You feel stuck in a rut with regard to how you and your partner communicate. He just doesn’t seem to get what you’re saying. She can parrot your every word but still fails to really understand. Books and friends all point to the basic differences between the sexes and advise you to accept your rut as reality. You are tempted to throw up your hands and stop trying. Still, something tells you that you are not all that different from each other.
Security, freedom, and intimacy: In order to help organize the arguments that currently beset your relationship, let’s take a look at each of these needs and how they shape the language and tone of how you participate with your partner. Our desire (and tolerance for a partner’s desire) to have each of these needs met arises in radically different ways over time. Navigating these three relational needs requires an honest appraisal. They are the forces that drive us as we battle heedlessly—either with or against each other.
Security: You belong here. I accept you as you are.
Imagine yourself standing alone in the center of a large triangle that has been drawn about you. At each corner of the triangle is inscribed each of the aforementioned needs. Now imagine yourself walking slowly toward the first corner, inscribed with the word “security.” Security is the realm where one is allowed to rest in open acknowledgment of present feelings. With each step in this direction, you recover memories of those rare times when you felt understood. Perhaps a favorite friend or family member comes to mind. Someone who simply accepted you as you were; smiling at your humor, seeing your tears and staying close to you as they flow, joining you in your anger. Others may recall experiences of security as an introspective moment where one simply feels right within oneself. Perhaps a memory of kicking leaves alone on a beautiful fall day, reading a good book, or playing with a pet ushers in memories of a deep sense of at-one-ment with the world.
As you imagine yourself walking closer toward the vertex of the triangle, let the memories sift by until you arrive with a single memory that you will let represent the feeling of security that you are seeking today. Our definitions of security are always evolving, so it makes sense that you would choose a different image at different times in your life.
Sharing is the optimal communication style to instill security. Partners who wish to spend more time in this corner of the triangle will develop their reflective listening skills and learn to put their problem-solving skills on hold: “You needn’t rescue me from my feelings. I only ask that you take heed that they exist.” The tone and language of sharing is one of open self-inquiry. The intention between partners is to stay as nonaccusing and neutral as possible while listening: “I hear you saying that you are tired and resent going to my parents’ house today.” Staying nonreactive is a key skill when sharing. Take a deep breath and practice the difficult art of allowing your partner’s feelings to exist exactly as they are. Empathy remains the only objective.
Freedom: I am alone. I have limits and a voice.
If we associate blue with the attitude for building security (the goal being to dive deep into the watery depths of each other’s feelings), then red is definitely the color for freedom. Imagine yourself back in your triangle and walking slowly along its side from the apex of security to the next corner. With each step, you allow an inner fire to grow. It’s the same fire that once enabled you to navigate your first day at kindergarten, to swim in the deep end of the pool, or to propel your bike aloft without the training wheels. Freedom is the realm where independence, power, and privacy gain their full respect. As you walk toward freedom, what are the images, memories, and sensations that come to you? As a child, as a teen, and then as a young adult—what were the core moments where you recognized your capacity to be free? Once again, the memories you happen to choose at this time in your life are significant. They are telling you something important. What are the qualities of that experience that are calling to you today?
Celebrating your partner’s freedom can be mutually enriching: “I honor things I don’t know about you just as I preserve my own mystery.” The joy of coming together as a couple is balanced by placing high esteem on one’s inviolable aloneness. Not every secret needs to be shared. Though it sometimes hurts to insist on privacy and separateness, there is a strength to it as well. The work is to establish trust that one’s partner’s freedom can coexist peaceably with the parameters of mutual care and love.
As tough as it sounds, the language of freedom is often one of voicing declarations. The art here is to combine this self-affirming language with the awareness that you cannot control your partner. When your core sense of freedom is intruded upon, can you communicate it clearly while maintaining your partner’s right to disagree? A brief, clear declaration (“I deserve to spend time with my friend”) can be far more effective than questions or explanations of why your partner is in the wrong (“You are so insecure, why don’t you ever let me spend time with my friend?”). Using “I statements” can indeed feel distancing, yet they are the most appropriate form for expressing one’s essential need for freedom. “You” statements and accusatory questions may access more fire in your belly but are more oriented toward punishing the other than affirming the self. It takes courage to speak up clearly for one’s values, but it requires equal parts of kindness to stop short of seeking revenge or employing guilt to get your way.
Before we get too carried away with the self-righteous fire of this corner of the triangle, it’s important to keep traveling on to the warmer, yellowish corner of intimacy. As you leave the apex of freedom, bring with you your power to speak up for your core values. You will be using that skill as you work to forge new levels of intimate connection with your mate.
Intimacy: I desire to merge with you. We are joining as one.
Memories of times we’ve felt merged with another can be some of our sweetest recollections. The residual sense may feel similar to melted honey or the warm glow of morning. As you imagine walking the line toward this corner, allow yourself to bask in the nostalgia of times when you first discovered a true friend. It may be that the feeling is suffused with your first sexual encounters. Or it may have nothing to do with sexuality at all. Facebook has capitalized on our core desire for intimacy simply by facilitating opportunities to be “liked.” We like to be like each other. Finding yourself magically in agreement with another brings a porous sense of an expanded self. Hunters joined in a similar pursuit, singers joined in a church choir, even lawyers joined in an exceptionally well-crafted debate; there is a chemically induced ardor that manages somehow to combine excitement and relaxation at once. Our yearning for freedom and security met together at last. As you take your stand in the third corner, bring with you your greatest dream for loving connection.
If only intimacy were always as easy as clicking a “like” button or announcing to our partner, “OMG, me too!” In reality, while you brought your dream for a romantic night together, chances are that your partner brought a dream for a well-scrubbed kitchen. Ouch. Unfortunately, intimacy is founded not on the fantasies of wish fulfillment but on our concrete skills of compromise. The vulnerability inherent in the act of making requests, negotiating differences, and blending interests into a workable solution can make all of us uncomfortable. Unlike security (where we are simply accepted) and freedom (where we stand by our limits), intimacy occupies that middle region where we resolve to accept halfway solutions. Whether playful or serious, it is where the rubber of love meets the road of our personal boundaries. The skills we must develop here are to combine making clear declarations while maintaining all of our reflective listening capacities and empathy. Then to think outside the box and brainstorm ways where your highest priority is making a decision that is satisfactory to both of you.
Before ending this exercise, take one last visit to the center of the triangle. Which of these three basic relational needs seem most essential to you at this time? Perhaps your negotiating skills are well primed but you are yearning to be more deeply understood. Perhaps you’ve been squashing your need to express more declarations of your core values. Or perhaps you’ve been avoiding the vulnerable work of making more mutual decisions with your partner. What skills are you most in need of developing at this time? And in which corner is your partner waiting for you? It’s OK that your partner may be honing a different skill set than you are. If you are truly in this relationship for the long haul, practice helping one another to build realistic opportunities for sharing, declaring, and compromise.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, Relational Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor
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