Friday, January 29, 2016

Super-Charge Your Intimacy

"I can always count on him being my soft place to land."

"She accepts me fully and completely."

We love the idea of entwining ourselves in a forever welcoming relationship that is nothing-but-soothing.

That's how true love--deep intimacy--works, right? We get to know each other more and more deeply, and what we discover every step of the way we find so adorable that we can't help endorsing and validating each other non-stop.

Actually, no. It doesn't go that way.

Instead, we inevitably discover, again and again, that instead of a cuddly kitten or the human version of a Jacuzzi, we married an actual person with their own personality and preferences, temperament and tastes. They have their own hang-ups and hiccups, just like we do.

And it's a good thing that in the very relationship where our dreams are the wildest and the stakes are the highest, we're with someone who will disappoint and challenge us. It gives us the opportunity to grow in ways that we never would, never could, were we left to our own devices as a single individual.

Coming from a broken home with endless conflict, Jamie had always prioritized finding a man with whom she felt safe and supported. Cory seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He came from a large family and his parents were still together after 45 years. When she spent that first Christmas with them, she knew deep down that everything was going to be okay.

The feelings were mutual. Dating Jamie felt like a dream to Cory. He'd never been with a more gorgeous, exciting, spiritually strong girl.

They were both anticipating sex, and their honeymoon started out as the trip of their dreams.

Until it was clear to Jamie that Cory couldn't seem to fully relax and enjoy it. "Twelve bucks for bagels and hot cocoa? Well, okay, but let's pass on the fruit cup." "Are you kidding me? Ninety bucks? For a dress? I love the dresses you already have. And you do have a lot of dresses!"

Why couldn't he ease up and remember that this would be their only honeymoon, something they'd look back on their entire lives? The final straw was when he hassled her about buying the stuffed moose, the one she'd decided on as her only keepsake from Jackson Hole.

Jamie had emancipated at 17 and had worked her tail off to become independent in every way, including financially. She'd been going along so far with Cory's anxiety about costs, but to have him complain about her buying a stuffed animal pushed her too far.

"Who the hell do you think you are? We're paying for this entire trip with my money? You don't get to decide everything I spend. Why do you have to be so uptight about everything?"

Cory's retort came quick as lightning. "We're using your money on the trip because we emptied my bank account to get your ring! As I've looked ahead at what it will take to pay rent and tuition and all our other expenses, I don't know if we'll even be able to make it on our incomes. We are going to have to live so frugally, so carefully. I know this is a special time, but it doesn't mean we can ignore reality!"

Cory and Jamie were now in the thick of it, the process of "people making." And it can only occur at its highest level in the fertile soil of a relationship. The challenge for them--and the rest of us--is to do a healthy share of advocating for ourselves and a healthy share of accommodating our spouse. But don't confuse that with compromising. Conflicts that recur and recur, they refuse to go away precisely because our compromising capacity reaches its limit. To stay married even after that requires much more than compromising. It requires the courage, vulnerability, and work ethic to do what it takes to grow beyond our old capacities.

That's my attempt to sum up, in a paragraph, the radical philosophy of David Schnarch, and it's a perspective I've found to fit very well with just about all of the individuals and couples with whom I work. Don't stop advocating for yourself just because it creates discomfort for your spouse. Don't try to manipulate them into not advocating for themselves because it challenges you. Keep coming together and letting the sparks of your strong personalities fly. This is not to be confused with being selfish or giving yourself permission to be mean with each other. It means simply refusing to pretend you're not who you are, refusing to pretend that you don't want what you really want.

Being real with each other in these ways is bound to lead to difficulties and emotional struggles and painful moments of revelation and realization. But the alternative is stagnation, the death of growth, and ultimately the suffocation of a vibrant and alive relationship.

For Cory and Jamie, it may have seemed that their honeymoon was doomed to be over at that point. But the opportunity to develop as individuals and ultimately as a couple was just beginning. Conflicts like these are the labor pains that can give birth to a deeper, more exciting love.

After driving around in silence for half an hour, they'd both cooled down enough to try to talk through it again. They had a long talk on a long walk along the shore of Jenny's Lake at the base of the Teton mountains. Jamie became intimately familiar--as never before--with Cory's fears about being man enough to step up and do what it would take for them to make it financially as a couple--and then as a family once they had kids. Jamie talked intimately with Cory about her fears of being controlled and ultimately consumed by someone else who was more forceful and pushy than she is. When she finally got away from her parents at 17 she'd vowed she would never let herself be controlled again. And now she had trusted Cory enough to enter into marriage with all of its obligations and weighty responsibilities. And it was terrifying for her at times, no more so than when he got worried about money and it led him to be more uptight and bossy than usual.

The real Jamie and Cory were now face to face. They'd each managed to stay both authentic and tender with each other, which can be a real challenge on the heals of an argument.

Their hard talk had a strange effect: when they stopped walking and looked into each other's eyes, all sense of separateness was gone. They hadn't "solve the problems" they talked through or guaranteed that those very issues wouldn't arise again. But it left each of them feeling like they'd been allowed "in", closer than ever to the other's heart of hearts. There's no more privileged status as a spouse, and they both felt the electricity of it. When you're allowed right up against quivering membrane of your spouse's very soul, you become lovers at a whole new level. The honeymoon wasn't over after all.

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