Relational Intimacy in Marriage: Fear Vs. Vulnerability
Andy Ainsworth,MA, LMFT
Relational Intimacy in Marriage: Fear Vs. Vulnerability
Through the years it has been humbling and an honor to be associated with David Ferguson and Great Commandment Ministries. Most of what I have written about originates from Dr. Ferguson’s book and healing vehicle, Intimate Encounters.
Achieving Relational Intimacy in Marriage
With David’s mentoring and my counseling journey (as client and professional), I have realized the significance and lethality of aloneness, the significance of authentic relational care, obstacles to relational intimacy, and the foundational ingredient of compassion vs. pride in marriages. This article will address a second ingredient to deeper relational intimacy in marriage in the form of trust and vulnerability vs. distrust and fear.
Whether our experience is positive or negative in the areas mentioned above, one thing is for sure: they both require a tremendous amount of work. One might be thinking, “How can neglecting or causing pain in a marriage require a lot of work?”
My response is very simple. I will make this personal, of course with my wife Paulette’s permission. When (not if) I hurt Paulette’s heart with a critical attitude and emotional withdrawal, there is pain in her heart which I have caused. I can tend to forget that my hurtful behavior also adds proverbial emotional rocks to my backpack that I inevitably lug around. These are rocks of guilt, shame, regret, condemnation, pride, and even bitterness, none of which we are created to contain.
When I remain blind or quiet about this pile of rocks, I find the impact on my spiritual, emotional, and physical body crippling as I walk through the day. If I am not proactive in addressing my heart, it becomes harder as days go by. I may even learn to rationalize and justify my condition and enter the blame game that is common to men and women. In fact, King David reflects on his history of causing pain and the impact on his spiritual, emotional, and physical life when he wrote Psalm 32:
“When I kept silent (before I confessed), my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand (of displeasure) was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer.” – Psalm 32:3-4 (Amplified & NLT)
I can become so accustomed to carrying these rocks that I may deceive myself into believing I am walking strong while I am noticeably struggling or emotionally limping, which becomes painfully obvious to those who are closest to me.
Conversely, in order to experience healthy relational intimacy in our marriages, it requires very proactive, intentional work. I agree with Dr. Ferguson’s assertion that many people perpetuate the myth that healthy relational intimacy shouldn’t require so much work. He suggests that too often, couples reject the notion that healthy marriages are directly correlated to work invested through healthy relational care.
Many people believe to this day that, “If a couple has to work at being close, they should probably not be married. A marriage either works or it doesn’t. You either click or you do not. You just naturally, spontaneously love each other. If you do not have these feelings, you call it quits and find someone else for whom you do have those feelings.”
Dr. Ferguson goes on to say, “Genuine, enduring love is not just a feeling. Feelings change; they can be as fickle as the wind. If we plan to build a lifelong relationship on how we feel today, chances are we will never make it. Intimacy does not just happen. It requires some work, some effort. The fact that it takes effort is not a sign that we have a bad marriage. The truth is the best marriages are those in which both partners are committed to constantly working on things.”
I find it interesting that most people expend energy on what truly interests them. Husbands and wives who love each other demonstrate tremendous passion on mutual interests or supporting one another in their respective interests. These may be great things. Thousands of dollars and time may be invested into endeavors that are good and healthy, even blessed by God. But when asked to invest in or consider passionately working on relational intimacy as it applies to working on reemerging emotional pain, you would think I am asking them to pull a tooth with no Novocain.
So what does this work look like? What does it mean to develop relational intimacy in marriage? I have been discussing thoughts on the negative and positive work along with some myths that hinder marriages. The notion of working on a relationship seems to confuse many couples. I hear from many couples that they are trying to make it work and the consequences are increased frustration, feelings of futility, and even feeling hopeless. I have learned to believe what couples are saying. In fact, I have worked with many couples who possessed relational motivation and a work ethic that at one point evoked feelings of sadness and confusion in my own soul. It didn’t make sense until I finally learned the significance that a solid relational work ethic requires using the right relational ingredients for marriages.
Distrust and Fear
When individuals choose selfish pride to guide their relationships, they invariably experience a life of being alone. That being said, selfish pride will most likely lead to emotional blindness and struggles that lead to conflict. My experience with couples has been that selfish pride often leads to experiencing distrust and fear in their relationships. Sadly, there is most likely years of pain connected to families of origin that perpetuated this relational dynamic that won’t simply go away, although there are intermittent positive events or experiences that may disguise the conflict that persists.
If a woman is married to a man (or a man to a woman) who demonstrates behavior consistent with a prideful heart, she will avoid conflict and may make efforts to keep the peace, painfully and too often at a high price. This doesn’t necessarily mean she is endangered, although it doesn’t exclude the possibility. What it does mean is that she will experience the absence of emotional safety or security in knowing she can address relational concerns. There is a pervasive and invisible secret of profound distrust in the marriage.
