Many years before embarking on my career as a psychotherapist, my partner and I were in couples therapy. We entered our sessions feeling distraught over our perceived differences. Without a way to reconcile them, we either withdrew or pointed fingers and blamed each other. So often couples believe that it is the ways in which they are different that cause feelings of disconnection. Yet, conflict and emotional distance do not arise from differences, but rather from the way couples relate to them:
“I’m not getting my needs met.”
“I’m not being heard or understood.”
“We are too different.”
These were some of the statements we would say to our couples therapist. Finally, after several sessions, our therapist paused and closed her eyes. The room was silent as she gathered her thoughts and took in our pleas for understanding. What seemed like an eternity passed before she opened her eyes, my partner and I thirsty for the answer to our problems. With her eyes open and seated behind her tiny John Lennon glasses, she stated, “You are each others’ gift.”
Silence. Another eternity passed.
She repeated. “You are each others’ gift.”
My partner and I looked over at each other with raised eyebrows and as if to say, “What is this lady talking about? “Seriously, huh? Gift?”
To be clear, every couple is unique and you cannot overlay the same theory or truth onto each couple and expect that to lead to the same result. As therapists we all know better than to confuse our personal experiences with those of our clients, or to expect that there is one style or tool out there that will work for everyone coming in the door. There isn’t. That being said there are a handful of similar dynamics that take place in relationships that can be used as road maps to assist couples in learning their pathway to deeper intimacy, emotional responsiveness and connectedness.
Typically the aspects of our partners that feel most threatening can also be the most potent sources of nourishment and growth. Let’s say this again - the areas in which you struggle most with your partner are likely ripe with knowledge on how you can live a more satisfying life and relationship. This is “the gift”.
In order to unwrap the gift and optimize the strength of this truth each partner must shift their perspective and move away from the fear of their differences and towards embracing them. This is most explicitly understood in the pursuer-distancer dynamic that transpires between couples. Here is an example:
Partner A and Partner B enter couples therapy. Partner A complains that they don’t get enough space and independence in the relationship. Partner B complains that they feel a lack of intimacy and connection in the relationship. As a result, the more Partner A takes time for themselves, the more Partner B makes requests or gestures to connect. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. As Partner B becomes more anxious or confused and requests more time and energy for connection, the more Partner A might feel smothered or pressured and wishes to withdraw. Distance and disconnection are fueled by ensuing arguments, misunderstanding and doubts about their commitment. Both partners feel that their needs are not getting met and that perhaps their needs are so different that a fulfilling and mutually satisfying relationship seems impossible. They are caught in a vicious cycle and feel lost as to how to navigate this dynamic.
A couple could continue in this cycle for a long time eventually going their separate ways. Because they were unable to extract the potent truth about their needs in their prior relationship, they are likely to enter their next relationship grappling with similar issues
In this example, each partner is unaware of an essential aspect of themselves. Partner A opts for independence over intimacy and Partner B opts for intimacy over independence. This is not a coincidence or mistake that this couple ended up together. In fact, the very reason they now feel threatened by one another is the reason they were attracted to each other to begin with. Partner A was likely attracted to Partner B’s ease with intimacy and Partner B was likely drawn to Partner A’s ability to enjoy and prioritize their own time. Attraction is often composed of feeling pulled toward that which is different from us, and what we ourselves would like to embody despite how risky it might feel.
We engage in relationships to enhance our lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they last forever. What it does mean is that they teach us something about ourselves and challenge us to grow so that the quality of our lives and relationships improve.
The gift is the mirror reflection of independence and intimacy. The one that you struggle to look at between you and your partner is the one you most need to actualize in your own life and relationships. Actualizing this gift requires that both partners ultimately challenge each other to strike a balance of independence and intimacy between them and at once to strike that same balance within themselves.
This article was also published by the San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. http://www.sanfranciscomarriagecenter.com/new-blog-1/2015/10/26/the-gift-the-truth-about-differences-in-relationships