When you get past the “honeymoon” stage of a relationship and start acting on who you really are, what you really want and believe, you are likely to end up in conflict with your partner. If the relationship already feels poised on a knife-edge this can feel like taking unnecessary risks, pouring fuel on the flames. But the kinds of conflict that you have when you are successfully holding onto yourself are a healthy form of engagement – which is exactly what most relationships in trouble need.
Usually, when a relationship is distressed, couples avoid true engagement, letting their insecurities and self-protective behaviour (dominate, submit, withdraw) control their behaviour. We have disengaged exchanges and/or ritualised combat where neither is really listening or connected to the other. We might anxiously appease our partner and kid ourselves that we are being nice, considerate, or respectful. We might anxiously override or stonewall our partner and kid ourselves that we are standing up for ourselves. But no growth comes from this kind of interaction and its futility strengthens our frustration and despair.
In contrast, if I:
- Settle myself down, manage my insecurities & defenses well and
- say what’s going on for me, what the issue is about for me and
- this provokes a strong response in my partner about what s/he thinks and feels and yet
- both of us manage to settle ourselves down (“hold onto ourselves”) enough to allow the other person to be themselves and
- we keep taking in what the other is saying…
then all of a sudden we are having a real, engaged conversation about things that matter to us. Even if what we are talking about is apparently negative (like someone thinking they have to leave the relationship), for most couples this is a huge step forward.
If we hang in there with ourselves and stay away from being reactive or defensive, we are likely to start finding out things about what is and isn’t important to us. If we share that with our partner then all of a sudden we are being intimate.
People often equate intimacy with closeness and assume it has to feel good. But intimacy makes you vulnerable, which is never a comfortable feeling, and is often awkward, embarrassing, scary, or painful. Intimacy is learning about yourself in the presence of another (“into-me-see”). It is more likely to happen during a healthy conflict than during a cuddle.
Understanding that conflict can be a healthy form of engagement that facilitates intimacy helps decrease anxiety and liberates us to take more risks in our relationship at times when courage is most needed.