Intimacy is Heaven and Hell

The aspect of a partner that most hurts us and drives us into a frenzy is the part that most cries out for our compassion. This is what intimacy is really about — not the surface that we show to the world or even the beneficent and interesting parts of ourselves our friends savor, but the gnarly, difficult, and aching aspects of each other. We want to flee, but if we stay and find ways through this conundrum, substantial rewards await us.

It’s not fun. It can be infuriating, and it is always unjust. When we become the recipients of anger or resentment or unmet “childish” needs that belong to another era of a partner’s life, the reflex is to protest: “Hey, I had nothing to do with what happened before we got together, especially your childhood.” Then the partner is likely to get even more insistent about all of our failings and the wrongs we are committing, and the argument devolves into mud-slinging back and forth.

Only in deep intimacy can the emotionally youngest part of ourselves emerge, but it is in this most vulnerable arena that we do the most harm to each other. Unwittingly, over and over again, we have a tendency to blame each other for making us feel awful, when at least some of these feelings actually belong to past relationships or other times of life.

Easily and with passion, we recognize when our partner is doing this to us – but it is hard to see when we are doing it. Our reactions feel thoroughly justified. We are so convinced that our partner’s failings account for the present strife that we see no need to even glance at our contribution. Why look any further when a partner’s thoughtless behaviors or abusive tirades are going on here and now?

The key is to look beyond the current content of the fight to the emotional valence and intensity of our own reaction. This is the maneuver that can change everything. Asking ourselves what part of our reaction might belong to the past opens up a different kind of internal atmosphere, on the spot. Even if the partner isn’t yet anywhere near being able to do this, something transformative happens.

Looking inward during the heat of battle is startling. We see what is powering our fury – ancient grievances we have always carried, or at least echoes of familiar emotions that preceded our partner. This recognition in itself may call a halt to our raw reaction, meaning that now there is one conscious person in the room. Suddenly, we start to hear what the partner is saying under the bluster of hurt, anger, and false blame.

Here is where something even more surprising can happen – summoning compassion for what’s behind the partner’s hurtful obnoxiousness. This is the last thing we want to do. It feels like self-sacrifice, especially when the verbal assault is still continuing. The urge to defend against or return the attack is far more compelling. But magic arises from making the effort to visualize the most vulnerable aspects of our partner, all that is so well hidden from view and in need of tenderness.

Saying something like, “Wow, I can see why you’re so angry,” may calm the person down for feeling heard and the hope of being seen. “I want to know what I did that really hurt you.” The wild confluence of hot air deflates like a balloon. What’s the point of yelling at someone who is conceding their role in the conflict and is ready to acknowledge their failings? Then, after listening to more blame, we can choose to speak words of comfort directly to the feelings at the heart of the other’s outburst. “You felt so alone when I did that. I’m really sorry. I just wasn’t tuned into you enough and I should have been.”

Some of us felt alone in our childhoods, others felt misused, mistreated, overlooked, scorned, scapegoated, demeaned, or neglected. Re-playing emotional responses from long ago comes from pathways laid down in the brain, not from a character flaw or weakness. Events in the present call up these memories as feelings. Disguised or covered over, they may emerge as misplaced accusations.

By putting aside the unfairness, we hand over a concession that becomes a victory for both. The conflict may come to an end with abundant affection fueled with relief. The partner may not yet be ready to take a look inward but has been given an example of a generosity that comes from doing so. Over time, significant progress can be made toward the kind of relationship each person has been craving. There may come a day when the partner reciprocates by starting to notice patterns in their own reactions, or through receiving the very comfort that wasn’t forthcoming long ago.

Walking away is much easier than sticking with the work of making a good relationship. When a couple is in the midst of a growing phase, a huge weariness may arise – especially during conflicts when childhood feelings have gotten thoroughly engaged and neither is owning up to it. But when one of the partners sees this and decides to take the lead, hell can turn into heaven for a while.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2016

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