Our culture tends to struggle with instant gratification (SWIPE), wanting our needs met immediately or relying on a partner for our own happiness or fulfillment of sexual needs and fantasies. Relationship issues are a very common presenting concern in therapy and dating is often included as a significant source of stress.
What does it mean to accept your partner’s influence? And how do you do it?
In the Japanese martial art of Aikido, there’s a central principle called Yield to Win, which is a method of using your opponent’s energy and actions against them to win a fight, rather than strong-arming them into submission. It allows you to conserve energy and choose much more effective and efficient tactics.
But we definitely don’t want you using Aikido moves on your partner!
For our purposes, yielding to win means accepting, understanding, and allowing your partner’s perspective, feelings, and needs into your decision-making process as a couple. It means really listening to your partner and forming compromises so that you both feel satisfied.
Which is really more like yielding to win-win, and that’s we’re aiming for.
When men learn how to accept their partner’s influence and work toward a win-win solution, the outcomes are wonderful in heterosexual marriages. In a long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, we discovered that men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce.
And this critical skill is not limited to heterosexual couples at all. In fact, research shows that same-sex couples are notably better at it than straight couples. Straight husbands can learn a lot from gay husbands, and they’d be wise to do so.
Rejecting influence is a dangerous move
Marriage can absolutely survive moments of anger, complaints, or criticism, and even some longer periods of negativity if conflict is managed in a healthy and respectful way. They can even flourish because conflict provides an opportunity for growth as a couple. But couples get in trouble when they match negativity with negativity instead of making repairs to de-escalate conflict.
As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
Clearly, counterattacking during an argument does not solve an issue or help to form a compromise. It does not allow your partner’s influence in the decision-making process. Our research shows that 65% of men increase negativity during an argument. And the Four Horsemen—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling—are telltale signs that a man is resisting his wife’s influence.
This is not to insult or belittle men, and usually, it’s not a personality fault or cognitive shortcoming. Rather, it is to enlighten men as to some instincts and tendencies they might have, but of which they aren’t aware.
There are simply some differences in how men and women experience conflict (for example, men are more prone to stonewalling, and 85% of stonewallers in our research were men). It takes two to make a marriage work and it is vital for all couples to make honor and respect central tenets of their relationships. But our research indicates that a majority of wives—even in unhappy marriages—already do this.
This doesn’t mean women don’t get angry and even contemptuous of their husbands. It just means that they tend to let their husbands influence their decision making by taking their opinions and feelings into account.
Unfortunately, data suggests that men often do not return the favor.
If heterosexual men in relationships don’t accept their partner’s influence, there is an 81% chance that a marriage will self-implode.
Men, it’s time to yield to win-win.
What men can learn from women
Some say that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this is a common saying that cannot be true (obviously, we’re all from Earth and we have much more in common than we think), men and women often do feel different from each other.
This difference can start in childhood. When boys play games, their focus is on winning, not their emotions or the others playing. If one of the boys get hurt, he gets ignored and removed from the game. You see this in team sports all the time. Maybe someone comes to help carry the injured player off the field, but the game must go on.
But here’s the difference. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman explains that “the truth is that ‘girlish’ games offer far better preparation for marriage and family life because they focus on relationships.” And that isn’t necessarily about gender roles, but about learning emotional intelligence.
Developing emotional intelligence is the first step
The husband who lacks emotional intelligence rejects his partner’s influence because he typically fears a loss of power. And because he is unwilling to accept influence, he will not be influential, and that dynamic will result in gridlock.
On the other hand, the emotionally intelligent husband is interested in his partner’s emotions because he honors and respects her. While this husband may not express his emotions in the same way his partner does, he will learn how to better connect with her by listening to and validating her perspective, understanding her needs, and expressing empathy.
When his partner needs to talk about something, an emotionally intelligent husband will set aside what he’s doing at the moment and talk with her. He will pick “we” over “me,” which shows solidarity with his partner. He will understand his partner’s inner world and continue to admire her, and he will communicate this respect by turning towards her.
His relationship, sex life, and overall happiness will be far greater than the man who lacks emotional intelligence.
The emotionally intelligent husband can also be a more supportive and empathetic father because he is not afraid of expressing and identifying emotions. He and his partner can teach their children to understand and respect their emotions, and they will validate their children’s emotions. And our Emotion Coaching parenting program is based on the power of emotional intelligence, which we can all benefit from learning.
How to accept influence
It’s most likely that men who resist their wives influence do so without realizing it. It happens, and that’s okay, but it’s time to learn how to accept influence. It is both a mindset and a skill cultivated by paying attention to your partner every day and supporting them. This means working on three essential relationship components: building your Love Maps, expressing your fondness and admiration, and accepting bids for connection.
And when conflict happens, the key is to listen intently to your partner’s point of view, to let them know that you understand them, to ask them what they need, and to be willing to compromise. One way to do this is for each of you to identify your core needs and search, together, for where those needs overlap. Then you can find common ground upon which to make decisions together.
That’s how you accept influence. Want to have a happy and stable marriage? Make your commitment to your partner stronger than your commitment to winning.
If you do that, you win, your partner wins, and, most importantly, your marriage will thrive.
