Lessons of Lifelong Intimacy
Chapter 1 The Intimate Separateness Paradigm
A BALANCE OF INTIMACY AND SEPARATENESS CREATES A HAPPY MARRIAGE
Angela, forty-five, and Harry, forty-seven, came to see me about their son Mark, twelve. As they told me about Mark’s issues I found the couple to be friendly and forthright but distressed. Mark had been evaluated for ADHD and anxiety, and the specialist concluded: “I don’t think he has ADD/ADHD and I don’t think he has a clinical condition on the anxiety issues that needs medication right now, but let’s watch this. He is definitely more anxious that his siblings.” Given that Angela’s father and Angela herself had both been treated for anxiety, Angela and Harry knew that this vulnerability fit with the family genetics.
My first session with the couple—which mainly involved discussions about Mark—revealed that this was a family of high performers. Angela had a master’s degree in history and now worked in the software world. “As a woman and a black woman,” she said, “there is a lot of pressure. I want to model to my kids how strong a black woman can be.” Harry was clearly very proud of her accomplishments. He said, “Angela is a dynamo. Nothing holds her back.”
Harry was an engineer in fiber optics. He traveled for his work more than Angela did, but also confessed to enjoying being home more now than before—his company had moved its headquarters to another city, but allowed him to remain in town and work remotely for most of the week. Angela complimented Harry, mentioning that Harry wouldn’t admit it, but as a black man there was also a lot of pressure on him as a father and husband.
“But we’re not here about either of us or our marriage,” Angela said, “we’re here about Mark.” She reported that they had a younger son and a daughter older than Mark, and all three siblings were doing pretty well, but Mark had begun, over the last couple years, to fight with both his younger brother and, especially, with Angela. “I don’t know if it’s just his anxiety, or what,” Harry agreed, “but something’s getting worse and worse in the family. Mark’s sucking everyone down into his moods. It’s creating issues for me and Angie.” Angela summed up the situation this way: “What’s going on between Mark and his younger brother could just be sibling rivalry, you know, Mark wanting my attention, all that; but what’s going on with Mark and me is crossing the line. He’s screaming at me, always angry at me, and . . . well . . . sometimes . . . acting kind of like his dad.”
In this comment emerged a new topic of conversation, a topic appearing as a thin seam of light under an important doorway. Harry, as one would expect, responded defensively. “Now wait a minute, I don’t scream at you, I’m not a rager, don’t go in that direction; I just get angry, and I get intense.” Angela admitted he didn’t rage, but now, as the discussion continued, his anger became a topic, so much so that Harry did ultimately admit that he had been getting more irritated over the last year at both his son Mark and his wife, Angela.
This admission meant a great deal to Angela. “Now,” she suggested, “we can get to the heart of what’s going on.” She confessed that she was worried for the couple’s marriage, worried that Harry would just keep getting angrier and make the marriage untenable. Harry said to Angela in response, “I get angry, dammit, because of what’s going on with you. You and Mark both make me the bad guy all the time. If you’re at work or not around, Mark and I are great together and there’s
no tension in the family. I tell him, ‘Look, life’s gonna knock you down harder than I ever can, so you need resilience and accountability, not overprotection.’ I’m hard on him that way, but he gets it. Then you come home and you and Mark get all weird together, and I try to get some boundaries set again, and I’m the bad guy! You even make me the bad guy right now, saying I’m gonna ruin our marriage. It’s not right!”
Angela sat silently for a minute with that comment. Then all of us remained silent, looking into the possibility that our counseling might move toward other rooms of this family’s house than Mark’s.
After this brief silence, Angela made a courageous admission: “Yes, Harry has become the bad guy.” She agreed that she did know from talking to all three children that when she wasn’t home, things were calmer. This admission, like the whole conversation thus far, raised my antennae not only regarding Mark but also the bond between Angela and Harry. I saw a pattern I see in many couples, one that creates a lead-in for the concepts and benefits of the intimate separateness paradigm.
Separateness and the Psychology of Attachment
To understand intimate separateness as a working paradigm for your relationships, it is important to begin the process (one I will support with new insights and strategies throughout this book) of “mind-expanding” about love. This new thinking is especially needed in our era because, if you read popular-culture offerings on relationships, marriage, and love, you may notice that books, programs, magazine articles, and TV shows often tend to look at the “intimacy” side of relationships with an eye toward teaching better communication and conflict skills that directly increase intimacy. While this is invaluable and essential work, and while the book you are reading could not have been written without all the previous work done on intimacy and attachment in the field, you do not tend to hear the word “separateness” used nearly as much as the word “intimacy.” This lack is killing
our marriages. “Separateness” is, as we’ll show in this chapter, at least one-half or more of attachment and intimacy. In working as a culture to give people tips for feeling more intimate with one another in the short term, we have neglected to discuss the other half of attachment; this other half needs to be activated at some time before the two-year mark of a bond and kept active through the couple’s life together. It is the second part of the intimate-separateness paradigm, the one we tend to know the least about.
Attachment Theory and Intimate Separateness
If you are a parent and haven’t yet run across attachment theory in your exploration of your adult/relational love, you will have undoubtedly come across it in books about raising your children. Mary Ainsworth, Margaret Mahler, Louise Kaplan, John Bowlby, T. Berry Brazelton, Melanie Klein, and others have taught us that humans attach to people we love by bonding intimately with our “bonding-object” (our child) while the child goes through all the stages of the parent-child pair-bond with us (and we with him or her), including the other half of attachment—when the child compels us gradually into the separateness required for successful adult life. As attachment pioneer Louise Kaplan, author of Oneness and Separateness, notes, both oneness and separateness equally, not one or the other, collaborate to give the growing individual child “rein to discover his (her) place in the world.” With oneness alone, the child will be psychologically engulfed and can’t develop well; with separateness alone, the child will be neglected and also, thus, undeveloped. From the healthy experience of both oneness and separateness come the resilience and passion to be an individual in the world who can find happiness and success while retaining the family love and connection that give security and unconditional love.
Try to recall how this relates to your experiences with your own children or in your own childhood. If you do not have children, remember as far back as you can to your bond with your mother or father. If you have children, remember your infant’s utter connection
to you, then recall the terrible twos, when the child separated from you psychologically to explore the world and begin developing a self. Recall adolescent-parent relationships—how the child separated even further from you.
Many parents come to realize—sometimes, unfortunately, not until children are grown—that if, in a child’s childhood or adolescence, one or both parents “hold on too tight” (remain too close), they may lose the child’s respect, love, and attention—the child may even come to “hate” the parents. At the same time, in the parent-adolescent attachment, if parents pull too far away from the toddler or adolescent—if they don’t provide adequate presence and connection with the child—that young adult may be traumatized by the neglect, get into moral and behavioral trouble, and even, perhaps, become so distant as to rarely speak to his or her parents again later in life.
