November 08, 2011

The Truth about Secrets and Itimacy in Marriage

We all know that honesty is the best policy but some think that, in relationships, telling the truth is not always a good idea especially when it comes to talking about personal struggles and worries.  Ironically, in spite of the fact that folks believe that their spouse is their best friend, many worry that telling their mate about what is really bothering them will only put an unnecessary burden on them.

This concern is particularly true if the one spouse is aware that the other is going through a tough time and already has enough to deal with.  For many, holding back and not talking about trouble is not seen as keeping secrets but as simply being considerate of their partner's feelings. 

What do you think ? While consideration is a good think in marriage, it is also true that not talking about problems can also be experienced and interpreted as withdrawal or shutting the partner out.  

Today we're going to challenge the popular wisdom and suggest that keeping quiet is not always a good policy for marriage and, indeed, can actually damage a couple's emotional intimacy.  The best policy in marriage is not "Don't ask, Don't tell" but "Do ask, Do Tell". Here are some tips to make talking honestly with your mate easier: 

1. Understand Why  Keeping Things to your Self can be a Problem

Many folks think that if you don't talk about a problem, your mate won't know that something is wrong.  If fact, silence is a form of communication. The problem is that what is being communicated is not clear or explicit and therefore is likely to be misunderstood  or misinterpreted.  While you may though you were sparing him/her, s/he may think you were shutting them out.  Misunderstandings like this can be a major source of big arguments and chronic struggles.  

2. Ask yourself if you want to have an Intimate Marriage

Although most folks say they desire intimacy in their marriage, many don't understand what intimacy is or what it takes to achieve it.  To be truly intimate with your mate means that you are willing to take risks and reveal vulnerable frightened feelings.  It is an emotional risk because, if your partner is insensitive or critical or rejecting, it hurts a lot and the trust between the two of you is damaged. On the other hand, if your vulnerability is met with understanding, love and acceptance.  Trust, confidence and closeness  in the relationship grows.

Likewise true intimacy requires a willingness to take on and share in the pain and worry of your partner. Marriage is not simply for the good times.  Intimacy is built on sharing not avoidance. And while sometimes stressful, sharing pain results is not experienced so much a burden as it is a meaningful time where problems are worked through and intimacy is deepened.    

It may be safer to keep quiet but understand that to do so also means your relationship will be more distant and aloof.

3. Check out your own reluctance to admit feelings or confront a problem.

Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we are doing something for another person's sake when in fact we are doing it for ourselves.  Not wanting to burden our partner with our own troubles may mean that one is not ready to acknowledge them him/herself.  Psychologically this is called splitting off or projective identification. Whatever you call it, it means you need to deal with your own feelings honestly before you can share them with your partner.     

4. Don't make assumptions about what your partner wants. Be Direct. Ask and give him/her a choice.

Being self-disclosing does not mean that one is inconsiderate or selfish.   Often times, however, choosing to not talk about something means that one has made a unilateral decision or has assumed that s/he knows what the his/her mate would prefer without asking.  A good way to keep communications open and avoid misunderstandings is to  be direct and  simply ask your partner what s/he would like. Doing so gives him/her feelings and give him/her a choice.

5. What about being considerate of my partner's feelings or level of stress ?

The important thing about sharing your feelings is the way you do it and the words you use.  I-statements which focus on your experience and request what you would like are the most respectful of your partner's feelings and are the easiest to hear and understand.

Honest and intimate communication is difficult at first but, with practice, it gets easier and the rewards are priceless.

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  11 8 2011

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