Building Emotional Intimacy

  • Blog
  • 12/08/2015

Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar other

…when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship.

It’s hard for me to fathom but I’ve been married for almost 35 years. Having shared my adult life with my husband David it’s easy to assume that there’s little we don’t know about each other. We have traversed so much common life ground I can easily become a bit blasé about getting to know him better. Indeed I’m confident I know him better than any other human being.

This week I’m spending a precious week away with David and it’s interesting to reflect on what takes up our conversation with all this extra time together. With so much familiarity, will there be anything new to share?

One thing David has always seemed to love is listening to music – especially jazz and folk.  He’d prefer it any day to watching TV, which has been a point of difference between us at times. He relishes the opportunity Spotify gives him to try new albums and has determined already this week that he’ll be purchasing the new James Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel CDs. Over lunch today I asked him when he first remembers having this appetite for listening to music. After all these years I had never thought to ask this question. What I learned is that in his first year of high school (junior high for the Americans), he joined a record club recommended by fellow students. I wonder if any of you remember those mail out record clubs offering amazing bargains. In response to more of my questions I learned that he commenced listening to the likes of Uriah Heap, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the boarder’s common room. I wondered how he managed to afford this and learned that his pocket money didn’t go far enough for him to continue after the first year (an early lesson in economics); however this predilection for relaxing to music had been firmly established. I must say I’m pleased his tastes have evolved since those early days!

This is one example amongst many of ongoing ways to keep getting to know another and to not fall into a type of detached over- familiarity. I’ve appreciated the shared conversations about viewpoints on current affairs. What is David’s unique vantage point on matters of business, politics, theology, sport…..? In earlier times my immaturity meant I could be over- attached to my viewpoints on some of these areas. This would mean that I was closed off from being interested to learn from others – including my husband. I’ve come to see how this closes down a relationship system – when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship. This can happen so easily in a marriage – including a shutting down of interest in the other’s perspective about important shared issues such as finances and parenting. I reflect that David and I have often had differences of opinion on politics; and as I make some progress towards more maturity I have shifted from debating such differences (which can result in shutting him down) to seeking to learn from his distinct perspective. This helps move us from fusion to a notch more differentiation – distinct individuals who are simultaneously connected.

Every stage of life presents a new opportunity to get to know a spouse (or any family member). What are their thoughts about this stage of life? About future retirement?  About what’s important to them in our marriage at this time?  About later life issues?  About responding to aging parents? About relating to adult children? About dreams for the future – including outrageous ones? And of course an equal reciprocal exchange of sharing and learning opens up. This builds layer upon layer of intimacy as new knowledge of the other in their evolving life circumstances deepens.

Dr Murray Bowen observed that the less mature relationships tend to close up the exploration of new information – particularly if it was perceived as a threat to harmony. As people become more anxiously fixed in their perspectives they tend to shut down an interest in other’s vantage points. A focus ON the other – often in the form of blaming – rather than an interest IN the other can emerge. As criticism, or more subtle dismissiveness, emerges spouses can live increasingly parallel lives with a focus on others (children or work) and little openness to what their mate has to contribute to their growth and learning. A path to maturity in a relationship is the effort to open up an exchange of information.

For myself on my week’s holday I don’t plan to have a constant exchange of questions and conversation. Of course there’s time for precious quiet and time to do our own thing. For me to plan a how to cook up the local market produce; and David to aim for increased kilometres on his morning runs.  It is however a brilliant opportunity to cultivate curiosity about each other. And as I write I’m hearing some ‘interesting’ new background music playing. What is this music I ask? I’m informed it’s an artist called Morrissey and the song is a pretty obscure title: ‘Suedehead’?….never heard of it! There is always something to discover that I would never stumble upon if left to my solo efforts.


Questions for reflection

  • How open am I in important relationships to hearing the other’s vantage point and perspective?
  • If I’ve shut down this communication what have I replaced it with? Distance? Triangling by talking about others rather than person to person conversation?
  • Are there issues that I hold too much reactive certainty? How does this prevent me being open to learning about what goes into different standpoints?
  • Has a focus on third parties- children, friends, work assignments- replaced the effort to get to know my spouse?
  • If distance has crept in, what are some non- intense ways I can open up curiosity again in this relationship?

Bowen Theory relevant quotes

“ In broad terms, a person to person relationship is one in which two people can relate personally to each other about each other, without talking about others (triangling), and without talking about impersonal things.” Bowen, FTCP, p 340.

“If you can get a person to person relationship with each living person in your extended family, it will help you ‘grow up’ more than anything else you can do in life.”  Bowen, FTCP, p.540.

“Relationships that can be open and productive when calm become tense and non-productive when anxiety rises. Anxious partners display a range of reactive behaviours. They become more argumentative, less thoughtful, more critical and judgmental, more distant from one another and less able to maintain the complex behaviours of self-regulation that mark effective functioning in relationships.” From Dan Papero- Assisting the Two Person System, ANZJFT, 2014.

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