The Science of Pair-Bond Attachment in a Nutshell
Contemporary science of the human brain has taken the early work of attachment theorists to new places, opening up even deeper possibilities for people in marriage and coupled relationships to understand what the heck is going on when we love as adults. Without this new science, I would not have been able to develop the intimate-separateness paradigm. Research now shows us that on both sides of the attachment equation, what happens between parents and children also happens in adult pair-bonds. If I work seventy hours a week and become much too distant from my soul mate, I will lose that mate; also (here is the hidden secret of love), if I push to be too intimate with my soul mate’s psyche, I will, like a parent with a child, engulf him or her, become too entangled, lose my soul mate’s unconditional love and respect, and never quite know why.
Neuroscientists Daniel Amen, Daniel Siegel, Tracey Shors, Helen Fisher, Shelley Taylor, and Allan Schore, among many others, have used brain scans and biochemical analysis to watch bonding, separation, and stress-reaction patterns in the human brain as it navigates human attachment in both childhood and adulthood. These scientists
have discovered that the reason adult pair-bonds mirror parent-child attachment lies in:
1. the limbic brain (our midbrain, which handles our emotions and senses at their most basic, instinctive levels)
2. our biochemical reactions, such as the processing of dopamine in the brain
3. the cerebral cortex (the thinking, talking, and imaginative parts of the brain that wrap around the limbic system)
4. the brain stem (the control system that maintains physiological measures such as blood pressure and body temperature)
Scientists have discovered that the brain and body in love with a soul mate so mimics parent-child attachment that when a person in the pair-bond feels “impinged” (i.e., our partner is getting too psychologically close to us, trying to control us, trying to “get in our heads,” trying to entangle his or her self with ours, trying to get us to talk about feelings all the time), our anxieties and angers (in blood flow in the brain, biochemical arrays, and physical and nervous sensation) get triggered in the same way a child’s does when a parent will not allow healthy separateness during the terrible twos or during adolescence. Our adult brain responds to our lover’s impingement by self-protecting: stimulating us to try to pull away emotionally from the impinging party and move to the periphery of emotional life and drama in order to regroup and protect the self.
Similarly, our brains mirror parent-child attachment when we feel “rejected” by our lover (i.e., our partner isn’t paying healthy attention to us, devalues us through neglect and abandonment)—we feel too distant or “far away” from our lover (feeling like we are “falling out of love”). This is also tracked in the brain and bloodstream. We get emotionally triggered toward anxiety, even depression, and now we may try to get rid of this fear and pain by trying, again, to become closer and closer emotionally to our partner, trying to more constantly engage our partner, whether overtly or through passive-aggressive means. We might feel or say, “We’re too far away. We need to rekindle
our intimacy. I’m worried about us. I don’t feel loved.” The pain of not getting enough intimacy is felt acutely, and it can be insatiable.
Our limbic brain (the “paralimbic system”) in the middle of our heads is triggering a replay of parent-child attachment patterns in brain and bloodstream in either case, whether we get too little closeness for psychological health or too much. Fortunately, we adults-in-love carry within us a source of power in the cerebral cortex, especially the orbito-frontal, prefrontal, and frontal lobes that we did not have when we were little children: We can take control of the attachment dynamic in modern love. We can make the choice to learn the balance of oneness and separateness our particular marriage needs. We can choose to incorporate a balanced intimate-separateness paradigm in our marriage.
We can choose to balance intimacy and separateness more quickly than parents and children often do—some children take twenty or so years after adolescence is over to discover a healthy balance of intimacy and separateness with parents, and some parent-child adult pairs never do find a balance, constantly stuck in tension with one another. We lovers need to choose to use the intimate-separateness paradigm as soon as possible in our love relationship if it is to thrive. By doing so, we will be best protecting long-term attachment. If we do the work of understanding and incorporating this quickly, we can discover and practice the secret of loving attachment before our personal issues become rancorous. We can rescue our love from both too much distance and too much closeness before the deficiencies of either one do our love irreparable harm.
THE WONDER OF SEPARATENESS
Recognizing and then mastering the pull of the self to be both intimate and separate is the most subtle kind of psychological work we do as adults. It is intriguing for me to be a part of this dance
with patients because it represents the essence of the unconscious internal experience people are having while they are living their everyday lives in a relationship. This is true in all relationships, by the way. We are doing this two-sided attachment not just in the bedroom or in the home, with children, lovers, and spouses, but we are doing it also with colleagues in workplaces, with friends, with elderly parents, with leaders and other countries. We just don’t realize it. We are all in a constant state of wanting to be intimately connected while also needing to be separate, self-contained, and free.
—Adie Goldberg, MEd, MSW, coauthor of It’s a Baby Girl! and It’s a Baby Boy!
The Angry Partner and the Anxious Partner
Throughout this book, I will do with you as I do with clients—guide you in becoming a “love-scientist” who can become increasingly able to study your relationships with tracking mechanisms in place for recognizing primal, limbic brain patterns in the emotional character of your self-development and the emotional mechanisms of your pair-bond with your partner. As you engage in this process, you may notice that tracking the intimacy part of your marriage or love relationship is often easier than tracking the separateness part. One reason for this lies in the culture around us: our media constantly urge us to look for greater intimacy (every day a new “emotional diet plan” comes out in a magazine that promises to help us be more intimate). This popular approach can work decently in the short term, but we also need tracking mechanisms for understanding the other half of attachment. We have to become good at answering the question, “Okay, I get that intimacy is crucial to love, but now tell me: What would healthy separateness feel like for me and my mate?”
The first major tracking tool I want to share with you in this book is captured in the title of this section and in the example of Angela and Harry. While in all cases of marital distress both partners feel both anxiety and anger at various times, most couples also tend to “divide the emotional labor” into ways they express their distress. One partner often tends toward overtly showing more anxiety (rumination, worry, verbalizations/requests regarding intimacy, or the verbal or nonverbal need to be reassured that the intimacy felt in the relationship is just fine). The other partner may tend to show more overt anger (harsh tone, abrupt sentences, angry facial cues, harsh boundary setting that can push away the anxious partner). The more verbally inclined “worrier” may indeed be quite angry internally while the more overtly harsh or angry partner may be quite worried (anger is often a form of crying), as was the case with Angela, who ruminated and worried, and Harry, who was more harsh and set more abrupt boundaries.
Please take a moment to look into your relationship and answer these two questions:
¦ Is one of us ruminating more and thus getting more overtly anxious as the months and years pass (worrying more overtly, talking more about what’s wrong)?
¦ Is one of us getting angrier (losing temper more or becoming more irritable)?
