Intimacy: The Art of Relationships
How relationships are sabotaged by hidden expectations.
By December 31, 1969 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Confusion. Hurt. Silence. Missed opportunity. It is one of the ironies of modern life that many couples today are living together as complete strangers. Or worse, in great unhappiness. The data on divorce lead us to conclude that intimate relationships have been failing apart for the last 20 years or so. The truth is that couples have never learned reliably how to sustain pleasure in intimate relationships. The difference is it never mattered so much before.
Here at the close of the 20th century we have the luxury of living in splendid isolation. Unlike in more "primitive" cultures, most Americans no longer live as part of a large family or community where we develop a sense of comfort and safety, a network of people to confide in, to feel at home with. This, I have come to believe, is what has drawn many people into cults--the need to feel part of a bonded community, There is a sense of being at home emotionally as well as physically. Our culture provides for meeting all other needs, especially the need for autonomy, but not for intimacy. Within this framework, couples today must provide for each other more of the emotional needs that a larger community used to furnish.
Compounding the wide-scale deprivation of intimacy we actually experience, our cultural talent for commercialization has separated out sex from intimacy. In fact, intimacy involves both emotional and physical closeness and openness. But we wind up confusing the two and end up feeling betrayed or used when, as often happens, we fail to satisfy our need for closeness in sex.
Shifts in our general views about what makes life worth living have also contributed to a new demand for intimacy. For many generations the answer lay in a productive life of work and service in which the reward of happiness would be ours, in Heaven. That belief has broken down. People want happiness here and now. And they want it most in their intimate relationships.
Here, it's clear, we are unlikely to find it easily. Couples today are struggling with something new--to build relationships based on genuine feelings of equality. As a result, we are without role models for the very relationships we need. And rare were the parents who modeled intimacy for us; most were too busy struggling with survival requirements. Yet the quality of our closest relationships is often what gives life its primary meaning.
Intimacy, I have come to believe, is not just a psychological fad, a rallying cry of contemporary couples. It is based on a deep biological need. Shortly after I began my career as a family therapist I was working in a residential treatment center where troubled teenage boys were sent by the courts. Through my work I began to discover what had been missing for these kids: They needed support and affection, the opportunity to express the range and intensity of their emotions. It was remarkable to discover their depth of need, their depth of pain over the lack of empathy from significant people in their lives.
It is only in the last 20 years that we recognize that infants need to be held and touched. We know that they cannot grow--they literally fail to thrive--unless they experience physical and emotional closeness with another human being. What we often don't realize is that that need for connection never goes away. It goes on throughout life. And in its absence, symptoms develop--from the angry acting out of the adolescent boys I saw, to depression, addiction, and illness. In fact, researchers are just at the very beginning of understanding the relationship of widespread depression among women to problems in their marriages.
When I brought the boys together with their families, through processes I had not learned about in graduate school, it transformed the therapy. There was change. For the adolescent boys, their problems were typically rooted in the often-troubled relationships between their parents. They lacked the nurturing environment they needed for healthy growth. What I realized was that to help the children I first had to help their parents. So I began to shift my focus to adults.
From my work in closely observing the interactions of hundreds of couples, I have come to recognize that most of what goes wrong in a relationship stems from hurt feelings. The disappointment couples experience is based on misunderstanding and misperception. We choose a partner hoping for a source of affection, love, and support, and, more than ever, a best friend. Finding such a partner is a wonderful and ecstatic experience--the stage of illusion in relationships, it has been called.
To use this conceit, there then sets in the state of disillusion. We somehow don't get all that we had hoped for. He didn't do it just right. She didn't welcome you home; she was too busy with something else; maybe she didn't even look up. But we don't have the skills to work out the disappointments that occur. The disappointments big and little then determine the future course of the relationship.
If first there is illusion, and then disillusion, what follows is confusion. There is a great deal of unhappiness as each partner struggles to get the relationship to be what each of them needs or wants it to be. One partner will be telling the other what to do. One may be placating in the expectation that he or she will eventually be rewarded by the other. Each partner uses his or her own familiar personal communication style.
