Learning to Tolerate being Close, Starts with Communication

We learn how to either tolerate closeness as a child.  Some of us have difficulty tolerating closeness due to experiences we had as a child.  Let’s say your mother is a doting mother and she hugs and loves you all the time.  At times it can feel suffocating.  This behavior gets reinforced repetitively as you come in contact with her.  Over time this suffocating feeling is a feeling you want to avoid.  As an adult if you have a friend or lover who feels too overwhelming the old feelings of suffocation can resurface causing you to want to push away, because it feels to overwhelming and stifling.

The same can happen when you feel abandoned by a parent.  You may have a father who was always gone when you were growing up.  You always longed being with him.  This situation continued through your childhood and you develop skills to deal with it the best way you could, but there was always a hole inside.  You want to fill the hole.  You can be fill the hole with healthy people and activities or the opposite.  No matter what you fill the hole with, it’s still a hole. The reaction inside when one feels abandoned is a strong need or desire.  This strong desire can become irrational, because the hole longs and wants connection.  This drive can cause individuals to do irrational things.  For example, yelling at a partner when he or she has been away for a period of time.  Distancing yourself away from someone emotionally to avoid the feelings of abandonment.

It’s like a balancing act.  Balancing the need to be close to others and the need to be autonomous.  Many couples struggle with negotiating space.  How do I fill holes within myself without reacting impulsively to my partner?  How do I allow others close to me in order to develop an intimate loving connection?

Some individuals have no idea they struggle with closeness.  They continue to act out or avoid feelings.  These behaviors deteriorate a relationship over time, causing both partners to feel fatigued in the relationship.  The relationship begins to feel like constant drama.  Communication breaks down and soon a partner or both question if they should be together.  This is usually when a couple comes into my office.

During the beginning of couples therapy, I help couples learn how to communicate.  Most couples have no idea how to listen or speak to their partners.  Partners will misinterpret what her or his partner just said.  Then an argument of perceptions occurs and you can never argue a perception.  A perception is a belief one holds, which comes from her or his word view.  No one will share the absolute world view of another.  To help each partner understand each other.  I teach the couple the dialogue of intimacy.  Intimacy means to see into your partner.  Learn about he or she’s vulnerability and develop compassion and empathy about your partner’s experience outside of your own opinions and judgements.  I teach partners to recognize when they criticize or defend themselves during the dialogue of intimacy.  Criticizing and defending prevents closeness.  Just imagine criticizing as throwing spears and defending is hold up a shield to protect yourself.  Both of these behaviors keep you from being close to your partner.  The key is to help both partners reduce these behaviors and replace them with empathy, curiosity, interest, gentleness, compassion and understanding.

After a couple learns effective communication and they both develop skills to manage emotion, the next step is understand what happens when each partner experiences closeness.  How does each partner respond to closeness?  Are there behaviors that one will participate in in order to push a partner away?  Are boundaries communicated effectively?  Are these boundaries respected or ignored?  I’m looking for all these types of behavior and staying curious to understand why this is happening in the coupleship.  What needs are not being met?  Are these needs expressed?  Is it feasible to attend to some of these needs?  Are they reasonable requests?  During this stage, I educate and help both partners see what is happening within them and between them.

Keep in mind when approaching couples therapy, problems in relationships are 50 – 50.  Each individual brings an issue to the table.  The work of couples therapist is to help clients communicate in order to begin understand.  The next step is education and developing rationale on what is happening in the couple dynamic.  Is there a closeness issue?  Are these partners having difficulty getting close or initiating boundaries.  All of these issues can be solved, by learning new skills to meet the needs of the individual and the coupleship.

Elana Clark-Faler
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