Of the Terrible Doubt

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all…
~Walt Whitman~

The majority of people are yearning for more intimacy and affection in their lives. Most often they try to address these needs through relationships, mainly a relationship with a special person or partner. Yet, in every relationship there is an invisible constraint on the amount or level of emotional and physical closeness. When one or both partners reach that limit, unconscious defense mechanisms kick in.

Most couples strive to increase and deepen their capacity for intimacy, but without awareness of the sensitivities of both partners around that limit, distancing, hurt and accumulation of accounts are more likely to happen. I think of that limit as a joint quotient, an inherent attribute of the couple. However, unlike I.Q. it can increase with regular intentional practice.

The needs for privacy and individuality are very basic and are present in each of us, as much as the needs for connection, mirroring and intimacy. Conflicts between these two groups of needs can lead to struggle and possibly also to growth. The inner chatter, often unconscious, might say something like: “If I let this person come closer to me and then consider their needs, I am betraying my own needs. If I take care of my own needs and protect my boundaries, I am selfish, or I am not able to have friends.”

Many couples develop a dysfunctional shared-pattern that undermines intimacy. Usually, if not always, it is based on the core defense mechanisms of the individuals. It is common that such unconscious defenses are noticed by the other partner and are taken personally, interpreted as an attack or as abandonment, neglect or rejection. Either way, they seem to touch sensitive points of the other partner and evoke their old responses that are deeply rooted in childhood.

One such misunderstanding usually happens when one or both partners get hurt. It is essential for the stability of the relationship to learn to recognize the patterns that lead to hurt, and apologize when they are noticed. That apology implicitly confirms the commitment to the relationship. It is important to note right away that apology is not an admission of guilt. Rather it is an acknowledgment that the other is hurt, followed by an expression of empathy.

The feeling of hurt is often related to insufficiently safe boundaries. The partner that was offended tends to react with hurtful actions or words that perpetuate the fight and increase distance. To move back towards connection requires renegotiating the boundaries, along with confirmation of the commitment to the relationship. Openness to negotiation expresses the understanding that individual boundaries and deep connection are not mutually exclusive. Rather they can grow and deepen side by side.

A common defense mechanism is doubt that leads to reluctance to commit. When people are on the fence, expressing doubts by using words, body language or other behavior, it shakes the foundation of the relationship and leads to distance and instability. When one partner expresses distrust, the other is likely to experience rejection or abandonment and respond unconsciously with his or her own typical defenses.

It is inevitable that partners hurt each other. We all make mistakes, say the wrong things, take things personally or misunderstand the intention of the other. Thus, it is important to practice apologies and forgiveness. Learning to recognize the pattern and if possible, stop it and apologize right away, is an essential skill for the preservation of the couple.

When we identify a dysfunctional pattern during a therapy session, and both partners can recognize it, I invite both to try to name it when it happens. Such patterns are likely to repeat regularly. That makes them a reliable reminder for the couple’s work on healing and improving their relationship.

When one partner can say to the other “Dear, are we doing right now whatever we talked about in the last therapy session? Can we try to stop and be together?” that expression is a commitment to the relationship and is seen as invitation to renew or deepen intimacy. Once the hurt is too great, the only option might be to leave the situation or take a break. When that happens, I advise couples to try and include a statement of commitment. Something like: “I am too hurt to stay here, I am going for a half-hour walk. I hope we can talk when I return.”

Breaking the connection, either by physically leaving, or by remaining silent and “stonewalling” usually leads to shame, which is the worst feeling. Most people would do anything to avoid shame. Thus, including a statement of intention to keep the connection alleviates the shame and opens the door to a repair or even to greater closeness.

Walt Whitman ends the poem about doubts with a far more hopeful note:

I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that of identity beyond the grave;
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

This “Hand holding” need not be perfect. The complete satisfaction the poem describes, comes from deep awareness and acceptance that any relationship is built on compromise. The acceptance is part of growing up, leaving teenage years and their idealism behind and becoming an adult. I also read in these final lines of the poem, the willingness to let go of being tentative, doubtful or suspicious and completely embrace the joys of trustful, mature relationship. Trust building is a simple practice of making small promises and learning to keep them. As therapists we can show couples the opportunities for small enough promises and help them practice consistently, until trust starts to take root.

Allowing vulnerability slowly extends the intimacy quotient. It is frightening to be vulnerable as safety is one of the most basic human needs. Yet, couples’ best work is done exactly in that region where vulnerability and even slight hurt can be restored with sincere apology and clear expression of commitment, and then transformed into intimacy.