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What makes people feel close?

 I love it when my clients ask a great question. In years of doing couples work nobody has asked me that directly…until a few weeks ago. Of course there have been variations like “How can we feel closer?,” or the sad antithesis: “How did things get so bad?,” or the common: “Why do we just feel like roommates now?”  So even though we therapists deal in this currency every day, it got me to thinking about some of the likely suspects. Join me, if you will, for a rollicking tour of some of the roles of risk, vulnerability, arousal, attachment and differentiation in answering that big, juicy question.

Vulnerability and Risk

Most couples therapists know that vulnerability is a critical ingredient in successful intimate relationships. But what is it about vulnerability that makes a difference?  As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Brené Brown, and her wonderful research on shame and vulnerability. If you haven’t seen them already you should definitely check out her TED videos: Brené 1 & Brené 2.  As she tells the story, Brené started researching love and connection (AKA “closeness”), and quickly ran headlong into how connection and love get derailed by shame and fear.  What she found was that the people who had the deepest sense of love and belonging were the ones who made themselves the most vulnerable.  They had a deep belief in the value of expressing and revealing their authentic selves, warts and all, and this was in turn related to a feeling of worthiness. By risking vulnerability, they ironically no longer had to hide their flaws from a sense of shame, and this allowed them to feel more whole and fully connected to others.

When It’s Too Scary To Be Vulnerable

My bet would be that most of those wholehearted, unguarded, authentic people that Brené studied were securely attached. Attachment is a mostly stable trait acquired in infancy.  At the broadest level, each person has either a secure or insecure attachment style.  One has to have a foundational sense of safety in order to risk showing one’s flaws. If we emerge from the womb into a chronic atmosphere of criticism, contempt, unpredictable violence, or neglect (to name a few), we have to develop what Tara Brach calls our Space Suit Self:

 The purpose of this space suit is to protect us from violence and greed and to win nurturance from caretakers who, to varying degrees, are bound by their own self-absorption and insecurities. When our needs aren’t met, our space suit creates the best defensive and proactive strategies it can. These include tensions in the body and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and shame; mental activity such as judging, obsessing, and fantasizing; and a whole array of behavioral tactics for going after whatever is missing—security, food, sex, love.

 Our space suit is essential for survival, and some of its strategies do help us become productive, stable, and responsible adults. And yet the same space suit that protects us can also prevent us from moving spontaneously, joyfully, and freely through our lives.

 The physical metaphor is especially apt in terms of emotional intimacy.  How close and connected can you be, even physically, when you (or more likely, both of you) are wearing spacesuits?

The Anxious And The Avoidant – Different Spacesuits

Perhaps one of the most frequent combinations that I see among couples that come to me for help is an anxiously attached person with an avoidantly-attached partner (these are both flavors of insecure attachment styles).  In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy terms, this is the recipe for what Sue Johnson calls the “Protest Polka.”  The cycle they find themselves swept up in is one in which the anxious pursuer senses the avoidant moving away, either physically, emotionally or both.  The pursuer’s anxious spacesuit manifests in the form of nagging, provocation, or blame.  This then annoys, hurts, and/or overwhelms the avoidant partner.  The avoidant partner in turn shuts down further (the avoidant spacesuit), which triggers the pursuer’s abandonment anxiety, and around the cycle goes.

Interestingly, even when they’re not completely caught up in their cycle, it may be hard for both to feel close at the same time because of difficulties understanding and meshing their different styles.  The avoidant partner is more likely to feel close through quiet proximity, or in parallel work or play, while the anxious partner feels close primarily through talking and sharing internal worlds.  So they can have the odd experience of one feeling extremely close and–in the same moment–the other feeling OK, but not so close.   As with many differences, these intimacy gaps can be narrowed through developed mutual understanding, acceptance, and some degree of alternation in which each partner gets “enough” closeness in a sustaining way.

