Ideally, our close relationships offer us a safe haven where we can share vulnerable feelings and be nurtured and supported by our partner. Balancing our own needs with those of our partner, and achieving an enduring loving relationship, can be one of life's biggest and most rewarding challenges.
SAFETY is the knowledge that expressing yourself will not lead to dangerous consequences, emotional or physical. This feeling of safety, or trust, is built in a relationship over time. Interestingly, the amount of safety and trust in a relationship may be parallel to the amount of safety and trust each partner has within him/herself. The more comfortable each partner is with his/her own feelings, the more comfortable they will be in both expressing themselves and receiving communications from the other. Due to past traumas, many of us are not even aware of, much less comfortable with, the feelings inside us. Individual therapy, including grief and loss work, can help.
EMPATHY is the ability of each partner to feel what it is like to be the other person, even for just moments at a time. This is a skill which can be greatly enhanced over time and is one of the big keys to a rewarding relationship. Sometimes an issue is so fraught with emotion that a skilled third party is needed to help the partners untangle the situation in an atmosphere of safety.
INTIMACY requires safety and the skill of empathy, so that partners can communicate feelings to each other and enjoy the wonderful feeling of being understood - at least most of the time! Here are suggestions for increasing intimacy in relationships:
1. Before attempting to communicate with your partner, try to get clear on what you're feeling. Remember the four basics "Mad - Sad - Glad - Scared" and know that you may have several different feelings concurrently. You may find it helpful to rate each feeling on a scale of 1 to 10.
2. Let your partner know what you're needing. Try stating what you need in the beginning, for example "I just need to talk - you don't have to fix anything"; or "I'd like some help solving this problem"; or "I need a hug".
3. Remember that underneath anger lies fear or hurt. Fear is the anticipation of loss. If you are expressing anger at your partner, stick to the current issue - don't bring up wrongs from the past - and try to contact and express the underlying fear of loss.
Couples therapy helps partners learn to express and accept their own and each other's strong feelings, in an atmosphere of safety. Many couples find the structure of the therapeutic setting to be very helpful in navigating difficult issues and becoming closer in the process.