People will avoid discussing problematic areas in their relationship. Distrust evokes fear that blocks people from talking about their physical intimacy, financial struggles, parenting issues, potential chemical dependency, pornography, hurtful words or attitudes, and the list goes on. As I discussed earlier, these bags of rocks get heavier as time goes and people resort to fearful behaviors in order to somehow survive in marriage or in any close relationship.
Below are three areas where relational distrust may manifest into fearful behavior, plus three areas of hope. I encourage you to examine your own heart as you read these. Following these three concepts are encouraging words of life as applied to trust and vulnerability in your marriage.
1. Fearful tendency: Trusting God to meet our needs vs. expecting/demanding that our partners meet them.
This involves trying to get our spouse to meet our needs through nagging, scolding, manipulating, or outright demanding tactics, i.e., threats or ultimatums. Usually these emotionally insecure reactions expose a person’s self-reliance and self-centeredness. This tendency may lead us to asking ourselves where we are in our faith.
May we be so humble and audacious as to regularly pray for our spouse. Most people avoid praying for their spouses, much less, praying with them. By faith will we trust God to help us catch our thoughts and charged emotions (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Will we stop nagging, manipulating, or game playing in an attempt to get our spouse to meet our needs? This is faith based and we must take personal responsibility for our emotions and our thinking.
2. Fearful tendency: Honestly expressing our needs in non-demanding, non-critical ways vs. hiding our needs or attacking our partners for not meeting them.
We all seem to experience fearful tendencies to either hide or hurl. Would you pause for a moment of reflection and ask yourself if you are specifically a hider, a hurler, or both? Is your husband/wife a hider, a hurler, or both?
What would faith look like in this situation? How would we act upon what God says in our marriage? If there are two people who are willing to compassionately engage, we are inclined to tell our spouses our needs, not expecting “mind reading. Will we avoid tearing our spouses down directly as well as not tearing them down to family and friends? Are we willing to experience Ephesians 4:15 that instructs us to “speak the truth in love”?
3. Fearful tendency: Stop giving because our partner is not giving. Start taking what we need.
Am I willing to give even when my spouse is not giving? As I shared earlier, when (not if) I am critical and withdrawing, something very wonderful happens. Paulette invariably moves toward me with care and kindness because she knows there is hurt that has become symptomatic in my life and our relationship. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t examine my soul (mind, emotions, will) and work on correcting this character issue within me, but I feel safer in going towards Paulette with my concerns much sooner.
What usually happens as Paulette and I move toward one another with gentleness, even though something is clearly bothering me, we are able to listen to one one another’s unmet needs and work on meeting them. There is that word “work” again.
Trust and Vulnerability
When compassionate care imperfectly becomes our foundation for marriage, it is amazing how our bag of emotional rocks begins to feel lighter. Additionally, when conflict emerges, we experience a visceral confidence, a feeling of emotional security that allows people to come together and dialogue, including respectful, honest disagreement that is saturated with acceptance and kindness. When kindness is the central theme of a marriage and we enter into conflict, we are more inclined to confess our faults to one another and forgive one another.
This isn’t a formula or an equation, it is the positive consequences for the solid rock foundation of compassionate care. This sounds unrealistic and even impossible to many people, because their habit is to vent, demand, expect, and express anger in hurtful ways because they need to win and must claim their rights.
What Paulette and I have learned over time is to express ourselves in a way that is pleasing to God, healthy for one another, deeply honest about frustrations, giving and receiving care in the form of listening, seeing through one another’s eyes, and at times end our dialogue in disagreement and still enjoy a night out in spite of our differences.
In future articles, I will present more concretely what this practical love is in the form of specific relational needs and how to love through conflict. For now, here are six positive consequences of compassionate care as applied to trust and vulnerability.
1. We will learn to trust and to gently and respectfully confront issues where our marriage is conflicted.
2. We will learn to trust and vulnerably confess our faults to one another.
3. We will learn to trust without fear that we are able to humbly ask forgiveness and hopefully give and receive grace.
4. We will learn to fearlessly trust we are able to ask forgiveness and humbly care for one another when forgiveness is not yet given.
5. We will learn to humbly listen to one another, accept one another and be willing to see through our journey mate’s lenses, especially when conflict and differing opinions are high.
6. We will learn we are able to humbly define and share our relational needs and endeavor (do one’s utmost) to learn to freely give to meet those needs.
In my next article, we will look at our two final ingredients of unity and joint accomplishment vs. division and self-reliance.
“Backpack,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Love and Tenderness,” courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0) ()”Shoots in the Snow,” courtesy of Splitshire.com; “Happily Ever After,” courtesy of Chien Pham, unsplash.com, Public Domain License
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