Many couples struggle to maintain one of two things in their relationships: stability or intimacy. The fact is that relationships need both to survive and thrive, but often our efforts to save one seem to harm the other.
So what should we do?
Luckily, Dr. Bruce Chalmer has the answers and he’s happy to help couples figure out the right balance for a stable relationship that’s characterized by kindness and intimacy.
Stability and Intimacy in Relationships
There are essentially two golden gifts you need to assume good will in a relationship: stability and intimacy. You need to get good at both if you want your relationship to work.
And the funny thing about the two gifts is that sometimes they work together, but sometimes they conflict: your work to develop one makes it harder to hang on to the other, which is why long-term relationships can be so challenging to maintain.
Stability skills are all about building a sense of confidence in each other and in the relationship. You come to know what helps your partner feel good, and you learn how to comfort them when they’re upset or sad.
You show up when you’re needed. You do your part to keep the bills paid, the house in decent order, and the kids picked up and dropped off. You’re generally reliable, which means generally sober—substance abuse can wreak havoc on reliability.
Of course, a fundamental stability skill is fostering a trust that neither you nor your partner will be violent or use threats to intimidate each other.
Sexual fidelity is another basic stability skill: you don’t cheat, and you behave in ways that reassure your partner that you won’t cheat.
Essentially, stability skills are all about lowering anxiety—both your own and your partner’s.
It’s Not About Communication Skills
Most couples who come to see me tell me that they are looking for a better way of communicating. Many of them keep breaking up in the midst of arguments, which seem to solve nothing and leave both parties frustrated and hurt.
Could they find tools for improving their communication skills, so they could solve their problems instead of turning them into arguments? Wouldn’t that give them a better chance at a stable relationship?
A Google search for “tools to improve communication skills” turned up over fifty million results, so there’s no lack of available resources.
But, for most couples who come to me, the real problem isn’t a lack of communication skills. The problem is what they thought and felt, not how they communicated it.
What they think and feel is essentially “I don’t trust you,” and they communicate that very clearly. Communication techniques such as “I” statements, active listening, restatements, and the like won’t make it any clearer.
The problem with techniques is that when you’re freaking out, the portion of your brain that can remember and implement the technique isn’t available. And when you’re calm, the technique isn’t necessary (and feels awkward to boot).
Why Communication Techniques Don’t Work
The rules for fair fighting are often great descriptions of how a well-functioning couple communicates in times of disagreement: no blaming, no yelling, no insulting language, no responding without first checking that they’ve understood their partner, and so on.
Learning how well-functioning couples communicate can be a useful exercise, since it can help you to see both your helpful and unhelpful actions.
But when couples try to apply the rules as a way of governing their fights, they sometimes just end up arguing about the rules and who’s violating them more egregiously.
Character Supports Stability
The key to stability is acting based on what’s right, not how you feel. It’s what every culture strives to teach its children: that the norms of good behavior need to take precedence over what you’re feeling in the moment.
Good character doesn’t mean that someone blindly complies with cultural norms. In fact, we often come to admire people who seek changes to cultural norms in the name of a higher good.
But someone of good character is someone you are more likely to trust—even if you may disagree with them—because it’s clear that their willingness to take an unpopular stand is principled, rather than driven by their own base urges. In other words, the essence of good character is selflessness, not self-actualization.
That’s why character is the key to stability in relationships. Even if you disagree with your partner, good character allows for trust. And, conversely, that’s why an exclusive focus on self-authenticity—as often happens in individual therapy—can be profoundly destabilizing to a relationship.
Feelings change moment to moment, but character stands the test of time, which is why stability requires character. When you can control your own reactions and trust that your partner can control theirs, stability becomes possible.
Why Is Intimacy So Important in a Relationship?
Deprive an organism of its needs, and it will become sick. Instability is relational sickness—too much of it and the relationship dies. You might think that by avoiding the anxiety of intimacy you will preserve stability, but your efforts will ultimately fail, because a lack of intimacy itself becomes destabilizing.
To be intimate with the world is to act consistently on those physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. More specifically, to be intimate is to be open to what the world wants from you, and to act on what you want from the world.
Intimacy is what gives you the feeling of being alive, because intimacy is being alive. If you’re denied that intimacy, you get sick.
And when a relationship interferes with your ability to express intimacy, you’ll act like a seed planted under a sidewalk: you’ll press through, even if it means cracking the sidewalk to do it.
A relationship that is too sensitive to the partners’ changing emotions will lurch from crisis to crisis, lacking the stability to survive.
But a stable relationship that doesn’t allow for growth and change—one that stifles intimacy—will also face an eventual crisis: it will either learn to adapt, or die.
Intimacy Skills Are About Tolerating Anxiety
As I noted earlier, stability skills are all about lowering anxiety: you behave in ways that reassure yourself and your partner, and you avoid doing things that might increase anxiety.
But intimacy requires a very different set of skills. Intimacy skills aren’t about lowering anxiety; rather, intimacy requires that you tolerate, and sometimes even raise, anxiety.
To risk genuine emotional honesty, and to be open to someone else’s honesty, is often scary. And the more important that someone else is to you, the scarier intimacy can be.
Ironically, it’s often easier to be intimate with someone who’s not particularly important to you than it is with your partner, the person with whom you’re trying to build a stable life.
That’s why the pull of an affair can be so powerful: it gives free rein to your desire for intimacy, since you’re not trying to build a life with an affair partner.
The paradox that many long-term couples encounter is that the more important their relationship becomes to them, the scarier intimacy can be.
To express a hitherto hidden desire, raise a complaint about your partner’s behavior, or even let yourself show unbridled joy and enthusiasm is to risk your partner’s rejection, anger, or disconnection.