If you are both doing both equally, then note that observation in your journal or your mind, as well. Usually, however, you’ll see at least a sixty-forty split in the behaviors and internal experiences.
The angry partner (often the male but certainly not always) is frequently easiest to spot, and so becomes the more outwardly culpable in our present marital approach to intimacy issues. In fact, because of this pattern in American relationships especially, the first half of this book mainly features couples in which the husband (male) tends to be the angry (and/or emotionally withdrawn) partner at the time of presentation (when I meet the couple). In Part II, I introduce couples
who fit other patterns, including the angrier woman and the more passive or overtly ruminating and emotional man.
One reason I believe it is important to study carefully the male-is-angry-and-withdrawn/female-is-anxious-and-worrying trend is because research at the University of Washington and elsewhere has corroborated that men tend to present or be presented in therapy, by their wives, as the more angry partner. The woman in heterosexual couples and the more feminine partner in homosexual couples more often presents, initially at least, as carrying more of the overt anxiety in the relationship. We need to look at this carefully and peel back the presenting anger/anxiety pattern—a secret hides behind it. As you read this material, rest assured that I know I am generalizing based on the research; if your situation fits “angry woman” and “anxious man,” please alter this material to fit your situation. But no matter which partner is predominantly angrier and which partner is predominantly more anxious, the analysis of intimacy and separateness applies.
With Angela and Harry, the man was the more obviously angry partner. Because of this, a previous therapist had focused mainly on helping Harry to curtail his anger. This therapeutic approach can make sense in the short term; especially when a man with a loud voice and somewhat scarier approach to nurturance of families is the “angry partner,” a couple’s therapy tends to focus on him. As John Gottman’s “Love Labs” (a marriage laboratory) at the University of Washington have shown, if a man constantly and angrily criticizes his wife or partner for prolonged periods, the couple is likely to divorce. (Throughout this book we will continue to look at how to help men and women curtail their anger.)
Simultaneously, what partners often miss is that attached couples naturally tend to divide emotional labor between themselves—this happens unconsciously, in our limbic brain: one partner often shows more anxiety and one tends to show more anger—and if the marriage is under stress, this division of labor can point to a lack of the intimate-separateness paradigm. When I see the anger/anxious pattern with clients, I immediately think, “Okay, this is natural to these personalities but, also, is there a deeper reason the psychological labor is being
divided—that is, is there the hidden stressor in this attachment, the lack of a balance of intimacy and separateness, that both people are reacting to, even though in their different ways?”
This questioning becomes even more specific as I try to explore the sources of the anger. In helping the couple, I am asking, “What is behind that male (or female, if the angry partner is female) anger?” Men are basically protective and caring people; they are fundamentally well-attached, empathic, compassionate, and loving, so if a man is constantly angry at and pushing away his spouse, we need to try to figure out why. In the case of Angela and Harry, Angela’s anxiety was as causative of marital distress as was Harry’s anger. Here, now, is another counterintuitive insight (especially in the context of contemporary relationship culture, which focuses so heavily on male anger): while concentrating on male (or female) anger is worthy and essential (and as you’ll see below, we don’t let Harry off the hook), we often miss the fact that the wife’s surges of rumination and anxiety may be stimulating protective male anger and boundary-setting, which is actually quite healthy and crucial to the marriage’s survival, rather than destructive. The destruction will happen in the marriage if the husband’s anger is not understood and “mined” for all its potential gold.
The Clue to a Subtle Collaboration
When one person is worrying a lot and the other is angry a lot, they are actually collaborating to try to solve a marital problem. The way two loving people will collaborate (unconsciously) during marital distress generally depends on elements in all three selves: sources in nature, nurture, and culture. As you’ll see in a moment, Angela’s worrying and anxiety came from at least these three sources in herself as she collaborated with Harry in the relationship distress:
1. The anxious partner, in this case Angela, is often genetically prone to anxiety via an increase of brain activity in certain brain centers, such as the cingulate gyrus (an attention/rumination center in the brain) and left side of the amygdala
(a stress-response center in the brain). These genetic tendencies come with a person’s genome at conception, are formatted in utero via DNA to RNA transfer, and, thus, enter the personality or “self” before birth.
2. The anxious partner may have been nurtured in childhood in such a way that she developed an increased tendency toward worry, rumination, and anxiety in later life. She may have been cultivated in this direction by one or more anxious parents or caregivers; and/or she suffered traumas early in life that increased anxiety functioning in the brain.
3. The anxious partner’s present culture, environment, and lifestyle may create conditions that increase anxiety (alcohol, drug abuse, or another toxin) and/or she may have bought into a gender stereotype, in which a woman is supposed to be the more passive, anxious, worrying partner so that her spouse can “take care of her.” This buy-in can be quite unconscious, of course, and operative even in a very “strong” personality—one in which a woman is powerful in her workplace and even her marriage and family life, yet can trigger an anxious approach to love via environment, lifestyle, or cultural imprinting.
For his part, and for similar, different, and complementary reasons in nature, nurture, and culture, the partner in Harry’s position (not always the male, of course, but we will use the male pronoun here) may become more “fight or flight” in his approach, less prone to anxious, verbal rumination, and more prone to quick bursts of anger, territory or boundary setting, and paternal nurturance. (I’ll explore genetically constructed male/female brain differences in more depth in Chapter 3.) He may be more overtly loud when relational boundaries are not adhered to (as Harry was with the adolescent son, Mark).
In the case of Angela and Harry, both felt anxious and both at times felt angry, and both had strong personalities, but Harry became
the “bad guy” (more overt anger, more obvious boundary setting) and Angela became more anxious (more ruminating, more verbally worried), the “victim.” This couple was very lucky that their son Mark’s anxieties entered the couple’s marriage. Mark’s issues uncovered a host of conflicts in the adult world, which had gone unnoticed until Angela and Harry became entrenched in a difficult attachment pattern of anxiety/anger around their son. Because of Mark, the couple came to a critical moment in their ability to bond for life, and they decided to work deeply on reframing that ability, asserting emotional choice-making in new ways, and evolving their attachment into new stages of marriage. They decided especially to study how to use the intimate-separateness paradigm, including, initially, understanding more about the importance of emotional separateness than they ever had before.
We Are Much Too Close but Don’t Realize It
The secret Angela and Harry learned was that both of them, like so many couples, were much too close, too intimate for their love to flourish. Their process of becoming too close had happened, they learned in therapy, in these three steps.
Step 1: While both Angela and Harry felt some marital discomfort, one partner (Angela) felt it more constantly, and in response, she kept trying to get closer and closer emotionally to the other partner, Harry, and to the son Mark. More intimacy (more talking about feelings, more emotional and sensorial connection) was her unconscious solution to issues; she pressed harder and harder for it, immersing herself in her husband’s and son’s ways of being, trying to alter and move both husband and son toward greater closeness with her.
Step 2: Without anyone realizing it, Harry and Mark responded by instituting more boundaries, more territorial markers, more distance as Angela pressed them anxiously for more closeness. These boundaries had the opposite effect of what Angela wanted. She wanted to increase intimacy and closeness, but instead, as her husband and son
held their boundaries somewhat angrily, she felt even more pushed away, left out, abandoned. As she got more anger from father and son over months (even a year or more), she felt what I have come to call intimacy anxiety—nervousness, fear, and anxiousness about the decreasing intimacy, which creates a desperation for more closeness and intimacy.
Almost all of this happened unconsciously; remember, there was nothing “wrong” with what Angela did or felt—she was following her own nature, nurture, and culture instincts—but in her heightened state of stress and anxiety, absent an understanding of the intimate-separateness paradigm, she misread the signals of her partner and child, and she saw their separateness as a relationship killer. She did not understand how her intimacy anxiety was negatively affecting her relationships, as she constantly begged husband and son to please “open up to me,” “tell me what’s going on,” “let me in.”
This went on for Angela, Harry, and Mark for just under a year. For other couples and families, it can go on for many years. My research shows that if this goes on for a year or more, the family relationships enter at least a low-grade state of crisis in which the worrier will feel almost constantly anxious about the attachments in her life—she’ll be worried they will end.
Step 3: Angela’s partner and son met her constant anxiety and pleadings to be let into their emotional selves by becoming even angrier. Harry and Mark ratcheted up their boundary setting and their development of “separateness” (separated, independent selves). They both asserted to Angela (mostly unconsciously, through anger) that from now on they would not increase emotional vulnerability and thus become enmeshed and engulfed in Mom’s anxious needs.
A key point to make here (something often missed in our popular-psychology culture) is that, just as Mom’s approach was not wrong, neither was Dad’s or son’s. Harry (unconsciously) chose his angry course for many of his own personal permutations of the nature, nurture, and culture. He did what he had to do in order to both repair the pair-bond issues he faced with his wife and raise his son in the way he felt a father should most helpfully do. He became entrenched in pursuing separateness
as much as Angela was entrenched in pushing for intimacy.
The end result was at least one marital year of a very tense situation in which Angela wanted more intimacy, Harry wanted more separateness, and they both scared each other constantly with these demands. Both partners at times switched approaches, of course—Harry becoming overtly anxious and worrying aloud and Angela becoming angry and harsh, but in general, the division of emotional labor occurred in their marital collaboration; gradually, both partners began looking for options by which to end the constant tension. Fortunately this need brought them into therapy, even though they initially thought that the only issue in their family was their son’s anxiety.
What I’ve learned is that healthy separateness protects me from getting sucked into my partner’s deepest fears. I am still sympathetic and loving, but I don’t get pulled down there into that darkness with all those other demons.
I didn’t used to be able to stay solid and separate. I used to think if we love each other, we should share every demon, every fear, you know, but I have my own fears to deal with. In my first marriage, I became the woman who got so wrapped up in my husband’s feelings and pains that I took them into myself as my own demons. Then, I had both his and my own demons to carry. We couldn’t survive that.
I’m with a new partner now, and we are very close, but we don’t get sucked in. This is a second marriage for both of us, and we learned some things. We made some agreements. If I have any advice for people about this, it’s to make sure to become happy and separate before your heart gets broken by your partner’s fears and terrors. And I can promise you, they will break you if you let them.
—Rita Maria, 39
Part of my job as a marriage counselor was to help Angela and Harry understand their invisible marital collaboration of anger and anxiety. In that invisible tension, the natural separateness tugs of a man and a son had triggered significant anxiety in the woman and mother, but no one realized it. In showing the couple this invisible world and its tensions, I had to do something that is very difficult for anyone who provides therapy to do: I had to say, “It is very possible that Harry’s anger is something of a stressor, but also that Angela’s anxiety is a far greater stressor than you realize.” Saying this was complex for a number of reasons, all of which show the difficulty of understanding love in our era.
Previous therapy had targeted Harry as the person who did not know how to be intimate, so it took some time to convince Angela that the “male” approach to emotion she distrusted was just as valuable as her own. In fact, Chapter 3 of this book, which compares the limbic brains of males and females, shows male and female distinct approaches to power struggles in marriage; without the gender science, PET scans, SPECT scans, and biochemical research to back me up, Angela would not initially believe that her approach to intimacy was actually a major cause of her marital distress.
Thankfully, Angela did ultimately open her awareness to it. She did come to embrace this approach, and Harry made necessary changes as well so the relationship could find a good balance going forward.
An Invisible World
In order to be both honest about and empathic with Angela’s position, we looked closely at how love can’t grow and evolve without understanding the paradigm behind the emotionally collaborative patterns and triggers this couple experienced. We explored how neither Angela’s nor Harry’s unconscious instincts toward anger and anxiety were wrong, because they are both instinctual—wired into the two brains. As I worked with this couple, I confessed that part of my job was to help them increase not only their emotional intelligence but also their marital intelligence: their ability to study the emotional and attachment
instincts each brought to the marriage and to work with them, not against them, so that they could incorporate a balanced intimate-separateness paradigm in their marital work and life going forward. Indeed, we agreed in therapy that it was a good thing that Angela was anxious and Harry was angry. If not for these reactions, the couple might never grow, evolve, or stay married.
To go into this with the couple, I introduced them to the attachment specialists we mentioned earlier—John Bowlby, Allan Schore, Louise Kaplan, and others. We discussed how attachment cycles of “oneness” (intimacy) and “separateness” (separate self) are initially wired into our limbic systems, central nervous systems, and neocortex in utero (through genetic influences before we are born). Angela and Harry were particularly moved by a “bottom line” in this research that was captured by renowned attachment specialist John Bowlby in theory, then proven by neuroscientists such as Allan Schore, who study the brain via neural scans. In both theory and practice, scientists have discovered that adaptive attachment behavior is hardwired into our interpersonal neurobiology—it is wired into us. Thus, we are living in attachment patterns that both cower and revel in the midbrain areas of adaptive instinct so deeply rooted in us that we cannot turn some switch on and off (we cannot utter magic words) in order to fully survive, thrive, communicate, collaborate, grow, adapt, and love. Instead, we unconsciously collaborate with our partners in instinctive attachment patterns far more common in contemporary pair-bonds than we may realize. If we can increase our marital intelligence about them, as Angela and Harry did, we can quite literally change our own worlds of love and give us access to new (and age-old) paradigms for making love last.
Increasing Your Marital Intelligence with a New Lens
Look into your relational microscope. Do you see anger or anxiety collaboration in your marriage? Get the help you need to look at your
love-relationship patterns. Look for patterns that have lasted for six months to a year or more. As you see the patterns, you will increase your marital intelligence. You’ll perhaps say, “Wow, look at that: we’ve been doing that for a year now; it was a reflection of instinct, a pattern, and there must be wisdom in it for us. Let’s see it as positive, let’s plumb the depths of it, and let’s come back up and out of the pain of this with a new way of relating.” If you choose this course, you will most likely be ready to take a next step in your love relationship: you will need to study a root pattern of your marital relationship: the enmeshment/abandonment cycle.
The anger/anxiety collaboration in the marriage between Angela and Harry was a clue to this deeper way in which these two people had become “too close.”
The Enmeshment/Abandonment Cycle
Angela and Harry were dangerously “close” to one another in that they were psychologically enmeshed. In enmeshment, two people become entangled in one another’s emotions; they become so entangled psychologically that their personal boundaries become unclear, porous, and permeable. Generally, this psychological state feels uncomfortable for one person more quickly than for the other and triggers survival instincts—a “pulling away” from the emotional entanglement. Meanwhile, to the other partner, the pulling away can feel like abandonment, which is very frightening. Thus, in this cycle, the two selves are, in other words, so intertwined that they become oppressive psychologically to one another’s individual growth, but when they try to pull apart, a deep fear of abandonment arises in at least one partner. Enmeshment and abandonment are, thus, two sides of the same coin.
Though it involved a woman (she unconsciously pushing toward more emotional enmeshment) and a man (he unconsciously pushing for more distancing and emotional abandonment), this “oppression” in Angela’s and Harry’s marriage was not “power oppression,” the kind of enslavement we are most familiar with in feminist theory, academic
research, and popular culture—a subjugation that is about one gender trying to make the other inferior in order to feel ascendant. The psychological oppression of too much closeness in enmeshment cycles is not generally about economic or social power per se but, rather, about psychological safety: without the feeling of safety and security in marriage, two individuals cannot have long-lasting love.
In our contemporary marriages, the loss of that safety from psychological enmeshment happens constantly, but we don’t realize it. We focus on loss of romance, or angry males (or females), and on gender oppressions. These are important ideas about love, but we don’t realize how much of the distress in marriages has to do with the invisible world, the human unconscious (limbic brain) in which enmeshment is felt by one partner and abandonment is felt acutely by the other.
In a sense, the fact that we can see and focus on this cycle—and the need for the intimate-separateness paradigm in the face of it—is a gift of cultural and marital evolution. In marriage today, we have taken most of the “culture” out of love by giving couples relative freedom from the older economic, gender, and cultural necessities for marriage; from religious pressures to stay married; from physical survival needs for marriage; and from social norms against divorce. It is logical that we now must stay together because our love is strong, not for any other reason per se. And many of us do stay together for love. But for the vast majority of us (myself included), it is not possible to stay together for love beyond four, or seven, or ten years unless we notice that along with love’s primacy in long-term marriage comes the natural dark side of being in love. This dark side involves complex feelings of enmeshment at some times and of abandonment at other times. With love comes “being too close, too dependent, too much in love” and “being too distant, feeling rejected, feeling abandoned.” In both enmeshment and abandonment are the hidden feeling of being devalued as a separate self; and in the majority of cases of couple therapy I have been involved in, and in nearly every case I have read about (these number in the thousands), it involves the fear of abandonment and the fear of enmeshment. These fears (two sides of the same coin) occur often in modern love.
The Fear of Abandonment
See if you sense the fear of abandonment at work in your own life; this is the fear of losing emotional closeness with a person or system so painfully that you feel, either unconsciously or consciously, that if you lose that closeness forever, you will become somewhat worthless. This fear is not pathological. It is normal and natural because human attachment is fragile—love is fragile. We want and need to be close, not alone; dependent, not unprotected. When we feel abandoned, we act toward increasing intimacy in order to feel better. In other books, especially those based in addiction-recovery research, you may have seen the fear of abandonment show up as “codependency,” and it can be that. At the same time, the fear of abandonment that you will feel many times in your love relationship is most likely not connected to disease, though it can destroy your marriage if it remains unchecked.
In Angela’s case, there was no addiction or other pathology in her fear of abandonment per se, but for many of the nature, nurture, and culture reasons noted above, she was inclined toward heightened rumination, worry, and anxiety. These both caused and were caused by her fear of emotional abandonment by husband and son. I believe that, about a year before I met her, her son’s separation from her (then her husband’s separation reaction to her reaction) most likely triggered her acute intimacy anxiety, compelling her to become a hovering wife and mom.
The Fear of Enmeshment
The fear of enmeshment, also natural to pair-bonding, is the fear of being too emotionally close, boundaryless, entangled with another person’s emotional and psychological structure, and impinged upon by that other person’s psyche so much so that you feel that, if you remain enmeshed, you will become somewhat worthless. For someone who is feeling a prolonged fear of enmeshment, the sense of losing oneself in an unhealthy way shows up as “If I get too close to this person, who I am (my identity as a separate person) will be lost. I will need to adhere to what this
other self says I must be, and I can’t do that if I am to be most helpful to others or to myself.”
The person for whom a fear of enmeshment can dominate may, especially in a crisis situation, react somewhat contrary to the intimacy drive of his or her partner. Often a person who is defending himself against enmeshment will overtly or covertly be saying, “I do not do well in all that chaos. I have to stay emotionally separate from it so that I and my family will be safe.” He may get so entrenched in this viewpoint that he may, indeed, risk becoming emotionally distant and build a too-separate life from his partner—for instance, by working constantly away from the partner, never coming home for dinner, living at his computer, or taking the other person for granted.
For Harry and Angela, the two instinctual fears began gradually to control the attachment in the marriage, as we described in the three steps earlier. This was immensely hurtful for the whole family, though as often happens in male/female relationships, the male hurt manifested in behaviors of harshness, masking, defensive independence, distancing, and anger while the female hurt manifested in emotional language, obvious intimacy anxiety, more rumination, and overt sadness.
No-Fault Cycles and Rumination Distress
I cannot say this enough: in the vast majority of cases, this enmeshment/abandonment cycle within a marriage is not either party’s fault, nor is it mainly about cultural oppression from the outside. It is, in most cases, an attachment issue; it needs to be understood as an integral part of the couple’s evolution of love, so that it does not destroy that marriage. It is often set in motion by either a gradually increasing abandonment or a gradually increasing enmeshment or both; so, as you study it, you might want to look for those features.
