Showing Up to Your Marriage: The Creation of Intimacy in Couples
By Lynn Kamara, LCSW
Given the estimated 40-50% US divorce rate of first time marriages and the reality of countless dissatisfied and unfulfilled partners, one is left to wonder what is going so wrong within relationships? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it? As a therapist who works with couples, I have enjoyed the privilege of entering into the rich and varied lives of partners throughout the world who have courageously stepped up to the worthy challenge of working through their relationship struggles. Clearly, while the players and specific details are different, the underlying dynamics driving the conflicts remain uncannily similar. Often, the surface challenges can range from acute crises related to specific incidents and direct threats against the partnership (e.g. infidelity, abuse, addiction) to a general yet insidious malaise or overall sense of disconnection.
Yet, underpinning the specific situation, what we often see are two people who are not bringing their best and healthy selves into the relationship, and therefore are unable to show up and be seen. This reality is the breeding ground for destructive and self-reinforcing interaction cycles in which the people find themselves at the mercy of their reactionary and fragmented selves. From this perspective, it is not surprising to see so many couples painfully suffering rather than enjoying the priceless gifts of vitality, connection, and passion that relationships inherently offer.
Arguably, this reality is a real tragedy, not only for individuals and couples, but also for the world at large. It is particularly troublesome because there is so much we can do to enter into and develop relationships that are healthy, sustaining, and intimate. The healing and skill-based work such relationships require is something that we all can accomplish. In this article, we will take a look at some of the core elements of the active therapeutic work that can increase a person’s capacity to develop and sustain healthy connection and intimacy in one’s marriage or partnership. But first, let’s begin by exploring what typically inhibits couples from showing up to their relationships and how we can effectively engage such threats. We will then discuss the major building blocks that intimacy requires in order to emerge within couples.
Our Unfinished Business
Clearly, while it is not necessarily the case that women tend to marry their fathers and men marry their mothers, my own work with couples nevertheless has revealed and supported the common clinical assertion that “we are drawn to people whose issues fit perfectly with our own in a way that guarantees a reenactment of the old, familiar struggles we grew up with (Real p. 45).” Undoubtedly, this aspect of personal attraction and mate selection seems quite scary to most people, at least initially. But, its brilliant silver lining is that close relationships offer us all the dangerous opportunity to heal and liberate ourselves from our past. In fact, as Real writes, “a good relationship is not one in which the raw parts of ourselves are avoided. A good relationship is one in which they are handled. And a great relationship is one in which they are healed (p. 46).”
Thankfully, our reenacted relational dramas actually offer profound healing and growth in that the drama is similar yet different enough to grant us a new outcome in the present. And this is fantastic news! However, without an awareness and ownership of our unfinished business, we are all prone to entering into relationships in which it is impossible for us to show up given that our past wounds keep us needy on one end and/or walled off and shut down on the other. And this is much of what I tend to see in couples: two adult caricatures fighting real yet unconscious childhood battles where neither party is responsibly showing up to the dance in the present. The costs to this outcome are too great to ignore.
But just imagine if people entered into relationships understanding and knowing a priori that their partnership was inevitably going to expose their unresolved wounds; that such relationships would offer them a solid chance to effectively work through their unfinished business. By embracing their own and their partner’s fallibility, humanness, and vulnerability, I would argue that such couples would be more inclined and better able to show up and engage in the liberating work of creating and sustaining intimacy and respect both for themselves and for each other.
To be sure, this groundwork is a pre-requisite for the creation of intimacy. Surely, a person cannot show up and be seen without choosing first to be vulnerable enough to own and accept their past childhood struggles so that the healing adult can step forward with eyes wide open. By developing greater self-awareness and compassion, we can significantly decrease the chance that our unconscious unfinished business will sabotage our ability to create and otherwise enjoy a potentially sustaining and connected relationship with another.
Healthy Boundaries: What’s Mine? What’s Yours? What’s Ours?
