As I mentioned in my previous blog, the two pillars upon which love stands are “trust” and “respect”. Why is respect so important? We know it is important because when it is not present, and when we lose respect for our mates, we start to fall out of love with them. And if we don’t honor or respect our mate, it shows in the way we look at them, the way we talk to them, and ultimately by how we treat them.
Respecting someone implies that we treat them with a certain amount of reverence or admiration. When we admire our mates, it shows through the way we communicate by taking their feelings and needs into consideration. There are many ways we show respect of our mates such as, by asking how they feel about something and taking their feelings into account when making decisions. We also work to validate their feelings and don’t criticize them. We empathize with them in letting them know that we understand what they are experiencing.
When we pay attention to our mates and make them a priority in our lives we are showing respect. We communicate disrespect by ignoring, neglecting, being indifferent to, or disregarding them. Are you ignoring your mate? Neglecting their needs? Do you make decisions without asking them what they think?
It is through respecting others that respect is returned to us. Through paying attention to others we show that we value and respect them. What happens when someone acts in ways that makes it difficult for us to respect them? You can choose to disrespect them, or work on identifying the root cause of the issue, typically resentment.
My philosophy is that the two pillars upon which love stands are Trust and Respect. This is a very important concept. These two things need to be present for love to grow and be maintained. This means that we have to trust the person we are in a relationship with and we have to respect them, or ultimately we will fall out of love with them.
It was one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, who wrote “Love and lies don’t go together, at least not for long.” Mr. King was absolutely right. The lies will inevitably build up and drain any trust or confidence that we might have had in our mates. Without confidence in their word, love, at least true love, cannot last.
Trusting someone means that when they say, “I am going to do something, ___________ (fill in the blank) ”, they are going to do it. I am going to pick up the kids after school, get a job, make dinner, etc.” When they say they are going to do something, I believe they do it. When I say “A” you get “A,” not “B” or “C.” You will get what I said you would get. Not only does it mean that we trust them and believe that they will do something, there are several other messages embedded in this behavior.
First, they are an adult vs. a child, where you can’t be sure if they will actually do something or not. Adults actually do what they say they will do. Second, it means that I can take it off my “to do list” and know that it is still going to be done. This is a relief for me. Lastly, it means we can trust “their word.” Now in relationships, being able to trust our partners “word” is huge. If you can’t be trusted, or if you can’t trust your partner to do what they say they will do, then we question everything. We wonder about everything we ask them to do. Will they do it? Will they remember to do it? Will I have to prompt them, or gripe at them to do it? Without the ability to trust our partner, we lose hope.
Hope is important in terms of seeing a brighter future with our partner. Without hope, we lose our sense of optimism that things will be better and that we are in a relationship with an adult, or someone who is capable of being the kind of partner and parent that we need to shoulder the other half of the load. That we are evenly yoked, or that we will only have to do part of the job of raising our children, running a house, paying for bills, etc.
Trust implies not only that they will do what they say they will do. It also implies that they can be trusted with what they say. If people lie, or if they stretch the truth or embellish, the same dynamic applies. If our children tell lies 5% of the time, then we question everything. We question the other 95% of the things they say. This takes a lot of energy and eats away at intimacy. Our partners also feel misunderstood and frustrated when they feel that 95% of the time they were telling the truth. But there is an old saying in psychology, “Anxiety comes either from a task we are unprepared for or a future that is uncertain.” It is hard to base a long-term relationship on the uncertainty of things happening or not happening, believing what someone says or not believing them.
I think another reason that trust is so important to a relationship is that is serves as the basis for our ability to leave the household at the beginning of a workday. If I trust my mate because they are responsible, I have less fear that they will cheat on me or have sexual relations outside of the relationship. If I can’t trust them in our ordinary world, how am I supposed to be secure in my belief that they won’t have an affair? We have to trust our mates or there will always be a lingering fear in our unconscious that they might be plotting something that will shake my sense of security. We realize that if we can’t trust our mates, we are opening ourselves up to being hurt or having our hearts broken.
Not only is there the issue of not knowing if you can rely on your partner, there is the whole issue of their anger when they feel you don’t believe them (because this time they were telling the truth). Inevitably, this leads to comparisons between their behavior and that of a child’s. I don’t know how many times in therapy I have heard, “it’s like I have three children.” Nothing will anger a man or woman quicker or make them feel more disrespected than being compared to a child.
The ability to trust is hard to develop as an adult. Our ability to trust is usually learned as a child. We learn to trust our mother, father, sisters, and brothers. Then we learn to trust the other kids in the neighborhood, and our first teacher. We learn to trust our bus driver, first boss, first boyfriend or girlfriend. That is the process of how we learn to trust. If we realize that we can’t trust our mom or dad because they are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusing us, we start to question whether we can trust at all. Even if it is not our parents that are abusing us, if they don’t protect us from the person, uncle, grandfather etc. that is abusing us, we develop trust issues. If we have early relationships that involve betrayal or cheating, we develop trust issues. When this happens, we start to wonder if we can trust. Should we trust? Or, as some believe, are we better off being an island; someone who doesn’t have to trust or rely on anyone. Someone who is not beholden to anyone, doesn’t need anything from anyone, can’t be hurt by anyone. It is safer. Not necessarily more satisfying, but safer. Yet, even people with trust issues (or as we refer to them intimacy issues) yearn for a relationship.