For instance, you might find that if you (or your mate) did not adequately separate from a parent during adolescence, you (or your mate) can feel enmeshed by a spouse who tries to get too close now. Or you might have been abandoned by a parent in childhood—in this
case, you may feel abandoned by a spouse now, though that partner may not mean to reject you (as Harry did not mean to reject Angela at a deep level of love).
As we’ll keep exploring in this book, there are thousands of combinations we can see in couples who display the enmeshment/abandonment cycle. There are also many layers of “becoming too close” and “becoming too distant.”
To focus on whether you are gravitating toward the cycle right now, see if there has been, in your relationship, gradually increasing anxiety or anger on one or both of your parts. To focus on that, look at your relationship for a moment by answering these questions:
¦ Am I (or my partner) becoming increasingly anxious about our marriage?
¦ Am I (or my partner) becoming increasingly angry in our marriage?
¦ Do I (or my partner) feel that the other person is becoming too distant, is not intimate enough, is too far away?
¦ Do I (or my partner) feel that the other person is trying constantly to be too close, too “inside my head”?
As Angela and Harry answered these questions, and as we worked together to understand what was happening in the marriage, Angela asked, “Are you saying that Mark and Harry were doing something normal, but I am the one who is at fault for being too anxious? Are you saying that I am ruminating and worrying and trying to get into their heads, and that causes a fear of enmeshment in Harry and Mark so I’m at fault for their fear?”
I responded, “None of this is about blame—for one of you or all of you.” I explained that the abandonment/enmeshment cycle in another marriage might have been triggered by a man’s entering andropause and being constantly angry or by his losing his job and becoming anxious, or anything similar, or by a woman’s entering menopause or losing a job, or by one partner having an affair. In Angela’s marriage, however, it manifested itself after Mark’s school and relational issues arose, and the
couple struggled to cope. “You both were involved in ‘causing’ issues but neither was to blame,’?” I assured Angela. “Remember, this is all a kind of collaboration between spouses. In your particular case, Mark’s, and then Harry’s, methodology got read as abandonment by your emotional system rather than as healthy separation. As you became more anxious about the abandonment, you kept trying to get closer and closer to your husband and son to resolve your anxiety. Mark and Harry both stiffened at your approach. Harry, as your husband, most likely (unconsciously) protected what he considered to be healthy emotional boundaries, but this triggered more anxiety in you, and the cycle got more and more acute. You felt increasing amounts of abandonment, and acted to feel better; Harry felt increasing amounts of enmeshment and entanglement, and acted to put up even stronger emotional boundaries.”
The couple was able to see this, and that vision helped them immensely in their next steps in love, though I kept reminding them that Harry’s boundary setting and anger needed to be adjusted now that the couple understood what was happening. In other words, not just Angela but also Harry had to change. I worked with Harry to be more forgiving of his wife’s anxieties and to feel more sympathy and less anger toward her.
The Bottom Line
However it occurs in a marriage—whatever crisis, if any, triggers an enmeshment/abandonment cycle in a relationship (and it will get triggered at some point in yours, I promise you)—and whoever or whatever initially triggers this dynamic, recognizing it is absolutely essential to moving forward in human love. If we are to save marriages and experience the profound happiness possible in marriage in our new, free world, we will have to see through the anger of one or both partners to a hidden culprit in the marital distress: the enmeshment/abandonment cycle we are now living as we experience our distress. And remember, while Harry and Angela had been married a long time and had multiple children, half of couples experience the enmeshment/abandonment somewhere in the first seven years of marriage.
Please take a moment to answer the four questions again. See if any other or new words or memories are triggered.
¦ Am I (or my partner) becoming increasingly anxious in our marriage?
¦ Am I (or my partner) becoming increasingly angry in our marriage?
¦ Do I (or my partner) feel that the other person is becoming too distant, is not intimate enough, is too far away?
¦ Do I (or my partner) feel that the other person is trying constantly to be too close, too “inside my head”?
I want to reiterate: as you get help with the enmeshment/abandonment cycle from professionals—and throughout this book—and you disentangle yourselves from it, you will be disengaging (as we’ll see Angela and Harry do in a moment). In disengaging, you will be doing something that each couple must do to move forward in the stages of a long-lasting relationship. The word “must” is important—it’s not about “can” or “might,” or even “should”; it is about the survival of long-term love. Here’s the reason: in every stage of our lives and our love relationships, through every storm that comes at us from the outside world, we can flourish and even find lasting happiness if we feel we are living in, or at least quite near, what attachment theory calls a secure base.
Two relational patterns can disrupt that in any couple:
¦ When we become too distant from our partner, we become too distant from our secure base.
¦ When we become too close to one another (constantly trying to control one another, “open one another up,” and/or engage in biting conflict in this enmeshment/abandonment cycle), the secure base is no longer secure.
Nervous about whether we have a secure base or not, we feel what psychological pioneer R. D. Laing called ontological insecurity. The longed-for healthy rhythm of love we need as a couple to survive a
lifetime of difficulties from the outside world, and to thrive as mature adults, will likely not exist for very long anymore. We begin to look toward divorce. So, that is how important dealing with the enmeshment/abandonment cycle is.
Recognizing and Embracing Your Crisis in Attachment
Mining a crisis for all its worth can be crucial. Every event, crisis, or reflection in a marriage can help the couple take steps to strengthen that bond. Even if you are not seeing Angela and Harry’s anxiety/anger in your own marriage, some aspect of enmeshment/abandonment will be there in your past or present relationships, somewhere. Take a moment to think about your own pair-bond (present or past) and search for a major event that may have triggered internal responses, like painful intimacy anxiety or intense boundary protection, such as we’ve described thus far. Some of these events might be:
¦ your wedding (Yes! For some people, the enmeshment/abandonment cycles start on the honeymoon.)
¦ the birth of a first child or the coming of more children
¦ an addiction emerging in one or both of you
¦ financial troubles, loss of a job, recession, or other similar environmental stressor
¦ different maturity development (one person maturing quicker than the other)
¦ loss of a child or significant difficulty affecting a child
¦ change in a person’s physical well-being (serious accident leaving one partner paralyzed)
¦ empty nest
¦ midlife passage
Sometimes the life events or crises that trigger ruminations, worries, fears, and angers are obvious; just as often, they are caused by a less obvious crisis, such as what was happening around Mark. That triggered the couple’s abandonment/enmeshment cycle. And just as often, no crisis or life event triggers it—it just evolves in the relationship unnoticed until, perhaps, too late.
Early in our work together, Angela said, “You know, we didn’t used to be this way. Harry didn’t used to be so angry.” Harry concurred from his viewpoint: “She’s always been kind of high-strung, as Angela will admit, but she didn’t used to be so worried and anxious, especially about me or Mark.” Theirs was likely a marriage intimacy that may have been going along just fine—until the crisis occurred. The vulnerabilities in their personalities remained dormant, then a perfect storm of stressors abruptly changed the couple’s emotional life.
