I cannot get this quote out of my head—
“The intimacy of marriage, more than friendship or work, makes it hard to do two different things simultaneously: to have a solid self and to connect deeply with another person.”
I keep seeing this challenge in the couples I work with and in my own marriage.
One of biggest things couples say they are coming to me for help is managing conflict.
Most of the time conflict is about feeling disconnected from your most important person.
Here is where I have to fight back the urge to geek out about attachment. But it would be warranted because it IS the primary function of marriage
—a safe, secure emotional attachment to our partner. It is what says,
“I have someone when life gets hard”
“I am valuable and worthy in the eyes of the person matters”
“I am not alone in this crazy world”
It is this bond that feels threatened during conflict. Like maybe we don’t have it, never did, or we’ll lose it.
Identifying this fear in ourselves can be challenging enough, let alone learning to hear that fear in our partner (not just with our ears but with our hearts).
Back to the quote—the two competing tasks—a sense of self and a deep connection
You see, in order to deeply connect with someone, we need to be able to be vulnerable with them. It’s the only way we are truly known and therefore genuinely loved & accepted.
The tricky part is that at the same time we also must care for our partner’s vulnerabilities with tenderness and compassion.
Both of these are feats in their own right and a marriage requires them to happen simultaneously—no wonder marriage is hard.
And I’m starting to see how the solid self is a critical component of both these tasks.
In order to express our vulnerabilities, we need to have a bare minimum sense of self that can first and foremost take the risk.
And a risk it is—to show someone our full selves, including our insecurities, our fears, our deepest desires.
Because our partners won’t always respond in ways we need them to. I have seen and experienced everything from minor fumbles to further hurt, and everything in between when a partner responds to such a vulnerable exposure.
It is our sense of self that we fall back on when our partner fumbles it. When they either don’t understand or cannot offer us the comfort and assurance we are seeking in those vulnerable moments.
And if I’m the one listening to my partner’s vulnerability, there are times I’m triggered and either launch into a defense of myself or a self-focused monologue about how my hurt and insecurities are far worse and important.
When I see it happen in my office, it is heart-breaking.
To watch one partner, go out on a limb, seek assurance and comfort from their most important person, and have it either dismissed or defended—it’s painful!
But there is pain in the listening too. Often personal insecurities are triggered when we hear our partner’s hurt.
That maybe we’re not enough.
That maybe we’ve messed up again.
And all this might add up to losing them.
But do you see how that shifts the focus from them to you? You are no longer trying to comfort your partner’s pain and assure them in their insecurities. You’ve taken the reigns to get that for yourself.
In these moments, it is our sense of self that allows us to step outside of our experience of conflict to actually hear our partner’s hurts and insecurities. We need a bare minimum amount of personal strength to hear the pain coming towards us and respond in comforting and assuring ways for our partner’s sake.
One of the honors I hold dearly as a couple’s therapist is helping people hear their partner with their whole heart. And in turn helping people ‘feel felt’ by their partner. It is one of the most precious gifts we can offer our partners.
The beauty of this dance is that once we break through this disconnect, it plays out like a beautiful, graceful waltz.
Two people moving in sync.
Not only does it become easy to hear our partner’s actual pain, it becomes the ultimate honor to provide our partner comfort and assurance.
And that is exactly what you and your partner have been holding your breath for in the midst of conflict—
Comfort and assurance. This is what deepens your bond.
Because we are so connected to our partners, in ways beyond any other relationship in our lives, you will trigger each other but there is also no one else that can comfort and assure the way your partner can.
This is the beautiful bond of marriage, which a solid sense of self that leads to a deep connection.
A therapist who should know but doesn’t