The Gift: The Truth About Differences in Relationships

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:

Samantha Yugler, MFT is a Couples Therapist at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Her office is located in the heart of San Francisco's Financial District.

Samantha Yugler, MFT is a Couples Therapist at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Her office is located in the heart of San Francisco's Financial District.

“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

You Say Goodbye and Hello

One of the most notable times I was introduced to the aliveness of the present moment was in graduate school by my group dynamics professor. He was an older (gentle)man with silky white skin, big blue eyes that looked up at you, thin white hair and a big smile that took you in as if he understood your insecurities and strengths all at once. He wore white khaki and occasionally you would see him in more casual settings with a brown leather brimmed hat on, the kind with the string that hangs around your chin secured by a bead. Whenever I saw him casually outfitted I imagined him on a safari. His group dynamics class expanded our purview of compassion for and acceptance of ourselves and others as we engaged in group process work and as we faced real or perceived judgement from our classmates. People in groups tend to have strong reactions about the other members and these reactions can be very informative. If group members are willing and able to sit in the tension that is being evoked, and receive the knowledge garnered from their internal experience as well as the feedback being offered by the other members, their understanding of themselves and others can transform exponentially. Group process work is an incredibly effective modality to support significant life shifts as we see in the recovery community for example.

As I experienced deeper levels of understanding about myself and others in the group, I found myself struggling to apply this growing sense of clarity and compassion to my personal history. So I sent my professor an email requesting a meeting. He agreed and one afternoon we met after class in the school's cafe.

I began, "How does one let go?" I was referring to a cloud of grief and disappointment that was following me around like a baby duckling eliciting fear and interfering with my ability to be present in my life. I was disappointed by past relationships and events and hoping to hear something consoling from this wise grandfatherly figure.

My professor looked at me and leaned in with his big eyes and smile and lifted his hand in the air. "You say goodbye and hello" he said waving. He waited patiently and quietly for me to digest his direction. I was surprised by his response. He didn't ask what had disappointed me or what it was I couldn't let go of. handwave

"I'm not sure I understand. Can you explain what you mean?" I asked.

"You say goodbye to the past with gratitude. No matter what has transpired, you say thank you because it has brought you to this moment. And then you take in the present and the fullness of it and greet and say hello to the moment before you and all that is unknown about it." He leaned in a little more "The key is to be curious. Be curious."

Our relationship with the present moment can shape our life satisfaction. Through awareness and curiosity we can traverse the contours and textures of the present moment and this leads us to our own aliveness. When we hold on tightly to the past, wanting for things to have been different and cling to feelings of disappointment and resentment we are diluting our own aliveness. Through strengthening our relationship to the present moment, through practices like mindfulness meditation for example, we are bettered positioned to make peace with the past and acquire trust within ourselves alleviating anxieties about the uncertainties of the future.

Saying goodbye to the past with gratitude and hello to the present moment with curiosity is a meditation within itself. It is not something that you acquire one day, but rather something you practice over time through which you gain greater experiences of your being. Much like the group process, there is so much expansive wisdom and knowledge to acquire in the present moment if we stay open and curious.

My professor passed away within the last year. I am confident that he bid his farewell with gratitude and was filled with curiosity as he entered the unknown - very much alive even in his death.