Essential Questions Survey 2: Are You Enmeshed?
Please take a moment to look deeply at your own relationship (as always in these surveys, if you are not in a relationship now, please use a most recent long-term relationship as your template). If you are in a long-term relationship but your partner won’t participate in this survey, you might find it interesting to fill out a second survey for your partner (as if you were him or her). However, watch out about sharing with your partner too much of what you’ve “answered” for him or her! Your partner may feel impinged, engulfed, or enmeshed by your efforts.
Please answer yes or no to each question. Feel free to write in a journal any explanations, stories, and narrative you find helpful.
1. Do I tend to play the victim in my relationship and, thus, mainly blame my partner (either consciously or unconsciously) for my/our troubles in love and marriage?
2. Do I tend to blame myself for our relationship issues, seeing myself as “the problem,” and thus the victim of my own flaws, while my partner is much more “perfect” than I am?
3. Do I tend to play the rescuer in my relationships, seeing myself as the one who knows it all and must save the other person from him- or herself?
4. Do I (or my partner) often become enraged about “little things”?
5. Am I (or my partner) possessive and constantly jealous of the other?
6. Do I and my partner have a major fight (one that I fear can destroy our relationship and/or my own self-esteem) twice a week or more?
7. Do I take things my partner does or says personally (i.e., does she or he hurt my feelings) more than once a week?
8. Do I complain often to my partner (or my friends) that my partner and I are not doing enough activities together?
9. Do I complain often to my partner (or my friends) that my partner and I are not talking together enough of the time?
10. Do I feel that my partner and I are doing too much together, or trying to do too much together—that we talk too much together and that my partner “just can’t be emotionally satisfied?”
Quite often (though not always), playing the victim and/or rescuer is evidence of enmeshment. If you follow this internal script, you have not developed and/or maintained a healthy, separated self with which to be an equal to your partner, and/or you have not developed a healthy self with which to be confident and secure; you want to be rescued by your partner from your own debilitating flaws.
Domestic violence is almost always a revelation of too much intimacy, yet we often think, “No, the abuser and the abused are not close or intimate at all! The abuser sees the abused as an object of power, not as an intimate person. If the abuser were intimate with the
person, he or she would not abuse the victim.” The opposite is often true, though. These two selves are inextricably melded together. This is why the abused person finds it so difficult to leave her or his abuser; the abused person merges with the abuser in complete intimacy, and the abuser merges with the abused person. Domestic violence almost always requires some form of emotional separation if the two people are to be saved and if both people are to remain physically safe.
Similarly, addictive personalities tend to become too close to partners at some points, too far away at others. Like the abused person, the person married to an addict will have to increase his or her separateness in order to flourish. This may not mean divorce, but it will definitely mean more emotional separateness.
Abuse and addiction create obvious ways of seeing enmeshment, and they are also extreme cases. From a statistical standpoint, most enmeshment shows up when a partner constantly wants to do things together, never separately; is possessive of a partner’s time and energy; and believes her or his lover is abandoning that person because of outside interests. Often, these issues graduate into anger/anxiety as two people swing back and forth emotionally between being too close to one another and too far away for at least one of the partner’s sense of a secure base. The couple will replay this pendulum-swinging love (push-pull love) for months, even years, until they feel they must pull apart as independent selves (separate/divorce) in order to survive. When they finally come to the endgame of divorce, they will often say something like, “I just can’t do this anymore, I’m exhausted.” Both partners have become hypervigilant, one predominantly aware of being abandoned and the other conscious of being enmeshed. It is incredibly tiring to be in this attachment crisis situation.
Returning to the Secret
If you are in any kind of difficult marriage right now, for any of the above reasons or for any other reason, and if you feel you are not emotionally fulfilled anymore, I hope you will find a therapist who
can help you look at separateness now as much as intimacy. Ask him or her about enmeshment/abandonment anxieties, how they weave together, and how you and your partner can disentangle yourselves psychologically. Get help in discovering the roots of the enmeshments. Disentangling may mean one person moving into a different bedroom in the house for a period of time. It can also mean making trial-and-error attempts at less radical steps.
Here are the kinds of things Angela and Harry did at a practical level:
1. We discussed together (and they further, at home) the points made in this chapter so that both made the ideas conscious and developed personal and couple language dealing with the concepts of enmeshment and abandonment anxieties. They especially tracked how their anxieties emerged from the crisis with Mark—in other words, how they got so entangled after Mark began having difficulties.
2. They answered the surveys in this book, both the two presented so far and those that follow in later chapters. All the questionnaires are set up to help a couple gradually disentangle and then develop a healthy balance of intimacy and separateness in the face of the enmeshment/abandonment cycle (and other cycles we will explore in later chapters).
3. They explored their survey results and the concepts behind them for as long as it took—until one or both of them experienced an epiphany. They made new commitments that altered the course of their love. They worked at this until they became love-scientists who could study together their own patterns in the marriage.
It was Angela who had the first major epiphany. “Dammit, yes, I see it,” she said one day in session. “I become more anxious and scared,
and Harry becomes more angry and distant. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, but I feel like he’s shoving me away. I feel more like a victim, like my mom was with my dad, and then I get even more anxious. Harry tries to fix this with all his rules and boundaries, and by the way, that makes me angry, too!”
As this kind of self-analysis became the new normal for the couple, they gradually began to say critical things to one another, such as, “I feel impinged, too controlled. I can’t solve that problem for you, sorry.” Or, “It’s too abandoning when you don’t call me from your business trip. I need to know you’re okay.” They built a new language that helped them develop answers to the perennial couples’ question: “How do I/you feel?” with answers such as, “I feel engulfed,” and “I feel abandoned.” This deepened a scientific self-consciousness for both people, and assisted them in dealing with the sources of their feelings.
4. As a couple they consciously tracked—through verbal discussion, written journaling, and therapy and mentoring—the various ways that victim/villain has come to harm their relationship.
Angela, who was more verbally inclined than Harry, said she realized that she had internally decided she was the victim, was not “at fault” for the problems; she had decided (subconsciously) that Harry’s distance, anger, and harshness were at fault: if Harry would just stop being angry, everything would be fine and she would be safe. But as the therapy continued, she realized that anxiety/anger had become the yin/yang in their partnership, each triggering and completing the other, rather than one person being a victim and the other a villain.
