July 12, 2020
Honorable relationships depend on our ability to explore the things we believe we can’t talk about. Emotional intimacy requires that we ask the questions, even when we’re not sure we want to hear the answers.
Life is a touchingly brief opportunity to taste just about anything our hearts desire. Love, then, is an opportunity to savor what we taste.
But real love takes courage. In my work with couples who come in for pre-marital counseling, we explore the idea that the only things they must talk about before the ceremony are the things they believe they can’t discuss. The things they roll their eyes about or shut each other down when “that” topic comes up.
I ask them to fill out an eighteen question form covering potential differences in perspective around things like finances, sex, parenting, entertainment, family involvement, responsibility, openness, truthfulness, etc.. They complete them separately. The intention is to clarify how well they communicate in each area.
The list of possible differences is endless: sex, or lack thereof; spending habits; want or don’t want children; parenting approaches; quantity and quality of extended family relationships; closed-mindedness; bigotry; hygiene; honesty; when to celebrate holidays, how to do it, and with whom.
When we talk about the things that matter and risk showing each other the truth of who we are, emotional intimacy and real trust can begin to develop.
Adrienne Rich, one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, wrote this:
“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us”.
The question becomes, do we have the courage to love? Are we willing to go the hard way even if it means breaking down our self-delusion and comfy isolation?
Dare I show up as me?
Yep, when each of us shows up as “me,” we may find that we aren’t right for each other. Or, we may discover a partner who fits us better than we knew.
When we do the work upfront, we save unimaginable pain and heartbreak that so many couples experience when they discover they went blindfolded into a lifetime commitment.
Are there questions you’re afraid to ask because you fear the answers?
If you discover you have unanswered questions, it doesn’t mean you need to jump in with a hammer to break down the walls that may have developed. It is an opportunity to explore how each of you wants to live out the rest of your lives.
Don’t necessarily settle for the first response. Sometimes, staying with a thorny question rather than forcing an immediate answer can give us more information than expected. Because we change and grow, very few things are ground in stone. Most of us have a bucket of things we’ve said in the heat of the moment that we didn’t mean. Or we withheld information that might have brought us closer. Just like with an apology, it’s never too late. We get to change our minds. In a partnership, though, we need to share with each other when that happens.
Despite having been together a while, my partner and I continue to ask each other questions, recognizing that we are still getting to know each other. We’re individually growing and changing, so of course, our answers change and become more nuanced as well.
I think we can miss opportunities, or even sabotage the relationship when we believe someone’s answers from five years ago still stand. I remember being in a relationship many years ago and saying to my partner, “You know, I’d like to try kissing a different way.” His response was, “But you used to like it this way.” As if that put an end to the subject. I did like it. And then I wanted to try something else. I can count on one hand the things I can think of that stay the same. Even mountains shrink or grow with time. (Now that I think about it, I can’t think of anything that won’t change, either evolving or devolving.)
The less we assume we have someone else’s number, and instead respect that they, just like us, have been growing and changing, the more honorable and emotionally intimate our relationships can be.
And as they say, “Knowledge is power.” There is nothing more powerful in a relationship than knowing we are accepted for who we are, warts and all. Creating that kind of safety for each other doesn’t just happen. Someone has to take the first step. Why not you? Be one of those people we can count on to go the hard way with us.