By Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D.
One of the most common complaints I hear from people is a sense of disconnection from the important people in their lives, namely between couples. Left untended over time, simple disconnectedness can turn much more insidious in a relationship. So, why do people have such a difficult time staying connected to each other? Because close relationships are complicated, and because they demand mindfulness and work to maintain. Understanding closeness means understanding our own vulnerability. The closer and more important the relationship, the more vulnerable we can feel. Closeness can feel good, but it also triggers the uncertainties of the dependencies we experienced during infancy. This can set in motion unconscious forces within us that cause us to act in ways that end up destabilizing our relationships rather than making them safer for ourselves. Or course we think of ourselves as wanting adult, reciprocal relationships, but we also consciously or unconsciously want our mates to take care of us. When we aren’t certain that we can get what we want or need, we may react defensively. It is kind of like our unconscious is saying, “Since I’m not sure I can depend on you to take care of me, I’m going to make you think I don’t need you or want you in the first place.” In couples, this can take the form of anger, hostile, sarcastic humor, or withdrawal. Such defensiveness can be rooted in shyness, a less open personality, and/or a basic fear of rejection, the end result is that these behaviors tend to create distance rather than close the gap.
There needs to be mutuality in any healthy relationship, and just doing your part will not make up deficits coming from both of you. However, the only thing any of us really has control over is ourselves. We all want our relationships to be positive experiences, but we only have fifty percent control over that outcome. Your mate probably wants the same thing that you want. Since we all have to start somewhere, why not stop concentrating on what you aren’t getting, and start spending some time thinking about what you could be giving better. Try thinking about what kind of environment you are providing for your partner. You can start by considering some of the following dynamics.
Everyone wants to feel unconditional acceptance from their mate. This means not only a level of commitment that is understood by your partner, but also that you take them as a whole. Communicating to a person that they are too emotional, too sensitive, or too analytic, for example, tells them that there are parts of them that are not okay. Anyone who feels he or she has to edit themselves for your approval or acceptance will never feel as emotionally safe or be a close to you as he or she could.
Some concordance of values, interests, and goals is also important for establishing closeness. This doesn’t meant that all your hobbies and interests have to match up, but it is important to feel like the two of you are somewhat alike and that there are parts of you in each other that you can identify with. Expressing in some way, “I feel that way too sometimes,” makes the listener feel normal and accepted.
Other crucial elements are honesty, caring and respect. These traits let a person know that you are someone they can depend upon. This does not mean that you are not allowed to have any secrets or privacy. Respect does not mean stiff formality. What it does mean is that you treat that person like a full human being and accord them dignity they deserve.
Building closeness means that you share some amount of your time with a person. It sounds simple, but with the busy lives most of us lead, it becomes increasingly difficult to share time with a significant other, one on one, in a way that lets them know that they are your focus. When is the last time that you spent at least twenty minutes actually listening to your mate, letting them set the agenda, with you concentrating on them? One of the things I notice over and over in my therapy practice is how little time my patients get of someone important to them just listening to them. Husbands, wives, parents, and children spend time together only while multi-tasking. The television is on, someone is in front of a computer monitor or a video game, cell phone are ringing, babies are clamoring, we are harried about going from one task to another and “getting everything done.” Twenty minutes a day fully devoted to someone important is a much more worthwhile investment than flipping channels or surfing the internet.
Finally, closeness becomes more possible when we give recognition to our partner in a way that is meaningful to them. Just because you don’t put a lot of stock in birthdays doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out of your way to celebrate your spouse’s if that is what is important to him or her. Even if you may not like to interrupt your work schedule to make a phone call, it could be a productive use or your time because your partner feels valued when you “check in.” The bottom line is that if you dismiss or discount a form of communication or acknowledgement that has meaning to your spouse, you are actually doing yourself and your relationship a disservice. When you give a gift, you are supposed to pick out something the other person would like, not what you would want. It is then same with day-today transactions between the two of you.
Remember: real love, friendship and closeness is a two-way street. You shouldn’t have to give it for too long without getting some back, but you certainly shouldn’t expect to get it if you are willing to take the risks to really give it in the first place.
Dr. Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Louisville, providing psychotherapy and other services for adults, adolescents, and couples. She can be reached at 412-2226 or at KABerla@aol.com.