Over the disappointment, the partners erect defenses against each other. They become guarded with each other. They stop confiding in each other. They wall off parts of themselves and withdraw emotionally from the relationship, often into other activities--or other relationships. They can't talk without blaming, so they stop listening. They maybe afraid that the relationship will never change but may not even know what they are afraid of There is so much chaos that there is usually despair and depression. One partner may actually leave. Both may decide to stay with it but can't function. They live together in an emotional divorce.
Over the years of working with couples, I have developed an effective way to help them arrive at a relationship they can both be happy with. I may not offer them therapy. I find that what couples need is part education in a set of skills and part exploration of experience that aims to resolve the difficulties couples trip over in their private lives.
Experience has demonstrated to me that the causes of behavior and human experience a complex and include elements that are biological, psychological, social, contextual, and even spiritual. No single theory explains the intricate dynamics of two individuals interacting over time to meet all their needs as individuals and as a couple. So without respect to theoretical coherence I have drawn from almost every perspective in the realm of psychology--from psychodynamics to family systems, communication theory and social learning theory, from behavior therapy to object relations. Over the past 25 years I have gradually built a program of training in the processes of intimacy now known as Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS). It is taught to small groups of couples in a four-month-long course in various parts of the United States and now in 13 countries.
There are no specific theories to explain why the course works. In time that will come, as researchers pinpoint exactly which cognitive, behavioral, and experiential elements (and when and for whom) are most responsible for which types of change. Nevertheless I, my associates, and increasing numbers of graduate students have gathered, and are gathering, evidence that it powerfully, positively influences marital interaction and satisfaction.
Studies of men and women before and after taking the course show that it reduces anger and anxiety, two of the most actively subversive forces in relationships. judging from the hundreds of couples who have taken the PAIRS course, partners in distressed relationships tend to have more anxiety and anger than the does the general population. Once they have taken the course there is a marked reduction in this state of anger and anxiety. What is most notable is that there is also a reduction in the personality trait of anger, which is ordinarily considered resistant to change. Learning the skills of intimacy--of emotional and physical closeness--has a truly powerful effect on people.
We also see change in measurements of marital happiness, such as the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Tests administered before the course show that we are seeing a range of couples from the least to the most distressed. And we are getting significant levels of change among every category of couple. It is no secret that most attempts at therapy produce little or no change among the most distressed couples. Perhaps it's because what we are doing is not in the form of therapy at all, although its effects are therapeutic. In addition to improvement in many dimensions of the relationship, achieving intimacy bolsters the self-worth of both partners.
Love is a feeling. Marriage, on the other hand, is a contract--an invisible contract. Both partners bring to it expectations about what they want and don't want, what they're willing to give and not willing to give. Most often, those are out of awareness. Most marriage partners don't even know they expected something until they realize that they're not getting it.
The past is very much present in all relationships. All expectations in relationships are conditioned by our previous experience. It may simply be the nature of learning, but things that happen in the present are assimilated by means of what has happened in the past. This is especially true of our emotions: every time we have an experience in the present we also are experiencing it in the past. Emotional memory exists outside of time. It is obvious that two partners are conditioned by two different pasts. But inside the relationship it is less obvious. And that leads to all kinds of misunderstanding, disagreement, disappointment, and anger that things are not going exactly as expected.
The upshot is statements like "I can't understand women," "who knows what a woman wants," and "you can never please a man." All of the classic complaints reflect hidden expectations that have never surfaced to the point where they could be discussed, examined, kept, or discarded.
To add insult to injury, when one partner is upset, the other often compounds it unintentionally. When, for example, a woman is unhappy, men often feel they are expected to charge out and fix something. But what she really wants is for her partner to put his arms around her and hold her, to soothe her, to say simply, "I'm sorry you feel bad." It is a simple and basic longing. But instead of moving toward her, he moves away. And if when you are upset you don't get what you want from the person you are closest to, then you are not going to feel loved. Men, too, I hasten to say, have the same basic need. But they erect defenses against it for fear it will return them to a state of helplessness such as they experienced as children.