One of the biggest reasons that trust is such a significant issue in a relationship is that if we don’t trust our partner we start to hold back part of our heart. We become guarded. What I frequently tell my clients is that if we don’t trust our partner we start to hold back either a little bit, a sizable chunk, or a big part of our hearts (10%, 30% or 50% of our hearts). We may not be leaving but we spend parts of our day wondering “How much of my heart should I be holding back”. We ask “what if I put myself in their hands and they betray me?” We start looking at the decisions they are making on a day to day basis, and use those decisions to decide if we should be holding back a great deal of our heart or only a small amount. This means that we hold back access to our inner world, how much we allow ourselves to care for them, to plan on a future with them. We start to prepare ourselves for the possibility that our trust will be betrayed. We don’t want to be blind sided and caught unprepared. Because we know at some deep level that if we can’t trust them we are eventually going to be hurt. In order to decrease this sense of impending hurt and in an effort to minimize the pain. We start to hold back our love, our caring for them. Be become guarded. We know that if we open our hearts to them and care for them, trust them, we can be hurt. This is our way of minimizing the hurt. We fear what might be coming. When that day comes we want to be in charge or in control of how much we are hurt. In essence to minimize the chance that we will be devastated. We know we need to be there for our children, to continue to be able to work. We know that if we limit our vulnerability to them, we can only be hurt a little bit (or at least that is what we tell ourselves).
We dream however, of a relationship where we don’t have to hold back any of our heart. A relationship where we trust our partner with our best interest, with our hearts. One where we don’t expend energy on looking at their daily attitudes and decisions to decide how little of ourselves we are going to open up, how little of our hearts we will risk. One were we trust them implicitly. One where our energies can go to productive efforts rather than self-protective ones.
Trust is important because if we can trust them to hold true to their words, we can trust them with our hearts. We can trust them with our love. We open up our inner worlds to them and become vulnerable because of this. But if they have shown that they cannot be trustworthy with small things, then we know that we should hold back a commensurate amount of our hearts.
Our partners may or may not perceive that we have started to hold back part of our hearts. And just because a person holds back part of their heart it does not necessarily mean that they are planning on leaving their mate. It simply means that a person has some fear that their feelings may be in jeopardy, and that they should preemptively go into self-preservation mode. When we start to hold back a small amount of our hearts, most people start to at least fantasize about leaving their mate and how nice it would be to be with someone they can trust. When greater amounts of our hearts are held back, individuals start to actually make contingency plans just in case they are betrayed. Once again, this does not necessarily mean that they are actually leaving, but they want to be prepared just in case. Once a critical mass of miss-trust is met, (or holding back a significant portion of ones heart) do most people start to actually begin to put together a war chest, or financial stock pile in order to be able to survive the upcoming life trauma.
What happens, when issues are not being resolved or when people do not stay in the ring long enough to get closure on important issues? What happens, when over time, people lose hope of ever being able to resolve their issues with their mates and resentments build? What happens is that the laughing, teasing, joking, and interest in sex start to dry up and we start to grow apart. In essence, we go from having access to our partner’s inner world to getting almost nothing. We go from having access to their third button …. to no buttons at all. They no longer trust us enough to allow us into their inner world. This promotes a growing apart. When this happens, couples start to not allow the partner who used to have an all access pass, into their world. We don’t want to share with them or can’t simply share with them. It makes us too anxious. We don’t know if we can trust them. The frustrated partner usually senses this and start to ask questions to test how much access they have, asking us “What we are thinking?” We must then ask ourselves, do we let our guard down or not? Do we lower our fences and let them in, or do we say, “Oh, nothing,” or, “I don’t know”.
When couples reach this level of disconnectedness, ultimately, they report feeling like they are roommates and not husband and wife. When we sense that we are no longer given access to our mate’s inner world, we sometimes over react and attempt to pry out the information we want from them. This means that we ask pointed questions or put pressure on our mates to open up. The natural outcome of this, however, is opening up even less access, not more.
Why is it that many couples live happily for five, ten, twelve years before they start to have problems? In many cases, there tends to be a critical mass of resentment built up before it starts to affect the intimacy level of the relationship.
What does it mean to be intimate? The term ‘intimacy’ comes from the Latin word ‘intima’, meaning innermost or core. At our cores are the things we are worried about – the things that we are thinking about. Our intimaes also hold those things about us that we fear are broken or less than perfect. Our intima holds those child-like emotions that we share with our lovers or our children. Intimacy is the willingness and the ability to self-disclose those most sacred of inner thoughts and feelings. It is what is going on in our head. Our ability to be REAL is what is in our intima.
