Cultivating Intimacy And Vulnerability
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
There is something wonderful about observing synergy in action- two birds in organized flight, two dancers in unison, two lovers intertwined; each is beautiful and valuable in their own right, but when when working together in harmony, they become something to behold. It is remarkable that when we add one thing to another, we end up with something far more than just the sum of different parts. Indeed, when we connect two objects, a new system emerges. That system somehow holds new properties and a capacity that simply did not exist in the objects that formed the system. Synergy- oh the wonder!
Marriage holds great potential for synergy- it is far more than just the coming together of two individuals, and their unique skills and attributes, but rather it is the creation of an exciting new entity, a collaboration that benefits both individuals and society at large. The concept of connection is key here. Synergy cannot exist without connection between individuals. It is the intimate knowledge and understanding of each other, the deep trust and shared purpose, that produces remarkable outcomes. Imagine two people, standing side by side, each occupied with their own actions, each with their own hopes and dreams, but never engaging with one another. There may be double the horsepower, or twice the activity, but there will never be collaboration, intimacy or love, nor any of the other valuable products of an active partnership. Without connection, a relationship is nothing more than a sum of human parts.
Connection is a living, breathing concept, and is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Not only does connection bring with it the promise of exciting new opportunities, shared goals and endeavours, but it is a type of glue that holds couples together through the most challenging times, and allows each to feel safe in the partnership. In my work with couples in distress, disconnection is the most common factor contributing to relationship dissatisfaction, and is the catalyst for problems such as fractured communication, chronic conflict, and lack of emotional and physical intimacy. We typically define connection as a feeling of closeness with our partner, and a sense of engagement in each other’s lives. It is a feeling that our partner is attuned to, and concerned about our welfare and needs, is emotionally accessible and responsive, and that we are accepted and loved for who we are. It commonly produces feelings of trust, and respect. The relationship between connection and emotional intimacy, or the sharing of our hopes, fears, dreams and desires, is bi-directional, with greater connection producing more frequent emotional disclosure, and vice versa. Trust is an important factor here, as fostering emotional intimacy requires a degree of vulnerability and transparency that can be uncomfortable or anxiety-producing if our connection with our partner is weak, and trust is low.
Many couples can identify a time when they began to feel disconnected from their partner; whether it was absence of a once-routine goodnight cuddle in bed, the gradual fading out of conversation in the evenings, or a decrease in empathy and concern for one another in the relationship. These are symptoms of a loss of connection, but as examples of intimate behavior, they also hold the key to strengthening and repairing a bond. Rebuilding connection involves creating opportunities for emotional intimacy; making choices to lean into our partner, rather than away, by engaging in behaviours that encourage closeness, such communicating regularly, being physically affectionate and prioritizing quality time together. In the early stages of a relationship, when loving feelings are strong, we are motivated, almost instinctively, to do this, as we strive to form a strong attachment with our partner. Most couples say that their connection with their partner was strong in the beginning, but became frayed with the passage of time, increased stress, work demands and the arrival of children. The difficult reality is that staying close requires time, motivation and energy- all of which are more plentiful in the early stages of a relationship. As time goes on, and resources are more scarce, we can put our marriage at the bottom of the to- do list, prioritizing other responsibilities and leaning on years of shared experiences and bonds forged in the past to hold us together. But taking this route will almost always lead to a sense of disconnect; the reality is, people and relationships are dynamic, changing over time, and staying close takes work. Just as two dancers must concentrate to stay in sync during a performance, two individuals need to remain vigilant to one another’s needs to maintain their connection, and all the benefits that go with it.
The good news is, there are many clues to rebuilding connection to be found in the history of our relationships. Remember how you felt when you first met your partner, and the joy of discovering what they were like? Too often, when we are caught up in the day-to-day tasks of working, running a household and raising kids, we forget the simple pleasures of intimate conversation. In a well-known psychological study, Aron and colleagues completed a series of experiments, in which they successfully generated feelings of closeness in couples through personal disclosure. In long-term relationships, this kind of talk- which was the basis for connecting in the first place- is often abandoned or forgotten in place of more practical conversation. And when this emotional intimacy decreases, we can drift apart, and lose touch with each other’s needs. We may become uncomfortable showing vulnerability, putting up walls and becoming defensive. Intimate communication take practice, and might need to be approached slowly and gently if feelings of trust have been eroded. Simple questions like, “If you could find out three things about how your life will go in the next 10 years, what would they be?” or “what made you feel grateful this week?” are a good place to start. Once this type of conversation becomes regular, and disclosures are received kindly and without judgment, trust develops, connection is strengthened, and the willingness to be vulnerable with one another increases. In addition, the early stages of a relationship are characterized by constant new, shared experiences. Research indicates that doing something new together can increase feelings of connection and commitment, as can fostering a shared sense of purpose outside family; perhaps in a spiritual, occupational or philanthropic pursuit. These endeavours are also great catalysts for intimate discussion, and provide opportunities to grow closer and discover more about each other. Finally, increasing even the simplest acts of physical affection, such as holding hands, sitting closer on the couch, or reintroducing a morning kiss, has been demonstrated to have an immediate positive effect on sense of connection.
In my experience, trust, vulnerability, connection and intimacy are inseparable bedfellows in a strong relationship. They are interconnected in that, once emotional intimacy improves, so too does connection, and with it trust, and a willingness to be vulnerable with one another. And with this connection, the potential for synergy is unleashed; that wonderful, almost mystical property that emerges when two individuals are intimately connected; engaged, vulnerable, honest, and deeply trusting. In this state, a relationship has the potential to sustain deep love, provide refuge, inspire change, produce loving offspring, and have a purpose that goes beyond what either individuals could have aspired to alone.