This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.
The following is the first chapter of The New Intimacy by Judith Sherven, Ph.D. and James Sniechowski, Ph.D., and reprinted with permission. You will find other articles by this husband-and-wife therapist team here, on the Support4Change Blog.
The Promise of Differences
Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it. — Polly Berrien Berends
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As we learn to truly respect one another’s differences, the much sought after ideal — loving partnership that fosters emotional and spiritual growth — is becoming a reality. — Art Klein
Did your relationship start out with great promise, filled with excitement, throbbing with life? Were you certain the two of you would create a vital and passionate future together? Did you see in your lover all the qualities you wanted, so that just the thought of being together was enough to fire your desire and make your skin tingle? Did you imagine your family with beautiful, loving children and two caring and protective parents all together in a warm and comfortable home? And as you imagined growing old together, did you see yourself sitting back, content and confident, knowing, “We lived and loved and we did well!”
Perhaps your relationship is only months old, perhaps years or even decades. Do you still have those feelings? Is your relationship still filled with promise and fulfillment? Does your partner still catch your eye and cause you to sigh, to murmur with contentment and desire?
In the fifty percent of marriages that end in divorce the answer is definitely, “No!” But, what about the other fifty percent? Sadly, many of them have settled into predictable routines with only occasional spurts of passion, wringing out whatever pleasure is left by reminiscing about “how things used to be.”
Being single isn’t easy either. For most singles, dating is a drag, unfulfilling and sometimes even dangerous. To make it even more difficult, traditional gender roles are deteriorating and daters are left adrift, not knowing how to act. Who makes the first call? Who pays for what? How is she supposed to act? What is he supposed to do? Men and women stumble through, date after date, trying to figure it all out. Some do. Most don’t. Yet, being at home without a date can be even worse — the shame, humiliation, loneliness . . . the indignity of it all.
Does this sound all too familiar? Are you struggling in confusion? Are you trying to overcome your disillusionment? After all, weren’t you told that being in a loving relationship is one of the deepest and richest experiences you can have in life? And yet it all seems so difficult, so maddening. When you lie down at night, does your heart whisper, “Is this all there is?”
Real Life Love
What if things could be different? Not just fantasy. Not mere hope. But the real thing.
- Your relationship could be open and free to change, and continually change for the better?
You could be loved for all that you are?
- Your conflicts, even the fighting, could be catalysts for further self-definition and spiritual discovery?
- Your relationship could be the doorway to a more expansive future than you’ve ever imagined?
- You could have that miracle of love in your everyday life?
Would such a relationship be worth working for? “Yes,” you say. But then, no more than a heartbeat later, your silent and scared voice pulls back, saying, “Is all that really possible? Isn’t that just pie-in-the-sky?”
We assure you that no matter how difficult love may have been for you, no matter how many “paths of love” you’ve stumbled down, even if you haven’t “come close,” if you are willing, truly willing to commit yourself to building the relationship you want, you can have it! You can have a passionate and spiritually rewarding intimacy that is thrilling, more of an adventure than any fantasy of romance can ever be. We call it real life love, and it is the promise of this book.
It had done me good to be somewhat parched by the heat and drenched by the rain of life. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
From Carbon to Diamond
“Okay,” you say, “so that’s the promise of this book. But, how do I do it? How do I get from where I am now to a relationship that will support and nourish me and my partner — physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually?”
To make any kind of change happen you have to have a vision of where you want to go and some idea of what it will take to get there. And, as much as we would all like change to happen in an instant, it doesn’t. Real change is a gradual process marked by moments of transcendence. Understanding this is essential for the growth and development of a solid, supportive and treasured relationship. Diamonds are a perfect example of the way real, worthwhile change takes place.
Diamonds are prized among the world’s most precious treasures. It’s said that the ancients believed diamonds were drops of divine essence embedded in rocks when the world was created. In India, diamonds were cherished as a protection against evil. The Chinese used diamonds as engraving tools. Giving diamonds to symbolize the sacred promise of marriage is a tradition that dates back to fifteenth century Europe. The market value of diamonds today far exceeds that of even gold and the emotional value of diamonds can sometimes be priceless.
But, did you know that diamonds don’t start out sparkling and beautiful? In the beginning they resemble chunks of dull carbon, like lumps of coal. Then, under the power of heat and pressure they transform, they change into something they were not before — they become diamonds.
But even then, raw diamonds aren’t very attractive. They are found in irregular shapes and are cloudy and almost opaque. To become beautiful, brilliant diamonds they must be carefully cut and shaped and defined. It’s the same thing with people.
We all start out as infants, largely unformed, but with great potential. We need time and loving support if we are to grow fully into what we are. Under the right circumstances, any one of us can develop the brilliance that’s within, whatever it is, and we can be recognized for the value we bring to the world.
You have great potential for love and committed relationship. To transform that potential into actual radiant intimacy you must be willing to:
- Open yourself to the unavoidable pressures and passions of a relationship created by the differences between you and your partner;
- Search out a deeper understanding of yourself and your partner when the challenges of being together cut into and disrupt what you believe and expect;
- Grow into someone you were not before love entered your heart.
- Opening, searching, growing — these are the fundamental elements of what we call “lovework,” the effort that’s always required to create the reality of genuine, long-lasting love.
Yet, today the reverse is more often the case. Relationships start out high, blindingly brilliant, everything seemingly perfect. The lovers feel no need to be conscious or aware of what’s going on with them, because they believe the love they have fallen into is all that’s necessary. They’ve been swept away. Happiness seems to be their’s [sic] for life. This is very strange though, because nothing else in the world begins fully formed. Everything begins as possibility. Everything must be cultivated and nourished in order to grow into its full and mature potential.
Nevertheless, we’re sure you’ve known people who cling to the belief that “When I meet the right one, he or she will beam high voltage love on me and make me feel complete.” They are waiting for love to “happen” to them, with the silent hope that when it does they will be “rescued” from their lives and carried away into happily-ever-after.
During the early days of a relationship or in the honeymoon phase of a marriage, it can feel like the hope of being rescued has actually come true. Everything is perfect. Magical. Effortless. “We’re so close, we even end our sentences for one another. I’ve never been so in love!” But, because the honeymoon phase is just a beginning, exciting but largely unformed, all real relationships must inevitably grow beyond it. When two people are unaware of this necessary and unavoidable change and the initial enchantment fades, they can become confused, frightened and eventually embittered. Sentences that were playfully endearing disintegrate into barbed misunderstandings. Touch that was tender and sweet becomes irritating and invasive. Two potential diamonds are left to wonder, “What happened?” Disillusionment sets in. They grow to mistrust not only themselves and each other but love itself. Some break up. Others stay in passive resignation. In either case, the vitality and promise of the relationship ends.
This doesn’t have to happen!
Real life love is not made from fantasies of effortless, swept-away, happily-ever-after bliss. It doesn’t promise to rescue you from the ordinary problems of everyday life. In fact, the true spiritual journey of real life love can only begin when the fantasies end, when you and your partner are willing to be exactly who you are — no masks, no games. When both of you choose not to back away from the lovework it takes to become exciting and fulfilled friends, lovers and mates your relationship becomes a spiritual vessel supporting each of you in your growth toward the beauty and richness of the diamonds you can become.
To do that it’s crucial to understand that love will beam into all areas of your soul. It will shine its light on those parts of you that you cherish. And, as you open yourself more and more to receiving love, it will also bring to the surface those parts of you that you believe are unlovable and undeserving, those parts you have hidden and denied — because love loves everything and everything wants to be loved.
At first, you may be frightened. That’s not unusual. To protect yourself and conceal what you fear or dislike about yourself, you may put on a mask, a false front. Or you may resist love’s penetration into your soul by consciously or unconsciously creating conflicts and distractions to avoid feeling embarrassed or ashamed. You may even decide that “this relationship’s not right for me. I better just break it off.” Or you may blame the whole thing on your partner, crying out that “love is just too hard,” and “this isn’t what love is supposed to feel like.” We understand. We’ve been there. We’ve both done that. Ultimately it doesn’t work. In real life, you can run but you can’t hide. Sooner or later the real you shows up. Then what?
Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage. — Anais Nin
Kim and Jake
Kim and Jake were both fun, bright and successful professionals in their early thirties. They met, fell in love and were deliriously happy. After five weeks they decided to get married.
When Kim’s best girlfriend asked her, “What’s the rush?” Kim assured her that “Jake and I are so sure of what we have together, what’s the point in waiting?”
For the first six months, Kim and Jake seemed to have everything anyone could want. They spent all their available time together. Sex was great. The future seemed bright. Jake delighted in telling her, “You know, Kim, we’re so much alike, it’s almost like we’re the same person.”
“I know, Jake. None of my relationships before have ever been so easy.”
But, little by little, they became aware of petty annoyances, subtle barbs and hurtful criticism. After a year and a half they found themselves fighting and miserable much of the time. They were shocked to discover how easily everyday differences could plunge them into verbal abuse, splattered with name-calling, leaving them feeling trapped, suspicious and on-guard.
“It’s so ugly and painful,” Jake sighed. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
For example, returning home from a party one evening, Kim commented that the hostess had been “sickeningly sweet.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Jake immediately fired back, “she was friendly and warm.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Kim shot back, suddenly furious. “Did you see how she was catering to everybody?”
“She was the hostess, Kim. What was she supposed to do? And besides, I’ve seen you do exactly the same thing.”
“Never. I was never like her.”
They were locked them into a bitter struggle, each convinced the other was not only wrong but stubborn and purposely mean.
On the surface, Kim and Jake appeared to have it all together. But, down deep, they each wrestled with self-doubt and insecurity. They had unconsciously longed for an effortless romance. What they got was a journey into the unknown, an experience of real love and real intimacy, and they didn’t know what to do.
Confused and scared, they came to us hoping to find a way to “work our way out of this mess — if possible.” We assured them it was not only possible, but that their difficulty was a blessing in disguise. But, in order to reap the rewards, they both had to learn that real love exposes and burns away what is false, challenges all of us to face and accept who we truly and fully are, and, in the process, sets us free for a new kind of intimacy far richer than anything we previously imagined.
In the future, the “fittest” relationships will be the ones that can adapt to a new reality — the higher expectations of good communication, not mere survival.
The Transformative Process of Love
If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know how threatened and defensive you can become in response to the ways your partner is different — differences in sexual styles, spending habits, views on how to raise children, career commitments, friends, personal idiosyncrasies, and even the right way to slice tomatoes. Sadly, most people interpret their confusion and disillusionment as a signal to physically leave or emotionally withdraw. However, more often the struggle is a signal that love is actually taking effect — going deep below the surface, beginning to weed out the stuff that prevents bright, diamond-like brilliance from shining through. When you avoid the struggle, you keep yourself and your relationship stuck in the carbon stage.
As we worked with Kim and Jake, they came to realize that the ways they were different from each other, though sometimes difficult, were actually the means for learning to love one another more fully. They grew to respect and accept each other’s differences and began to see the powerful and deeply fulfilling spiritual adventure they could have together. Soon, their conflict over the party hostess became a spark for discovery and deeper awareness.
“When the hostess was around,’ Kim admitted, “I felt uncertain. I kept thinking, ‘I could never do what she’s doing as well as she does.’ I tried to stop, to get rid of those thoughts but couldn’t.”
She also realized she felt the same way with other outgoing and self-assured women. “Who I really am seems to just disappear.”
Although she had adapted a good cover, inside she was cringing under the weight of a life-long sense of inadequacy, leaving her feeling humiliated, unworthy and silently enraged.
“So you take your rage out on me,” Jake protested.
“Probably.” Kim couldn’t look him in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
But Jake was not innocent. He had to acknowledge that he’d felt protective of the hostess. He described feeling sympathy for her because “she seemed to be doing the best she could.” The he added, “Besides, on the way home, Kim attacked her and then attacked me.”
“I didn’t attack you, ” Kim snapped.
Jake was ready to fight back when we stopped him. We asked him what would happen if it were true that Kim hadn’t attacked him. What other possibilities were there?
After a moment, Jake confessed that he often felt like the underdog. “Especially with Kim. You know? Truth is, I’m afraid of Kim.”
“Afraid?” Kim was stunned.
“Yeah,” Jake whispered. “I feel like I have to protect myself from you. It’s crazy, but I feel like I have to be on guard or you’ll look down on me. I feel like I’m going to lose.”
“Lose! Lose what?”
“I don’t know. Maybe me.” That was something he hadn’t really wanted to face. “I always give other people the benefit of the doubt,” he conceded, “most of the time before I even know I’m doing it. I think it’s what I want …. what I want from you Kim. The benefit of the doubt.”
Once the depth and meaning of their feelings began to emerge, Kim and Jake could see how different, yet how alike, they were. Kim’s insecurity led her to criticize the hostess. Jake’s insecurity led him to protect her. Seeing behind each other’s polished veneer, they could learn to feel respect and compassion for each other’s vulnerability. They realized that neither of them really knew what the hostess was feeling because they’d never asked her. They’d both been unconsciously caught up in their own discomfort, convinced that how they perceived the situation was absolutely correct. Acknowledging this, they began to laugh, not surprisingly feeling closer and more trusting, and a new intimacy opened up for them.
By successfully facing this difficulty, they began to see a way of handling future conflicts. Realizing that it was only through their love for one another that they could feel safe enough to allow their respective insecurities to surface, they both felt the rich pleasure of being understood and accepted. They admitted they’d expected love to be easier, certainly not to be found at the heart of conflicting differences, and they were amazed by the hope and excitement that opened between them. By taking the risk to be honest with themselves and each other, they learned that differences and difficulties are part of every relationship and they can be the source of the deepest, richest and most spiritually fulfilling intimacy that being together has to offer.
Only love heals, makes whole, takes us beyond ourselves. Love — not necessarily mushy sentiment or docile passivity—is both right motive and right result.
Love gets us there. — Marsha Sinetar
Many people are searching for spiritual meaning in their lives today, and there are many points of view about just what spirituality is. By “spirituality” we mean the deep sense of connection you become aware of and can feel when you face into and grow from the inevitable challenges of daily loving. When you no longer have to hide parts of yourself — when you realize you can be loved for who you actually are and love your partner in the same way — then you both can have the experience of being comfortable with who you are while expanding beyond what you already know, beyond who you already know yourself to be. Like a diamond, you become something more, a larger, richer more conscious person. Instead of withdrawing and shrinking, you live with a sense of freedom and openness to life — to the relationship you and your partner are creating. As you and your partner develop the skills and commit to dealing with whatever may happen, the differences and difficulties that are sure to arise become catalysts for transformation rather than harbingers of contempt and catastrophe.
We also want to be clear that what we mean by “spirituality” in no way conflicts with or contradicts anyone’s religious beliefs. For example, communication and conflict resolution skills, recognition and respect for differences, expanding the ability to give and receive love are necessary relationship skills for everyone. When your love is real and down-to-earth you can progress toward a greater and ever-changing understanding and acceptance of yourself and your partner. As you become more and more conscious, you continually move beyond your self-centered limitations toward a more inclusive frame of mind, a more open way of being. Then the mundane becomes sacred, illuminating richer purpose and meaning in everyday life. You come to know there is magic in the ordinary, while simultaneously appreciating the greater, universal forces that influence who and what you are.
This first chapter is, in a way, like the end, a promise of what the new intimacy holds for you. But to have that intimacy as part of your life, you must start with where you are right now. So, with that in mind, each of the following chapters looks at a different aspect of relationship with the intent of helping you open yourself, to become more conscious of the pivotal role your beliefs and attitudes play in the success or failure of your love life. Through your willingness to be changed by reading this book, you have already taken a powerful step toward creating the kind of love you want. Congratulations!
© Copyright 2001, Judith Sherven, Ph.D. and James Sniechowski, Ph.D.