At the heart of intimacy, then, is empathy, understanding, and compassion; these are the humanizing feelings. It is bad enough that they are in short supply among distressed couples. Yet I have observed that certain careers pose substantial roadblocks to intimacy because the training involves education not in humanization but in de-humanization. At the top of the list is law. Built primarily on the adversarial process, it actively discourages understanding and compassion in favor of destroying an opponent. Careers in the military and in engineering also are dismissive of feelings and emotions. Men and women who bring what they learn from such work into a love relationship may find that it can't survive.
An understanding of intimacy has its own logic. But it runs counter to conventional wisdom and most brands of psychology. They hold that to understand the nature of, and to improve, relationships, the proper place to start is the self. The thinking is that you need to understand yourself before you can confide in a partner. But I have found just the opposite to be true.
An exploration of the self is indeed absolutely essential to attaining or rebuilding a sense of intimacy. Most of the disappointments that drive our actions and reactions in relationships are constructed with expectations that are not only hidden from our partners but also ourselves. From our families of origin and past relationship experiences, we acquire systems of belief that direct our behavior outside of our own awareness. It is not possible to change a relationship without bringing this belief system into our awareness.
But a man or a woman exploring their personal history experiences some powerful feelings that, in the absence of a partner to talk to, may make one feel worse rather than better. So the very first step a couple must take to rebuild intimacy is to learn to express their own thoughts and feelings and carefully listen to each other. A partner who knows how to listen to you can then be on hand when you open up your past.
Exploration of the self is an activity often relegated to psychotherapy; in that case a psychotherapist knows how to listen with empathy. But that is not necessarily the only way and at best is a luxury affordable only by a few. It is not only possible but desirable for couples of all economic strata to choose to confide in each other and build a relationship with a life partner rather than with a paid confidant. Both partners have an ongoing need to open up the past as well as share the present. But there are skills that have to be learned so that such interaction can be safe. Both partners need to learn how to listen without judging or giving unwanted advice. Disappointment in a partner's ability to hear is what often sends people to a psychotherapist in the first place.
All of us bring to our intimate relationships certain expectations that we have of no one else. On the positive side they usually involve undivided attention--words and gestures of love and caring, loyalty, constancy, sex, companionship, agreement, encouragement, friendship, fidelity, honesty, trust, respect, and acceptance. We are all too alert to the possibility that we will instead find their exact opposites.
If we are not aware of our own expectations (and how they are affected by our history), there is no hope of expressing them to a partner so that he or she has a shot at meeting them. More often than not, we engage instead in mind reading.
Mind reading is often related to a past disappointing relationship experience. We tend to expect what we previously had the opportunity to learn; we make assumptions based on our history. And when in personal history there are people or situations that were the source of heartache, resentment, or anxiety, then any action by a partner in the present that is similar in some way often serves as a reminder--and triggers an intense emotional reaction. I call this "emotional allergy." As with other forms of prior sensitization, the result tends to be an explosive reaction--withdrawal, counterattack--and it is typically incomprehensible to a current partner.
If I had to summarize how to change the hidden expectations that work to distort a relationship, I would boil it all down to a few basic rules:
o If you expect a partner to understand what you need, then you have to tell him or her. That of course means you have to figure out for yourself what you really need.
o You cannot expect your partner to be sensitive and understand exactly how you feel about something unless you're able to communicate to him or her how you feel in the first place.
o If you don't understand or like what your partner is doing, ask about it and why he or she is doing it. And vice versa. Explore. Talk. Don't assume.
Expressing your feelings about a given situation and asking for your partner's honesty in return is the most significant way to discover truth in your relationship. Instead, most communication between intimates is nonverbal and leans heavily on mind reading. The only thing you have to go on is your own internal information, which could easily be skewed by any number of factors. This is also why genuine responses are so important. Telling your partner what you think he or she wants to hear, instead of what is really going on, complicates and postpones a useful solution to the problem.