5. While they worked on their enmeshment/anxiety cycle, they also worked to solve the presenting crisis.
Angela and Harry developed two separate lists of what should be the new rules they each wanted Mark to follow. Once each parent had written his or her own list, they compared the two and negotiated a
final list. They then proposed this list to Mark and explained the consequences of not meeting their expectations. Over the next number of weeks, as Mark failed to meet expectations, the consequences were immediately meted out by both parents. Angela agreed to “let Mark go to Harry more” (her words)—that is, spend less time with her and spend more time with Harry at soccer games, shopping, working in the yard, playing video games, hiking, and so on.
Not surprisingly, the two mother-son/father-son pattern shifts increased Angela’s anxiety in the short term. She became anxious when Mark failed, made mistakes, and received consequences and punishments from Harry; she also became anxious and felt guilty (“I must be the bad parent”) as she let Harry have more time with Mark and diminished her own time with her son.
In all this, however, one thing helped her immensely: Harry was hardly ever getting angry anymore and, thus, they were fighting much less. “Our marriage is definitely stronger,” Angela told me. “We’re happier and more peaceful as a couple. But I’m still the mom and it’s very hard for me not to get worried for Mark and just want to hold my baby close.”
Angela was, throughout her therapy, an immensely wise and conscious person. She understood that Mark’s growing up, his new growing pains, his natural anxiety (for which, finally, this couple did see a psychiatrist and did get him on meds at thirteen) caused her increased anxiety about him and her husband. Very much because of her strengths as a mom and an individual, Angela (and Harry and Mark) persevered through the anxiety, and she ended up feeling much better about her son’s and her marriage’s future.
6. Make the angry partner responsible for his (or her) anger by helping him understand the root cause of the anger within him.
As Harry decreased his anger and harshness toward Angela, he became even “harder” on Mark. After a couple of months, this began to harm his relationship with Mark, so I worked with Harry and Mark
to see how Mark’s anxiety and “failures” were triggering Harry’s fear of failure as a parent. We looked at fear of failure as a root cause. We compared how when Angela felt like a failure, she tended to become overtly anxious (and thus verbalize worry, ruminate, and make requests for more intimacy), but when Harry felt failure (e.g., when his son failed), his anxiousness (fearing the failure) led to more overt anger rather than rumination. Harry’s own father had been extremely hard on him, and got angry a great deal; Harry was repeating this pattern, but he came to see that his quick bursts of anger and harshness were a personal issue that he had to claim and grow through.
One of our Gurian Institute surveys, to 4,109 recipients, asked for advice from people who had been married for ten or more years. In this and every other chapter, I share the wisdom in these answers. One of the most impressive things I noticed in the survey results was the natural balance that long-term married individuals tried to strike between intimacy and separateness.
Here is the first question cluster and an answer: If you were mentoring a person younger than yourself on how to succeed in couple relationships, what wisdom would you share? What tips and success-ideas have worked best for you? What are the keys in your mind to a long-lasting relationship?
• • •
Communication is critical. It is important to communicate authentically with the goal in mind to benefit the relationship. Come from a perspective of trust that your partner is not intending to hurt you with their actions or words. Be willing to be wrong. Be willing to listen and see things from their point of view.
The other important aspect for me was to be committed to something in addition to my husband, because when I am mad at him it can be too easy to let the relationship go. In difficult times, I
remember I made a promise to God to love him and be with him. Or you can think of it as making a promise to the Relationship, if you are not a churchgoer. That promise kept me sane.
Date nights were crucial, especially when we were raising our children. These were literally marriage savers. Even just a lunch or meeting or a coffee is a great way to reconnect. Also marriage-saving was to treat each other the way we want to be treated. If you want more romance, be more romantic. If you want more freedom, give more freedom.
Finally, life is precious. Spend more time seeing the good and enjoying life than in finding fault. Usually, finding fault was more about my own shortcomings than his. As I stopped looking for mistakes, I felt a lot better about not only him but also myself, and I just all-in-all felt more safe and loving.
—Ally, 58, married thirty-two years
Question Cluster 2: If you were mentoring a person younger than yourself in what not to do in relationships, what wisdom would you share? What have you or your spouse/partner done that you know does not work? What pitfalls have you learned to avoid so that love can last?
• • •
When arguing with each other, remember that it is too easy to slip into insults and sarcasm, so it is important to tame that anger and that need to “win” and focus on the relationship and what it needs. To be able to focus on the relationship itself, you have to keep perspective and keep some healthy emotional distance. You have to not obsess about your own feelings and his feelings all the time. Remember to be humble. The relationship is more important than either person.
Avoid refusing to compromise. In other words, compromise! My husband and I communicate openly and calmly now, and work to understand each other’s perspectives. I used to want to win each
battle. I learned there is compromise, there is understanding, and out of that is a deeper love and trust.
Argue all you want, but no matter what, you have to avoid low blows and mean comments. We avoid speaking poorly about each other’s family. We avoid bringing up the past too much. We used to spend way too much time rehashing past wrongdoings. That was not fair to my husband or myself or our relationship.
—Ally, 58, married thirty-two years
The Freedom to Love and Be Loved
Rabbi Tamar Molino, who leads the Temple Emmanu-El Reform congregation in Spokane, Washington, told this story at a recent Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service:
A rabbi is talking to the class while holding a glass of water in her hand. She holds it for quite a while, until one of the students says, “Rabbi, isn’t that getting pretty heavy?”
The rabbi responds, “The water itself is not very heavy, but if I hold the glass for a few minutes, I’ll start to feel my fingers tingle a little; if I hold it for ten minutes or so, other parts of my hand will feel sore; if I hold it for even more time than that, my whole arm can feel numb and paralyzed. The water itself is not heavy; exhaustion and pain come in how long we hold it.”
If your marriage is in any kind of distress, it is likely that one or both of you is holding on too long to something. The intention of this book is to take you to some places you have been before, yet shine a new light on them, while also taking you to some places you may not have seen quite as clearly before or not even at all. Over seven more chapters, building theory and practice step-by-step, we’ll reach the ultimate place I am hoping you will go with me, where love is held together not by the stressful search for intimacy or distance (these are
glasses of water that become heavy very quickly) but by the experience of intimate separateness—a balanced love that does not exhaust us or cause us constant marital pain.
As you’ll see in the next chapters, we will not be any less intimate with one another because we work through the enmeshments; we still love one another intimately by working on communication skills, taking date nights, having dinner-table conversations, going on vacation together, giving and receiving flowers, sacrificing our own needs for the other. But these will become sweeter, more kind, more conscious, and more beautiful. As we back away from the drive for hyper-intimacy or hyper-separateness, we will feel free together to “be who we are” and come to feel, to a greater extent than we could before, safe and secure. We may well still argue, bicker, have conflicts—in fact, over the decades, that is a certainty—but we will also have emotionally self-disciplined and long-lasting marriages. As the decades pass, we will gradually sense that we have learned how to love.