (typically the male in heterosexual couples), who is cynical and states that whatever he says or does is not good enough for her. Like many other men, he’ll silently accept being seen as “emotionally disabled.” Taking on such a role absolves him of the need to be emotionally present or vulnerable, and there are few expectations of him. His biggest tax for this role is that he’s not respected, seen, or desired. He must therefore blind himself to the contempt and disappointment of his queen,and resort to cynicism and relational amnesia.
Why Does This Happen?
This dynamic is a result of what Terry Real calls "psychological patriarchy," which is damaging to both men and women: Boys must endure the "loss of the relational," leaving them emotionally illiterate and unable to recognize their emotions (read more about men’s struggle to feel here). Women similarly pay a price—of being ostracized from expressing assertiveness and aggression, often leaving them to be labeled as victims or martyrs.
These processes create a stark dichotomous, hierarchical dance, where one partner is cast as emotionally intelligent, deep, sensitive (and pious), while the other is labeled as emotionally impaired, cold, simple, and two-dimensional.
The resulting dynamic generates bitterness, contempt, and competition between the partners (and is also a bad relationship model for their children).
Additionally, their dance often leads to a symbiotic-hostile dynamic of pursuer (intimacy queen) and distancer (emotionally disabled): The more she wants more intimacy, the more he runs away.
Behind the Hierarchical Dichotomy
The surprising truth is that both partners are at the same level of differentiation; they both have the same ability to be honest, open and intimate in their relationship.
How do I know this? Instead of listening to their mouth, I look at their feet (their behavior). They have been willing participants for years in a dynamic affording little (or no) intimacy, sex, or vulnerable communication. As a systemic therapist, I show the couple that both of them unconsciously agreed to this dance, and therefore both are equally accountable for their reality.
How Do You Change This Dance?
This dance can be slowly changed through conscious hard work, and it changes faster if both partners are on board.
- Share this article with your partner. Have an honest and open conversation, regardless whether this is the dynamic that is prevalent in your relationship. Explore the ways both of you contribute to this pattern.
- Check your gains and losses from this dynamic. Be prepared for the inner and relational resistances you’ll face when trying to raise the heat in the relationship. (Read more about secondary gains and losses here.) If you don’t want to change, then own it and stop blaming your partner for the lack of affection in your relationship. Release them from the role of being your jailor or weight. If you do want to change this dynamic, then the first step is to
- Balance the playing field, by mutually recognizing you are both emotional ‘virgins’. This will be the starting point for your new dance.
- Expect pushback and ruptures. It won’t be easy or pretty, as you both step out of your comfort zones and roles. When the emotionally disabled partner starts opening up, the queen might belittle, push back, or even deny their feelings. The emotionally disabled might not believe the partner also fears intimacy.
- Fewer words, more action. Don’t make big statements, but keep being vulnerable and open.
If you're the Intimacy Queen:
- Admit it. Admit that you, too, are scared of intimacy. Confront yourself and confess to your partner the places and ways you also dampen the heat in your relationship. This will help your partner feel less blame for the current dynamic.
- Nag less, do more. Avoid labeling your partner as cold or immature. Dare to be more open and vulnerable regarding your needs.
- Compliment your partner’s (semi-successful) attempts at intimacy. It is your interest that they change, so focus on the success instead of the unwanted behavior.
If you're The Emotionally Disabled:
You’ve been in this role for a while, so it will take time to start opening up. Here are some steps that can help you own up and open up toward your partner:
- Dare to feel. Develop emotional awareness and literacy and then verbalize your feelings .
- Risk being vulnerable. By sharing a wider range of feelings, not just about your partner, you’ll slowly move out of the role of being emotionally challenged.
- Dare to want. Brave to share your wants and desires, show your partner you aren’t really happy with the current homeostasis.
This process will take time, but I've seen countless couples do it. A new egalitarian dynamic will develop. After all, you two are more similar than you previously thought.
Real, T. (1998). I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. Simon and Schuster.