Confiding is much more than being able to reveal yourself to another. It is knowing with absolute certainty that what you think and feel is being heard and understood by your partner. Instead, we tend to be passive listeners, picking up only those messages that have a direct bearing on ourselves, rather than listening for how things are for our partner.
Listening with empathy is a learned skill. It has two crucial ingredients: undivided attention and feeling what your partner feels. Never assume that you know something unless it is clearly stated by your partner. And you need to understand fully what your partner's thoughts and feelings mean to him or her. Instead of focusing on the effects of your partner's words on you, pay attention instead to your partner's emotions, facial expression, and levels of tension. The single biggest barrier to such empathic listening is our self-interest and self-protective mechanisms. We anticipate and fill in the blanks. One of the simple truths of relationships is that often enough, all we need to do to resolve a problem is to listen to our partner--not just passively listen but truly hear what is in the mind and in the heart.
What more often happens is that, when we experience threats to our self-esteem or feel stressed, we resort to styles of communication that usually lead to more of a problem than the problem itself. The styles of communication that we resort to during stress then often prevent real contact from happening. If your partner tends to be a blamer, you will distance yourself. You develop a rational style of relating, but no feelings are ever dealt with. Not only is no love experienced, but at the emotional level nothing can get resolved.
Most people tend to react to stress with one or more of four communication styles:
o PLACATING. The placater is ingratiating, eager to please, apologetic, and a "yes" man or woman. The placater says things like "whatever you want" or "never mind about me, it's okay." It's a case of peace at any price. The price, for the placater is worthlessness. Because the placater has difficulty expressing anger and holds so many feelings inside, he or she tends toward depression and, as studies show, may be prone to illness. Placaters need to know it is okay to express anger.
o BLAMING. The blamer is a fault-finder who criticizes relentlessly and speaks in generalizations: "You never do anything right." "You're just like your mother/father." Inside, the blamer feels unworthy or unlovable, angry at the anticipation he or she will not be getting what is wanted. Given a problem, the best defense is a good offense. The blamer is unable to deal with or express pain or fear. Blamers need to be able to speak on their own behalf without indicting others in the process.
o COMPUTING. The computer is super reasonable, calm and collected, never admits mistakes, and expects people to conform and perform. The computer says things like, "Upset? I'm not upset. Why do you say I'm upset?" Afraid of emotion, he or she prefers facts and statistics. "I don't reveal my emotions and I'm not interested in anyone else's." Computers need someone to ask how they feel about specific things.
o DISTRACTING. The distractor resorts to irrelevancies under stress, avoids direct eye contact and direct answers. Quick to change the subject, he or she will say, "What problem? Let's have Sam and Bridget over." Confronting the problem might lead to a fight, which could be dangerous. Distractors need to know that they are safe, not helpless, that problems can be solved and conflicts resolved.
Each style is a unique response to pain, anger, or fear, which keeps us from understanding each other. Knowing that, the next time you find yourself resorting to blame, you can conclude there is something painful or scary bothering you and try to figure out what it is. If it's your partner who is blaming, you can conclude he or she is possibly not intending to be aggressive or mean but probably afraid of some development. What's needed is to find a way to make it safe to talk about the worry; find out what is bothering him or her.
How, then, can you say what is bothering you, or express what you really need, in a way that your partner can hear it, so that your message can be understood? This is a basic step in building the relationship you want. For this, the Daily Temperature Reading is particularly helpful.
After partners have been heard and understood, they may need to work on forgiveness. Of course, some things are unforgivable, and each partner has to decide if that line has been crossed and the relationship is worth continuing. If it is, there has to be a recognition that you can't change the past. No relationship can recover from past disappointments and mature unless both partners can find a way to let go of grudges. This is one of the most important relationship skills couples can develop.
In a relationship, letting go of grudges is something you do for yourself, not just to make your partner feel better. It is done by making simple statements of facts, not statements of blame. "You took me to your office party and you got so busy with everyone else you didn't introduce me to anyone to talk to me all night. You acted like I didn't matter and that your boss was the most important man in your life."
In the beginning, the course works best in the safety of a group, which prevents the isolation of couples and keeps partners from getting defensive and negative. But once they've practiced this, and it's a simple act of confiding, couples continue it on their own far more easily.
This is not just an exercise of the emotions. There is a cognitive restructuring taking place during these exercises. What is really going on is that one partner is, probably for the first time, learning the meaning of another's experience. That by itself enhances their closeness. All it requires is listening with empathy, and the experience becomes a source of pleasure for both of them. At the same time, there is conceptual understanding of what each is doing that deprives the relationship of pleasure and what they need to do to make it better.
Because the past continually asserts itself in present experience, both partners in a relationship are obligated to explore themselves, their beliefs, needs, and hopes, and even uniqueness of personality through their family's emotional history. Most people operate in the present, using messages and beliefs silently transmitted to them in their family of origin. Or they may be living out invisible loyalties, making decisions based not on the needs of their partner or present relationship, or even their own needs, but on some indebtedness that was incurred sometime in the past.
Particularly at issue are messages we acquire about ourselves, about life and love, trust, confiding, and closeness. Those things we take as truths about love, life, and trust are beliefs we had the chance to learn from specific people and situations in the past. It is on this information that we make the private decision to ourselves: "Nobody cares. It doesn't matter what I think or say, you're not interested in me." If, for example, you grew up in a family where your mother or father drank or was depressed, or was otherwise emotionally unavailable, you may have drawn the conclusion that no one was really interested in you.
It is vital to know the lineage of our beliefs because we transfer onto our partners what we were dealt in the past. One of the decisions often made unwittingly is, "I don't trust that anybody is really going to be any better to me." It can become a way of saying, "I'm going to get even for the way I was treated." You wind up punishing your partner for what someone else actually did.
When you displace the blame for past hurts onto you present partner, you are activating a dynamic that psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, M.D., describes as "the revolving ledger." At certain periods in your life, important people, or even life itself, through events that affected you, ran up a series of debits or credits in terms of what you needed. Time passed. You walked through life's revolving door. And now you hand me the bill. And you hold two hidden expectations. "Prove to me you are not the person who hurt me." In other words, "make up to me for the past." "Pay me back." And, "if you don't, if you do one thing that reminds me of that, I will punish you." The emotional transfer is accomplished.
Freud described this as transference and identified it as a crucial part of the therapeutic relationship. In fact, it is part of our everyday transactions in relationships. It is crucial to understand that this emotional transfer often does not take place early in a relationship. It sets in after a couple has been married for some time--when you are disappointed and discover what you expected or hoped to happen isn't happening.
That is the point when we transfer the hidden expectations, especially the negative ones, from our history, from any or all of our previous close relationships, whether to parents, siblings, former spouses, lovers, or friends. It is one of the core emotional transactions of marriage. And making it explicit is one of the psychological tasks of achieving intimacy.
The problem is, the person to whom you hand the bill is unaware of the account books in your head. The result is endless misunderstanding and disturbance. In fact, the attitudes you hold tend to be outside of your own, awareness. I believe that they can be found through personal exploration.
Otherwise, you find yourself thinking of your partner as the enemy, someone to hurt, someone to get even with, to punish. And because you don't recognize the ledger as the motivating power behind your behavior, you rationalize. You seek reasons to treat your partner as the enemy. You are really just evening up the balance on someone else's account.
Roger called his wife Jenny at work. She was in the middle of a staff meeting and so she was particularly abrupt with him. When she got home, she found a note from him. He was gone. From somewhere in his past experience he was so sensitized to demonstrations of lack of interest in him that her behavior constituted absolute proof. One misstep--one hint that she was anything like whoever ran up the debit--was all she was allowed. This is a common pattern in relationships. And the "proof" of disinterest could be anything. Perhaps she didn't look at him. Perhaps she was tired. Perhaps she was sick. One reason men are often intolerant of a wife who gets sick is that she isn't there for them. It is a painful reminder of other accounts from the past.
Not only do couples maintain revolving ledgers, but they also carry over feelings of indebtedness and entitlement from one generation to the next. Invisible loyalties thus accrue in a family over the generations, whether or not we end up acknowledging them. An artistic man buries his creative longing because his family legacy calls for being a success in business. For each of us, behavior is greatly affected by the family ledger of entitlement and indebtedness.
Every couple needs to trace the source of behaviors and attitudes, many of which turn out to have been handed down through their families of origin. Much unhappiness in relationships can be traced to the fact that one partner learned as a family rule never to express anger, or even perhaps happiness. Many people grow up learning to subjugate their own needs and feelings to those of others. Still the feelings influence present relationships, and until they can be brought into awareness and spoken, it is very difficult to improve current relationships.
Once a couple has done this and discovers where their beliefs come from, they can review them together and decide which legacies they want to keep, which they'd rather discard. They each work out their personal history so they do not punish the one who's here now.
At this point I find that couples do well if I introduce an experience in bonding that is usually very emotionally powerful.
For men, these experiences are revelatory. Men, because they are often cut off from the emotional part of themselves, are especially often forced to piggyback their need for intimacy on sex. They have no less need for intimacy than women, but it usually gets suppressed and denied. Or they attempt to satisfy their need for closeness through contact sports and roughhousing. They don't know how to work things out in man-woman intimate relationships. But when they learn, they almost always feel an enormous sense of wholeness and relief
In growing up men have learned that the only thing they are supposed to need to be close to a woman is sex. They discover that bonding is a valid need in its own right, and needing physical closeness doesn't mean they are going to regress into helplessness and never function again. It doesn't weaken you, it strengthens you.
But this is not learnable merely by cognitive statement. Having the experience illuminates the point and changes the thinking. The exercises are important because they integrate the emotional acceptance, the behavioral change, and the cognitive understanding that occur.
It is no news that sexual problems in a relationship are frequently the by-product of personal and relational conflicts and anxieties. For too many couples, sex has become a substitute for intimacy and a defense against closeness. Most poor sex stems from poor communication, from misunderstandings of what one's mate actually wants--not from unwillingness or inability to give it.
In the realm of sex as in other domains of the relationship, you cannot expect your partner to guess what pleases you. You are obligated to figure out for yourself what stimulates, delights, and satisfies you-and acknowledge it. It is not enough to give and receive, you also have to be able to speak up or reach out on your own behalf and take. Ideally, sexual love will be a flow of this give and take, but it has to go both ways to keep desire alive.
Before sex can be rewarding for both partners, they have to first restore the ability to confide and reestablish emotional openness, to establish a sense of camaraderie. Then physical closeness has meaning, and the meaning serves only to heighten the pleasure of the physical experience even more.
Of course, intercourse is not the only avenue to physical pleasure. There is a whole range of physical closeness couples can learn to offer each other. Being together. Hugging. Holding each other. Caressing each other's face. Massaging your partner's body. In fact, taking pleasure in each other is a habit that some couples actually have to acquire. But taking pleasure in your partner is the very thing your partner needs most from you.
THE DAILY TEMPERATURE READING
Confiding--the ability to reaveal yourself fully, honestly, and directly--is the lifeblood of intimacy. To live together with satisfaction, couples need clear, regular communication. The great intuitive family therapist Virginia Satir developed a technique for partners and families to maintain an easy flow about the big and little things going on in their lives. I have adapted it. Called the Daily Temperature Reading, it is very simple (and works for many other kinds of relationships as well).
Do it daily, perhaps as you sit down to breakfast. At first it will seem artificial--hokey, even. In time you'll evolve your own style. Couples routinely report it is invaluable for staying close--even it they let it slide for a day or two when they get busy. It teaches partners how to listen non-defensively and to talk as a way to give information arather than to stir a reaction. Here are the basics:
Sit close, perhaps even knee-to-knee, facing your partner, holding each other's hands. This simple touching creates an atmosphere of acceptance for both.
