Many couples struggle to manage intense, reactive conflict. Through couples therapy, many learn that, with practice, they are capable of gaining distance from the powerful influence of anxious emotions. We are not necessarily determined by our impulses.
For one husband and wife who saw me for marital therapy, as he acknowledged ways that he withdrew from his wife at the whim of momentary anxiety, he began to act in spite of his anxiety, remaining engaged with her in an honoring way. As he did, he became more confident and less volatile. As his wife began to acknowledge ways that she pressed for resolution on issues of difference, she began to make peace with anxieties that drove her behavior in the relationship. As she did, she became more confident and less volatile.
As intentionality increased little by little, confidence increased. As confidence increased, conflict increasingly resulted in experiences of mutuality or the sharing of feelings, rather than anger and fear. The couple gained a greater degree of freedom through restraint and a greater degree of attraction through differentiation, and this is the irony and the dignity of therapy.
There are four formative aspects of intimacy that shape and reshape intimate relationships over the course of our lives and, in some cases, therapy:
1. The first dimension is power , which is made up of assumptions, rules, loyalties, and boundaries (conscious and unconscious).
When one partner experiences what we commonly call “insecurity” because a partner does not display or reciprocate love and loyalty in his or her behavior, it may be that the partner does not know how to effectively show such love and loyalty, that the partner does not wish to show such love and loyalty, or that the “insecure” partner will benefit from learning more effective methods of seeking affirmation. Whatever the case, power is in play and at stake. Power is the concrete foundation of a sturdy relationship.
Security is also intrinsically tied up with fidelity—the real, known, and experienced faithfulness of a partner. Without fidelity, there is no security. Without security, there is no intimacy. Ultimately, therefore, intimacy requires a starting framework made of commitment, honesty, and trust, which, of course, are all woven together.
2. The affect dimension is about the underlying experiences of emotion between people.
Keith Sanford (2007) at Baylor University conducted a fascinating study on the effects of the perception of emotion in intimate relationships. Sanford’s study called emotions that are perceived as asserting power “hard” and emotions that are perceived as expressing vulnerability “soft.” Sanford found that, in the interplay of such perception, emotion precedes emotion .
He concluded what we know intuitively—that when a person observes an increase in “hard” emotion from his or her partner, that person's anxiety seems to rise as a result, presumably because he or she is perceiving “a threat to their control, power, and status in the relationship.” When a decrease in “soft” emotion or an increase in what Sanford called “flat” emotion is observed, the partner’s anxiety rises, presumably in perceiving neglect of the relationship.
One's own hard and soft emotions react in a reflexive fashion to perceived threat and neglect in a nearly moment-by-moment chain reaction. Sanford wrote, “What you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings, and reactions in yourself, whether or not what you perceive is actually correct.”
When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. Likewise, when the magnet’s positive end is placed against the positive end of another, they repel one another. Two pieces of uncharged metal neither attract nor repel. No force exists between them to affect their interaction. So go relationships.
3. The creativity dimension is where entrenched ruts in behavior and relationships are encountered and constructively engaged.
In conflict-rich marriages, emotions may be volatile and oscillate between fear and anger. Achieving a new conflict dynamic is inherently creative. Anyone who has attempted to follow someone else’s marriage advice knows that marriage problems are not solved by applying equations. Relating in a new way, truly stirring intimacy, requires artful re-engineering.
Relationship researcher John Gottman (1995) described three types of marriages: validating , in which partners pick their battles and fight fair; volatile , in which they fight all the time; and conflict avoiding , in which they rarely fight. All three are equally stable, Gottman found, as long as the marriage is working for both partners and there is a minimum of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
We can easily become trapped in selfish habits that pour wrath on emotional bonds. Whatever it may be, the path toward marital fruitfulness is a path of patience, intention, and distraction from such bad habits—recovery, in this sense and in any sense, requires what I call transformational creativity.
4. The truth dimension is about the predominant messages of worth and purpose that a person lives by and that a relationship may live by.
I encourage couples to evaluate what they believe to be true—about the story of their relationship and about the qualities of their love. As psychoanalysts have believed for over a century, sometimes the careful ushering of beliefs, thoughts, and emotions below the surface of awareness into conscious self-awareness, in and of itself, has the power to stir change.
Intimacy entails a responsibility requiring courage and a continual empathic striving. In the course of therapy, couples are challenged to face their own conceptions and have opportunities to rewrite—perhaps over time, even rewire—the truth about their marriage.
Whatever the case, whether in the best or the worst of circumstances, and sometimes over the course of couples therapy, an intimate relationship is shaped and reshaped by the ways partners structure their life together, share what is meaningful, creatively negotiate through challenges, and conceptualize the narrative of their journey.
Frankl, V. E. (1988). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. New York: Penguin Books.
Gottman, J. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Sanford, K. (2007). Hard and soft emotion during conflict: Investigating married couples and other relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 65-90.