The key to developing intimacy in an important relationship—that is, a relationship for which you want long-term stability—is learning to tolerate the anxiety that comes with emotional honesty.
This means not only a willingness to say what you need to say, but also a willingness to hear with an open heart what you might not want to hear.
Kindness Needs Both Stability and Intimacy
Kindness is what keeps couples together, but the two golden gifts of stability and intimacy are what make it possible to stay together. To retain that feeling of kinship, you need both the comfort of stability and the aliveness of intimacy.
For evidence of this, just consider what happens when you lack either one.
The roller-coaster instability of many couples I’ve seen was reflected in their frequent breakups, but also in their inability to trust each other’s good will when they would reunite.
Any moment of insecurity for one of them was apt to trigger anxiety in the other, even while each (consciously or not) was holding the other responsible for relieving their anxiety.
Each was effectively saying, “If only you would be clear, unambiguous, and consistent in your loving behavior toward me, I wouldn’t have to doubt you so much. But you keep doubting me!”
So, in addition to the differences that arose simply from being two different people, they were continually beset by doubts about each other’s loyalty, which made them more suspicious of each other’s motives.
Their initial predilection to assume good will was eroded. Instead of seeing each other’s moments of irritability as pain, thereby eliciting sympathy and comfort, they saw those moments as evidence of bad intent and disloyalty, thereby eliciting suspicion and hostility.
They came to my office realizing that this pattern was unsustainable, but they were unclear on how to escape it.
For others, the problem was intimacy. They had been so successful in avoiding issues that might threaten their stability that they had effectively closed off emotional honesty between them. Instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, they had gradually shut down the parts of themselves that made them feel alive.
For most of the couples I see, the problem is that the lack of stability, lack of intimacy, or both diminishes their kindness toward themselves and each other.
If they could calm themselves enough to foster stability, or tolerate the anxiety enough to risk intimacy, they might be able to return to the sense of kinship that brought them together. But the anxiety often overwhelms them.
In other words, the problem is panic.
Panic and Relationships
For our species (not uniquely, but especially), the potential loss of a primary relationship feels dangerous, and our physiological response to that danger shuts down our capacity for rational thought (the better to fight you with, my dear).
If we’re important to each other, we’re good at tuning in to each other’s feelings—especially if we sense rejection. And that means that my panic can easily become your panic.
As you experience my distress as a potential loss, your distress can ramp up, which then confirms my fears, and we’re off and running.
Worse, my fears about your reaction might not even be an accurate read of a particular situation—maybe you were just annoyed by something or someone else. But if I take your reaction personally, my panic will become your problem, and I’ll produce just what I was fearing in the first place.
Fortunately, we’re not exclusively governed by our limbic reactions. The tendency for the cerebral cortex to shut down when we feel threatened isn’t all-or-nothing, and there are opportunities for other systems to moderate the effects of panic.
Can Anxiety Ruin a Relationship?
We need stability, which means we need to be able to lower or avoid anxiety, so as not to threaten our relationships with excessive panicking.
Therefore, we steer clear of fear as much as we can. Since we find our partners’ negative reactions unpleasant, and therefore anxiety-producing, we try to avoid triggering them.
This means that we learn to tolerate many of the differences we encounter, rather than threaten the relationship by making an issue of them.
Couples who aren’t able to calm themselves enough to deal with differences have a very hard time maintaining stable relationships. A lot of the techniques used in therapy, especially individual therapy, are about helping us calm ourselves.
But we also need intimacy, which means we must be able to tolerate the inevitable anxiety that comes with speaking honestly to someone important.
Indeed, it’s the very importance of the relationship that raises your anxiety, because being honest with your partner about something you object to or something you want risks opposition, rejection, or disconnection from your partner. Intimacy is scary with someone who matters.
Many couples avoid the anxiety by suppressing objections, desires, or deep feelings so as not to threaten the stability of the relationship. That can work for a while—sometimes a long while. But couples who shut down intimacy are dying a slow death. They will find ways to break free; affairs are often how they do it.
Tolerating anxiety, not lowering or avoiding it, is a prerequisite for intimacy. That’s because dealing with something important often requires us to raise our own, and our partner’s, anxiety. Hence the tension between stability skills and intimacy skills.
If I learn how to calm myself, I can keep my thinking brain functional enough to not run screaming from the room when something is amiss. But if I’m so afraid of the discomfort of anxiety that I try to avoid it altogether, I’ll find that I also avoid bringing up difficult but important issues, thereby stifling intimacy.
If only we could eliminate anxiety, we could have both stability and intimacy with ease. After all, isn’t it our anxiety, and our ability to stimulate it in our partners, that deprives us of both stability and intimacy?
Learning to Manage Anxiety
But if I don’t also feel anxiety when I sense that my spouse is angry with me, I won’t act in ways to avoid that situation, which, from my spouse’s point of view, makes me an inconsiderate jerk. To care about someone is, at least in part, to feel at risk when you think about losing the relationship. Love entails anxiety.
More broadly, to love anything—be it a person, thing, abstract idea, or whatever—is to experience anxiety when you sense that it is at risk. Anxiety isn’t a bug of human evolution; it’s a feature.
The admonition “Don’t panic” in our seven-word formula doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to panic. It’s just a shorthand way of saying that you need, both individually and as a couple, to keep your (inevitable) anxiety within limits that allow for both stability and intimacy.
And many couples learn those skills by encountering a particular kind of crisis in their relationship. Whether they manage to survive as a couple often depends on how they get through that crisis.
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We hope you’ve enjoyed this exclusive excerpt from Dr. Bruce Chalmer’s Reigniting the Spark. Order your copy today to learn how you can restore intimacy in your relationship.