Being intimate means being open and honest with people. Our intimates means those with whom we can let down our guard. Everybody that we meet gets some access to our intima. The metaphor I use is like a shirt with three buttons. How many buttons do you unbutton? For the majority of people we meet, we unbutton ourselves one button. We show them only a small portion of our inner world. We share information about ourselves or show them some of the things that we have been thinking about. To our friends and those that we trust, we are able to reveal even more about ourselves. We unbutton ourselves two buttons for these people. We share with them our fears or the things that we are worried about. The nature of sharing intimate things is that we are communicating, “ I trust you with the information that I am sharing. I know that you will honor it and not use it to hurt me or share it with others.” We must trust them in order to reveal our innermost thoughts and fears because we lay ourselves bare before anyone that we share this level of disclosure with.
The third button, or opening oneself up intimately, is the ability to truly share our feelings, thoughts, and concerns in an atmosphere of total acceptance. It is in this atmosphere that we match the level of disclosure that our partners or friends engage in and visa versa. Each person has an inner circle of people that they are truly intimate with. This means people who know their flaws; those secret parts of them which are broken or less than perfect and these people accept them despite their flaws. These are the people who are privy to the third button or access to our cores. With them, we are able to be entirely honest and hold little information back. We share our dreams and those deepest feelings that define us.
I laughingly say sometimes that there is a fourth button but behind that lays our sexual fantasies and private dreams. The point I am trying to make is that we have levels of vulnerability that we are willing to tolerate. The main criteria is that we have to be willing to trust the individual we are being intimate with in order to open up emotionally with them.
But let me be plain: intimacy is a HUGE issue, especially for women (and about half of all men). If your mate has said, “I don’t’ feel emotionally connected to you anymore”, what they are probably saying is “I don’t feel that you open up and share your inner world with me anymore or I don’t feel that I want to open up and share with you.” Take note, these are very important messages and should not be ignored.
Most marriages end due to a buildup of unresolved resentments. It is that simple. I have been doing marriage counseling for over twenty years. In that time I have made a number of observations about what differentiates healthy couples from couples that are close to ending their relationships. The focus of my treatment is less on general conflict management strategies or improving communication skills. Instead, I have learned to focus first on what was causing resentments in the marriage and then how to help my clients to find strategies that make their arguments more bearable, more tolerable, more respectful, and more productive. Learning how to stay in the ring until the issue is resolved is a key turning point. The reason this is key is that when the discomfort can be tolerated, issues can be resolved. When issues can be resolved, the couple develops hope. When the couple has hope about their future, they can let go of some of the resentments of the past.
So where does resentment come in? When couples have years of arguments without closure there is the “damage of the argument without the healing of reaching an agreement.” Resentment is the fruit of years of unresolved issues. The problem is that if you can’t get closure, if you can’t resolve your issues, if you can’t stay in the ring and get closure on the issue enough to resolve it, where does it go? Where does the problem go?
What I see with healthy relationships is this: if a couple has an issue regarding money, parenting, sex, chores, spending, etc, the majority of couples find a way to discuss the problem. There are detours, some interrupting and most will agree that eventually a degree of discomfort (especially for the member that bares the most responsibility for the argument). However, after some awkwardness and emotional pain, the couple finds a way to ask, “So what is the plan”, or, “how are we going to compromise?” These couples manage their emotions better than most. They stay more respectful. There is less interrupting and harsh words. These couples have fewer detours to dead end arguments or needless guilt inductions and, generally, the volume of the discussion stays lower. As a couple, they stay in the ring and eventually resolve the problem. It is like the problem goes away.
But what if they can’t resolve their problem? What if there is too much focus on bringing up things from the past? Or name calling? Or rolling the eyes? What if there is bullying or intimidation? What if the couple goes down every path other than the one that leads to resolving the issue?
These are the couples that can’t resolve their issues. These are the ones who can’t discuss the problem and reach an agreement they can both live with and ultimately stick to. What happens to the issue if you can’t resolve it?
What these couples do is this: They open up the basement door, and they kick the issue down in the basement, and slam the basement door. Then at some point they ‘make up’. They act as if the issue has gone away, but it doesn’t go away. If we have the ability to get in the ring and resolve the issue at hand, it does go away. However, if we can’t resolve it and we kick it down in the basement, it goes down in the basement with 10 years (or however old the relationship is) of other gunk and junk and unresolved issues. It gets all funky and smelly. That smell is RESENTMENT. As the resentment starts to build up in a relationship, it starts to permeate the relationship and all we smell when we come home, (because it works its way through the floorboards) is anger, bitterness, and dislike for our partner. When this happens, we start to drift away from our partner emotionally. When couples realize that they do not have the ability to resolve their differences, something happens to their relationship. They lose hope.
When couples lose hope that they can constructively work out their problems, there are changes in the way that the couple interacts with each other. My experience is that little issues act as triggers (thus generating a resentment dynamic) and are magnified when there is no chance of dealing with any of the problems. After time, all couples ask themselves, “can we resolve our differences or not?”
In dynamics where the couples do not have the tools to resolve their differences, resentment builds up. The couple loses hope that they will ever be able to rebuild the love and connection that characterized the early part of the relationship. There are not enough extended periods of calm when emotional healing can occur. Long periods of time when the couple just gets along well. When this happens, the couple starts to grow apart and small changes start to creep into the way that they interact with each other. These changes affect the level of connectedness and the couple’s ability to open up to each other. In other words it affects their level of intimacy.