Vail Relationships: Working through differences
Vail, CO Colorado
Dear Neil: As a follow up to your recent columns on how to deepen a new relationship, what would you advise if my fiance and I have a sharp divergence of style, or an important difference of opinion? I grew up in a caring and loving household, and I crave greater levels of closeness, intimacy and depth with her. She, on the other hand, grew up in a very unloving household, where she was emotionally, physically and sexually abused. She acknowledges that she pushes away and distances when we get close, and that she keeps herself less available and less involved as a form of self-protection.
But couldn’t that equal trouble for us later on? She wants to keep things “safe,” whereas I crave greater levels of closeness. What do we do when our styles and comfort levels are strikingly different—and when there appears to be no hope of us seeing eye to eye?
Reconsidering in Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Wellington: Exploring the differences between you and your fiance can lead to disagreements and doubts, but it can also lead to greater levels of depth, connection and closeness that you seek.
Here’s what I would recommend: First, define what you want—specifically. You say you want greater levels of closeness and depth. So which specific behaviors would give you that level of intimacy? Would she be more affectionate? More communicative? More revealing of her inner vulnerabilities and dreams? Specifically what behaviors would assist you in feeling closer and more intimate with her? Be very clear about what behaviors you would like different, and then ask her for what you want.
Then explore what you think she is asking of you. What does she need in order to feel safe around you? If you’re not clear about how she would respond to this question, ask her. You might also ask such questions as: “What is so fearful about being close for you?” “How can I help you to feel safe around me?” “Is there anything you’d like me to say that will reassure you?” “Is there anything you’d like me to not say or do?” “What do you want me to do different?”
Be willing to listen non-defensively, with an interest in learning rather than justifying your own feelings or behaviors. Look carefully at whether your top priority is to protect the relationship—or to prove her wrong or yourself right.
Now take turns answering the following questions together. These questions were stimulated by author Nathanial Branden:
Some of the ways I distance myself from you are….
I’m sometimes afraid that….
I feel especially loved when you….
I feel most connected with you when….
You could help me talk about my feelings more if you would….
If I were more willing to expose how vulnerable I feel….
If I could face you with less self-protective armor….
One of the ways I can be difficult is….
If I were to notice the effect I have on you….
If I brought a bit more friendliness to my encounters with you…
I love that you….
I love that we…
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at (303) 758-8777, or email him from his website http://www.heartrelationships.com.