Once a couple begins to see how their individual unfinished business tends to play out in their current adult relationship, boundary work becomes even more essential to the process of creating intimacy and healthy connection. Boundaries share similar purposes that defense mechanisms strive for, yet they are our conscious and deliberate attempts to keep ourselves safe from spiritual, physical, sexual, and/or emotional harm. Developing and setting solid boundaries creates a safe space and framework in which a couple can engage in working through their individual unfinished business and transform their past struggles into newer and more adaptive ways of functioning and relating.
In order to respectfully assert and maintain physical and psychological boundaries, couples benefit from developing shared ideas around their individual unresolved issues that tend to get triggered by the relationship. A couple who can make sense of their individual storied pasts typically come to a clearer sense of and clarity around the fundamental questions of: What is my stuff? What is your stuff? What is our stuff? And lastly, how can we best navigate through all of it? Answers to these questions allow couples to more effectively set their boundaries and increase the chances that each person will maintain his/her integrity in the relationship. This type of self-care and nurturance of one’s own worthiness is the cornerstone of intimate and connected relationships.
Inevitably, however, boundary violations will occur and the integrity of the couple’s bond will be threatened. Yet, couples committed to intimacy creation are able to refocus and repair the damage in order to restore balanced connection once again. In fact, it is precisely this attuned and active restoration work that tends to soften couples into turning to face each other with respect, offering the relationship an even greater level of sustained intimacy and growth.
Differentiation: The Promise of Healthy Boundaries
After a couple is able to understand and own their individual unfinished business and establish healthy boundaries, they come closer to experiencing what is called differentiation. Differentiation is “the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love…It is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly from arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life (Schnarch, p. 51).” Essentially, differentiation occurs when we are able to balance our often competing need for individuality and our drive for togetherness. Healthy boundary setting both affects and is reinforced by the level of differentiation each partner enjoys.
Differentiation is a powerful force within the creation of intimacy as it allows couples to navigate and establish how each person can be who they are individually while concomitantly building a shared sense of “us.” In this sense, the partners can relax into themselves and each other, resting in the comfort that enough space has been created for all parts of the relationship to be sufficiently honored. Conflicts remain as workable and potentially transforming events rather than escalating straight into damaging crises that threaten the fabric of each person’s well-being, never mind the quality of the relationship itself. With the gift of differentiation, neither partner will have to lose their sense of self in order to stay in connection. Such grounding and security beckons a sense of freedom and vitality that intimacy so beautifully unleashes, and which exists as all of our birthrights.
Intimacy as a Learned and Practiced Skill
With the basic foundation set where couples seek to take responsibility for their unfinished business, set healthy boundaries, and enjoy the experience of differentiation, the real work of intimacy creation continues to unfold. Nearly all of the couples I have seen have cited intimacy issues as major concerns. Yet, not many people have ever been taught the skills and tools behind developing a healthy closeness in which partners are able and choose to show up and be seen! In fact, our current expectations regarding relationships and our desire for them to be deeper and of greater quality have changed the entire reality of what it means to be in a relationship in today’s world. As Real explains, “If the twentieth-century marriage was companionable, the new marriage is intimate- physically, intellectually, and above all, emotionally (p. 8).” In order to successfully greet this radical shift, it is clear that we need to begin helping “men become more responsible and more emotionally available while helping women become less resentful and more effective (p. 9).” This type of focused work offers couples a rich opportunity to stand up together for the health and quality of their relationship rather than fighting unwinnable wars of individual empowerment stances in which the possibility of connection is no longer attainable.
Couples Therapy at the Tarnow Center: Take Charge of Your Experience
Take a minute now to contemplate the status of your marriage or partnership. Are you both showing up and enjoying the rewards of intimacy and high quality connection? While relationship struggles have become so common that many people unfortunately settle by coping with or ignoring their dissatisfaction, I suggest that these stances are fundamentally toxic to your overall health and are completely unnecessary. There is no reason compelling enough to choose to languish in an unfulfilling relationship as you navigate your life. Intimacy, vitality, and sustained healthy connection are possible for all who make the courageous choice to finally work through their unfinished business enroute to learning the teachable and practical skills involved in authentically and vulnerably showing up to their relationship.
Real, Terrence. (2007). The New Rules of Marriage. NY: Ballantine Books.
Schnarch, David. (1997). Passionate Marriage. NY: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc.