Thursday, January 31, 2019

Intimacy: Together We Fill Gaps

Intimacy:  Together We Fill Gaps

Do you remember the movie, Rocky?  When he explained why he intended to marry his girlfriend, he held his splayed fingers opposite each other and said, She’s got gaps; I got gaps.  Then he interlaced his fingers and said, Together we fill gaps.
            I love that metaphor to describe the symmetry of marriage.  Ideally, our strengths augment the weaknesses of our spouse, and their strengths in turn augment our weaknesses.   We fill the gaps in each other.  But sometimes, what starts out as a natural fit can slip into destructive ways of interacting that can choke the life out of the relationship.
            Transactional Analysis (TA) theory (which I have surely thrashed here) offers a concept to describe the interaction rut we can slip into.  TA describes the ego states of a Parent, a Child or an Adult.  (It’s a difficult concept for me to express without using my hands, so you’ll have to imagine me flailing my arms about or refer to the diagram below to help you visualize it.  The concept…not my flailing.) 
            Conceptually, we have within us three ego states:
·         The Parent—the part of us that manages, corrects, guides, and tries to control our worlds, as well as nurture and protect our loved ones.
·         The Adult—the part of us that most effectively navigates life.  The Adult is aware of the internal Parent and Child needs and motivation, but consciously interacts more rationally, considering values, goals, wisdom, and the needs and desires of others as well.
·         The Child—the part of us that is playful, spontaneous, unfiltered, carefree, and endearing, as well as irresponsible, self-centered, and dependent.
So, using marriage as an example, there are two individual Parent, Child, and Adult ego states involved in communications.  Uh huh…you see where I’m going with this.  When both kids are playing, things are probably fun (or terribly out of control).  When both Adults are interacting, things are getting done.  And when both Parents are out, well, there’s probably a lot of yelling going on.
            Our personalities tend to make it more comfortable to dwell in one of these ego states.  If I’m more of a dominant personality, or feel the need to be in control, I will tend to interact from the Parent ego state.  My communications under pressure will more likely be governing or critical.  If I’m more playful, passive, timid, or have irresponsible behaviors, I’ll be more comfortable in the Child role.  Under pressure, my communication will more likely be evasive or defensive.
            So here’s the rub:  In intimate relationships, we are typically drawn to our opposite personality type, e.g. the intuitive childlike person marries the structured, more serious person.  You can fill in the blanks with your personal experience, or imagine a couple where one takes care of detailed plans, coordinates, and follows up while the other is more spontaneous and thrives on creative freedom and flexibility to let things happen along the way.  These opposites can work—the Parent gets to lead/manage/control; the Child gets to be reactive, playful or passive. As Rocky tells it, Together we fill gaps. 
            Taken to extremes, however, if the interactions remain lopsided (Parent-to-Child/Child-to-Parent), the relationship will become strained.  Parent gets weary of trying to manage childish behavior; Child becomes resentful of being treated like…well…a child.  You’ll hear words from Parent like YOU YOU YOU should, ought, never…  And from Child, you’ll hear, whatever, don’t be so controlling, serious...  Either way is the kind of interaction that frustrates and creates distance.
            This interaction rut is fixable…and so is the marriage.  Instead of interacting primarily from the Parent or Child ego state, which elicits a response from the lopsided other, try to connect from the Adult-to-Adult ego states.  It is a simple concept, but requires deliberate effort to change.  Adult has to give up some perceived control and allow things to happen in a different way.  Child has to assume more responsibility with associated trade offs and taking the heat when things go wrong or are opposed.  But the shift in ego state communication and behavior will absolutely bring respect and intimacy back into the relationship.
            So, with apologies to Rocky and Eric Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis, I invite you to notice how you communicate with your loved one.  Even if you are the only one motivated to change initially, more often than not, a rational, respectful approach that does not demean nor rescue the other will eventually inspire the Adult Other to respond.

I Corinthians 13 says it best:  Love is patient and kind.  Love is not jealous.  It does not brag, and it is not proud.  Love is not rude, is not selfish, and does not get upset with others.  Love does not count up wrongs that have been done.  Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth.  Love patiently accepts all things.  It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Speaking of Intimacy: The Five Levels of Communication

Whether it’s with dear friends or a marital relationship, there’s a truism about communications: The way we communicate brings people closer, or fosters drifting apart.
• Would you pick up some milk?
• The kids’ game is at seven tonight.
• Dinner is ready.
• The car needs an oil change.
• Whatever.
• You’re going to wear that shirt with those pants?
• Don’t wait up for me.
These statements and questions are important and understandable. They facilitate order and function in our families. But do you find that most of the interactions with your most important person fall in this category? It’s an easy pit to fall into—exchanging superficial and factual information that is devoid of intimate communication.
Many close relationships have very long trails where this is the extent of their interactions—superficial and factual. This context often describes the Just Before events—just before she decides to divorce; just before he succumbs to the temptation of an affair; just before the depression becomes debilitating. Dwelling in the superficial and factual world can be very lonely.
Years ago, Gary Smalley introduced me to the five levels of Communication in his Loving, Lasting Relationships video series. I adopted the concept as an invaluable tool, especially to help couples survive the rough spots, but it’s also important to best buddies.
Consider your habits with your partner/buddy within these five levels?
1. Clich├ęs – the superficial exchange of niceties we learn to use even with strangers (Cold out, huh? Have a good day.)
2. Factual – the exchange of concrete information, such as listed above.
3. Opinions – exposing some of your thinking and values. Some risk is required here—others may disagree or judge you when you share opinions.
4. Feelings – sharing the myriad emotions that well up in our bodies and hearts, which are influenced by events and interactions with people who are important to us. Even more so, our emotions are the result of how we interpret information and events (e.g. the negative trap we impose with conditions: my husband didn’t notice my hair cut so he doesn’t love me; my wife doesn’t care about me because she needs time with her girlfriends; my friend doesn’t answer my phone calls immediately, so I am unimportant.)
5. Needs – communicating about something we lack. Sharing a need requires vulnerability, doesn’t it? Need states there is something important that you lack, something you are unable to attain on your own, e.g. affection, being understood, validation. A certain amount of humbleness and a great amount of openness is required to my need.
Intimacy can only be experienced when couples/dear friends communicate on the two deepest levels—sharing their Feelings and Needs—at least some of the time. This comes easier for some people, and can be very difficult for others, so finding a balance is important. What is absolutely critical to develop intimacy and that level of communication is to provide emotional safety for each other.
So, start with providing a safe environment where each person feels secure. Each person:
• Can be heard without fear of judgment, condemnation, bullying, coercion, or abandonment.
• Can be confident that what is shared will not be repeated to others (gossip) or brought up at a later time as condemnation.
• Is responsible for their own actions, choices, and emotions, and does not have other people’s actions, choices, or emotions imposed upon them.
• Is free to have their individual perspectives, values, needs, dreams, and emotions, even if they differ from their loved one.
• Interacts in a respectful manner, e.g. taking turns, listening without interruptions, speaking truth with love.
It takes some practice—this interacting on deeper levels, but the closeness…the intimacy…is worth the wobbly journey.