1. APPRECIATION. Take turns expressing appreciation for something your partner has done--and thanking each other.
2. NEW INFORMATION. In the absence of information, assumptions--often false ones--rush in. Tell your partner something ("I'm not looking forward to the monthly planning meeting this morning") to keep contact alive and let your partner in on your mood, your experiences--your life. And then listen to your partner.
3. PUZZLES. Take turns asking each other something you don't understand and your partner can explain: "Why were you so down last night?" Or voice a question about yourself: "I don't know why I got so angry while we were figuring out expenses." You might not find answers, but you will be giving your partner some insight about yourself. Besides, your partner may have insights about your experiences.
4. COMPLAINT WITH REQUEST FOR CHANGE. Without placing blame or being judgemental, cite a specific behavior that bothers you and state the behavior you are asking for instead. "If you're going to be late for dinner, please call me. That way the kids and I can make our own plans and won't be waiting for you."
5. HOPES. Sharing hopes and dreams is integral to a relationship. Hopes can range from the mundane ("I hope you don't have to work this weekend") to the grandiose ("I'd really love to spend a month in Europe with you"). But the more the two of you bring dreams into immediate awareness, the more likely you'll find a way to realize them.
Most people put a lid on the hurts or fears of the past: "It doesn't bother me anymore"; "It isn't that important." But I find that it is essential to lift that lid--in the context of the current relationship--to close the revolving ledger.
o Choose a time when you are feeling somewhat edgy.
o Put on some soft music in the background.
o Lie down with your partner. Lie on your sides cradled into each other, both facing the same direction.
While your partner is holding you, quietly reveal something he or she does that triggers a full-blown intense emotional reaction in you. It might be that she doesn't listen to you. Or he interrupts you constantly. Or doesn't call when he's away. Or rejects whatever you suggest. "When you do this, I am very upset." As you are speaking, your partner is holding you and listening.
Now tell your partner what experience out of your history your reaction connects to. Perhaps his not calling infuriates you because it arouses the fear you felt when a parent left or died. Or your first husband walked out.
Now comes the remarkable part. Tell your partner what you would have needed to happen in your history that would have helped. What actions would you have preferred to have happened? What words would you have needed to hear?
Now let your partner tell you what you needed to hear, while you take it in. Your partner is free to say it in his or her own way: "I'm sorry that happened to you"; "I wish I had been there."
And now discuss the price you are paying in your current relationship for having this emotional reaction to events of the past. Perhaps it is that you don't talk to your partner, you withdraw, withhold, get even.
What you talk about next is what you can then do to help yourself. "How can I signal you neutrally to let you know when you trigger this response in me."
At this point you are talking about what will help you in the future. You are jointly and consciously outlining useful behaviors, constructing a relationship in which actions and experiences have the same meaning and same effect for both of you. This is essential for happiness to occur in a relationship.
Rarely in long-term relationships do we talk about what we appreciate in our partner. Yet it is not possible to sustain a pleasurable relationship without that. I have found that most couples need to rediscover what it is they value in each other.
I have developed an exercise that can quickly restore a sense of priorities, of what is important in life and in a relationship. Don't be misled by its simplicity. I ask a couple to talk about what they never talk about together--death and loss. This usually turns out to be an experience with a dramatic--literally and figuratively--emotional impact.
Choose a quiet time and a quiet place when there are no immediate pressures on you or your partner. Plan ahead to set aside the time. Allow about an hour.
Lie down on the floor, eyes closed, arms crossed or at your side, as if you were dead. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to relax, but remain still.
Your partner now gets to imagine that you are gone, and talk to you as if you were. Your partner must speak about what he or she will miss about you, any regret, etc. Give him or her time to get into the experience. All you do is lie still and listen. Then switch places, while you speak about what you will miss.
Most people are profoundly moved by the emotional discoveries they make about themselves, their partner, and their relationship. They realize they have something they don't want to throw away.
But in the days to come, don't stop there. Use what you have learned to construct a more rewarding relationship. Sit down in a spirit of goodwill, voice your appreciations, make a specific request for behavioral change, and jointly negotiate the steps that will preserve the emotional closeness.