As a psychotherapist in private practice, coaching couples is one of my abiding passions. Indeed, it was the transformative couples work that my wife, Dale, and I did in the 1990s that was the catalyst for each of us becoming a therapist.
Intimate romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the Reflection series. I have written about its enormous potential for healing and growth (#33), and how to fight more effectively (#53). I have also offered strategies for more effectively being with your romantic partner – at times of conflict (## 3 and 86) and, in calmer times, when things are going more smoothly (#10). I have also written extensively about the challenge of moving through the patriarchal patterns that are so engrained in our culture and so deeply affect our intimate relationships (## 57, 61, 69, and 72).
My goal in this Reflection is to pull the lens back and to describe the multiple levels at which committed romantic partnerships operate.
There has been so much really good thinking about romantic relationship in the last 20 years or so, and practicing therapists have been at the forefront. It is easy to see why. Couples therapists are on the firing line every day of their professional lives; dealing with real issues, in real time. They need to search for better ways – now.
And the feedback is immediate. We can see, all too vividly, what works and what doesn’t. In this context, the old cliché definitely applies: Necessity is the mother of invention.
But the context in which couples therapists work – helpful as it is – also has a distorting perspective. Because our sample is skewed toward couples in active crisis, we tend to become experts in relationship breakdowns. And since the urgent first priority is, so often, to re-establish a workable level of communication, our attention tends to be skewed toward those issues. The result: Much of what we therapists teach to couples focuses on active listening and other techniques to improve communication.
This, I believe, is unfortunate. Once the crisis is over, couples still long for guidance in building a more lively and joyful relationship. Getting from here to there – as Dale and I have discovered in the years since our own work with a couples therapist ended – requires far more than the communication skills that are the bread and butter of couples work.
In seeking to guide my clients as they explore this upside of coupledom, I have evolved the following multi-level view of relationship:
- Listening and Sharing (Communication);
- Loving and Being Loved;
- Claiming and Being Claimed.
In the discussion that follows, I discuss these factors in the context of intimate romantic partnership. Note, however, that their value extends beyond the couples context. While the levels of intimacy and boundaries you set will differ – depending on the person involved – these same principles will also enrich your relationships with other family members, friends, and members of your communities of choice.
To say that communication is only one aspect of the couples equation does not, of course, detract from its foundational importance. Indeed, living in a world that models and rewards shrill assertiveness, our engrained deficits in this area are endemic. Given this cultural context, special attention to listening skills is a vital corrective.
Good listening requires more than just hearing the words. It also requires a patient assimilation to the mood or “music” of the communication. In addition, hearing your partner is not enough. You also need to ensure, as best you can, that your partner “knows that you know.”
Still another a vital aspect of good listening is not to change the subject prematurely. As well intentioned as an “I’m sorry” can be, for example, it needs to come after your partner feels that his or her grievance has been fully heard. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of listening and sharing, see Reflection #82 Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject.
With all of our well-deserved emphasis on listening, we also need to remember that communication is two-way street; that we, in our turn, need to be open and vivid with our thoughts and feelings. A generous and patient listener who fails to disclose his or her difficult or unpleasant feelings may feel virtuous – and is often seen as the “good guy.” But if intimacy is the goal, that approach is flawed. Absent honest and contactful sharing on both sides, a true meeting of two people – the essence of intimacy – is impossible.
A final point on communication: Like every other level of relationship I discuss in this Reflection, there is a rhythm to the back and forth of offering and receiving that is, in the end, art and not science. Taking turns may work – but it may not. It all depends on the “dance” that the particular couple evolves over time. Indeed, in some of the most constructive, intimacy building conversations that Dale and I have had, one or the other of us has been a marathon “sender.” On this point, the most that can be said is this: Be alive to the issue, open to possibilities, and patient and trusting of the process.
The second level of intimate relationship – loving and being loved – is not as obvious as it may seem. One very common problem is the confusion, heavily promoted by the messages of the mainstream culture, between love the noun and love the verb.
We are all familiar with the first, that feeling of being powerfully drawn to another person. But all too often in our culture, the declaration – “I love you” – is offered as though it answers all questions.
In the movie Chasing Amy, the Ben Affleck character, gripped by that “in love” feeling impulsively turns to Amy and declares his feelings. Amy, with remarkable clear headedness, is furious calling him out on the thoughtlessness: “I am a lesbian. I have a life. And you are messing with it.”
Her point: A feeling (love, the noun) does not negate an insensitive act (love, the verb).
Seeking to love your partner, in this action-oriented sense, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Growing up, we are habituated to a particular style of loving and offering love in that way – the one you know best – is important. Since your partner’s “channels of love” are typically different from yours, you are in this way acting as his teacher, expanding his repertoire for loving. But to be fully effective, you also need to offer love on your partner’s channel as well.
The second aspect of “love, the verb” – one that receives far too little attention – is to warmly accept your partner’s acts of love. Indeed, many people instinctually see aspect of loving as an act of selfishness and self-absorption; something to be soft-pedaled, even avoided.
What you need to remember, at these times, is the wonderful feeling you have when you successfully love your partner. Recalling these moments, the importance of being a warm and active receiver of her acts of love – allowing her to experience that same feeling in return – will become obvious.
A significant challenge, here, grows out of a key difference between loving and being loved. The first is an active sport. You do something. You initiate an action. Being loved, on the other hand, is more passive. You need to be open and receptive to what your partner offers. Implicit, then, on the being loved side of the equation is the challenge of trusting and letting go – no small thing for many of us.
Finally, remember this: To accomplish this vital goal of a mutually loving relationship, an essential precondition is to consistently ask for what you want and need. Why? Because offering this vivid roadmap for how you want to be loved, sets your partner up for success as your lover. The key, however, is to avoid any sense that your “asks” are veiled (or not so veiled) “demands,” since the joy of loving only comes when it is offered as a gift.
The final level of intimate relationship, “claiming,” typically shows up as a visceral, passionate, take-no-prisoners declaration – expressed verbally, energetically, and through bold acts:
You are mine, fully mine, no matter what.
Our longing to be claimed is inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.
Needless to say, claiming is an aspect of relationship that lends itself to abuse through domination and control. But if I am are right in assuming that it is a deeply engrained, human longing, the appropriate response – faced with these risks – is not to avoid claiming but to manage it with maturity and wisdom.
Being more fully aware of these different dimensions of love expands our view of what is possible. It also allows us to better name our varying skills – his at claiming; hers at sharing; his at listening; hers at being loved. Doing so, we are better able to see our partner, not as an adversary – to be challenged when he fails to do what we do so instinctually and well – but as a teacher who brings his own special aptitudes and skills to the relationship. And with this growing awareness, we increasingly become partners in creating a relationship that nourishes and soothes both partners’ deepest needs and longings.