Balancing Positive And Negative

It is hard to feel close when there is a high degree of cross-directed anger in the relationship. Anger is a major component of the experiences of hurt, disappointment, and frustration, all of which get triggered in chronic bouts of blame or withdrawal.  In one sense we can think of relationship health as a simple proportion of positive to negative affect. John Gottman in his earliest analyses of videotaped interactions in couples discovered the famous 5:1 ratio. Even during conflictual conversations about difficult topics, his “master couples” maintained a ratio of five positive interactions for every negative one.  On the contrary, the “disaster couples” came out closer to a ratio of 1:1.  Stan Tatkin points out the importance of couples being able to mutually amplify positive feelings and mutually attenuate—or soothe–negative ones. (Stan also has a great blog article about amplifying positive moments: Daily Rekindling.)

Securely attached individuals learn how to do this through their earliest interchanges with their caregivers, whereas insecurely attached folks learn the opposite.  So, woven in with risking vulnerability, closeness requires the ability to know and do what makes your partner feel good, on the one hand, and also to be able to soothe them when they are not feeling good.  These are complex skills requiring above all what Dan Siegel calls “mindsight,” or the ability to get enough outside of ourselves to really understand our partner as a separate person with different needs, wishes, and ways of responding. Knowing and being able to express your own emotions and desires, as well as recognizing your partner’s separateness in this deep way, is what Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson refer to as differentiation.  As simple as it seems, truly coming to terms with these differences can prove monumental to impossible for some couples.

Differentiation and Pseudo-Closeness

According to Ellyn and Pete’s developmental model of relationships, couples start out in a “symbiotic phase” of early courtship.  While this is an important bonding period, the giddy feelings of being “as one” are in a sense a kind of pseudo-closeness mediated by hormones and fantasy.  As disillusionments set in, either the couple works together towards increasing differentiation marked by growing mindsight towards each other, or they get stuck in their symbiotic fantasies, continuing to wish that the other will “do things the way I do them.”  One hallmark of this kind of symbiosis is when a person says of their partner, “I don’t know why s/he gets so upset about this—if it happened to me it would be no problem.”  This failure to go beyond the assumption that “my partner should act as I do” leads to distance between partners as they continue to insist that each other’s perceptions, thoughts and feelings are “wrong.”

Hormones and Self-Expansion

An increasingly prescribed recipe for closeness involves “doing new things together.”  A variation on date night, the idea is that new experiences (particularly ones that involve an element of excitement), stimulate dopamine, with a concurrent feel-good-together factor.  More interesting–in my view–is the self-expansion hypothesis, which suggests that engaging in novel experiences broadens our self-identities.  Doing so together then, gives us a shared sense of self-expansion, bringing us together.  Oxitocin gets a lot of attention as a bonding/empathy hormone, and has shown some empirical association with in-group/out-group determinations, trust, and a number of connecting activities such as eating together, touch, nipple stimulation and orgasm.  It may also be involved in mediating dopamine, which is a major reward neurotransmitter.

My sense is that overall it’s too early to tell what all this means and what is really involved in these mechanisms.  However, in my experience, if a couple is mired in symbiotic thinking and have pretty deeply worn negative cycles, they can’t even enjoy a meal together, much less agree on a mutually enjoyable new activity.   So I would see the new-stuff-together prescription as great icing on the cake, or helpful for enhancing a relationship that’s out of the woods, but of little-to-no help for getting out of the woods.  (Incidentally, I do see the novel experience thing as being a major contributor to the distraction power of affairs.  That is, affairs are novel and exciting to start with, which is obviously part of their appeal. If on top of that you are doing scintillating new things with your affair partner that you’re not doing with your regular partner, you are really loading the dice for a competition that your existing relationship cannot win.)

Putting It All Together

So how do you get close?  In a nutshell, by risking vulnerability.  That means retracting your focus on your partners drawbacks, and instead acknowledging, accepting, and confiding your own flaws.  This allows you to go beyond your shame, blame, or defensiveness, and have mindsight for who your partner really is with all of his or her differences.  If you can both do that, then you can attune to and soothe each other, shouldering negative emotions as a couple, and enhancing the positive feelings as well.  Then you can truly experience belonging together.

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