In the dating world, most intimate relationships don’t turn into long-term commitments. This happens for different reasons: Some loving partners can’t get past the challenges that ultimately end their commitment to each other. Some give up early, not wanting to waste time on something that is already problematic; they just aren’t willing to put energy into a relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Others, determined to make the relationship work, hold on to the bitter end, hoping that their continued efforts will eventually succeed.
Many of these frustrated relationship seekers come into therapy to try to understand what they might be doing wrong. They’ve made their best efforts and still can’t make a relationship last. And they’re aware that some couples face the same odds, yet stay together. They want to know what these people do differently that keeps their love alive. Are they just lucky people who have magically found the right person, or do they make relationships work no matter what? And if they do, what is their formula for success?
After four decades of working with couples, I have to say, yes, they are different in some ways. Although they face the same issues, couples that remain together approach their problems in unique ways that don’t damage their relationship. It is remarkable to watch these couples face situations that might unravel another relationship, and yet consistently come out caring more deeply about each other.
Stay-in-love couples each have their own style, but they also have a lot in common. These six qualities are the most notable. It is my hope that they will inspire others to find their own successful paths.
1. How they resolve their conflicts.
Every couple argues. If they are honest and authentic, they accept the fact that they will never see eye-to-eye on everything. They know that differences of opinion can add interest and intrigue to a relationship—if those disputes are worked through successfully. They also know that unresolved repeated conflicts can threaten and ultimately damage relationships, and make it much harder for them to get back what they’ve lost.
In contrast, stay-in-love couples ache when their disagreements drive them apart. After a conflict, they strive to resolve the situation and make up as soon as possible. Rather than needing to win, they want to understand why they disagreed and how they could have done it better. Judgment is not an issue—inquiry and learning are. Even when they are hurt or angry, they still want their partner to feel heard and supported.
2. They refuse to assign blame.
During a conflict, so many couples blame their partner for what’s going wrong. It’s hard for anyone to look at his or her role in conflict during the middle of strong emotions. Perhaps to avoid guilt or feeling righteous, some people try to make the other person into the bad guy, hoping they will win the argument that way. Many people will cave in when they feel badly about themselves, and counter-accusations sometimes successfully win the argument.
The sadness in assigning blame is that it doesn’t work in the long run. There are always two sides to every story, and more than one way to see the truth. Every intimate partner aches to be heard and understood, even if there are conflicting realities. When intimate partners use blame to get their way, they are likely to push their partners into defensiveness, anger, or withdrawal, and risking their capacity to keep their love alive.
Stay-in-love couples know that their partner’s views must be respected and honored, especially if they are different from their own. They strive to understand them to find a truth that allows for both. That doesn’t mean they will always agree, but they know that every connection and every disconnection must be the responsibility of both. It is a “we do this to each other,” and never, “This is your fault because you’re obviously the problem here.”
3. How they respond to requests for connection.
An important part of every quality relationship is the ability for both partners to authentically agree to honor the other’s feelings and thoughts, especially when they are trying to work through difficult emotional issues.
Many partners automatically treat each other this way when their relationship is new, but as their relationship matures, they may come to feel burdened or disrupted by continuous requests for connection, and not want to be immediately available anymore. In trying to dismiss their partner’s desires quickly, they may resort to trying to “fix” the situation without taking the time for deeper inquiry. Or perhaps a preoccupied partner will minimize the other’s feelings to try to neutralize them. An irritated partner may reply in with sarcasm or even withdraw.
Partners who remain in love do not ignore a partner who wants to connect for any reason. Even if they are distracted or preoccupied, they take the time to understand what their partner needs, and decide together how they should handle it. If that cannot happen at the time, both partners make an agreement as to when they will resolve it. And they do not mock, minimize, or disregard the other’s desire to connect.
4. How they parent each other.
In every intimate love relationship there is always an underlying “criss-cross” interaction between the symbolic parent in one partner and the symbolic child in the other. It is impossible to be open and vulnerable to another human being without those interactions happening from time to time.
People are never just the age they are in the current moment. They are a composite of all the ages they’ve ever been. If a partner had heartbreak in childhood and a situation causes it to re-emerge in the present, his or her partner can help ease, and even heal, that pain by acting as a nurturing symbolic parent.
Those automatic responses are notable in the early stages of a love relationship. Intimate partners often refer to each other as if they were talking to young children. They call each other “baby” or “sweetie-pie,” and every couple knows what their unique, tender words mean to both of them. It is a normal interaction.
As relationships mature, many partners begin to feel less willing to give that kind of unconditional nurturing, and might not be as automatically available when the other slips into a younger place. When no longer loved in that tender way, the needy partner may feel abandoned or rejected. They may feel they must behave more carefully, having lost the confidence that anything they say or do will be automatically supported. The symbolic parent-child safety net that was available at the beginning of the relationship is no longer always extended.
Stay-in-love couples understand how important it is to never let those special “sweet spots” die. They know that their partner will sometimes need to feel that guaranteed comfort and safety, and are more than willing to act as the good parent when asked. They know that it is natural for people to feel insecure and young at times, and they want to be there for each other when that happens.
5. How they deal with control.
Many relationships fail because one partner attempts to dominate the other, or fears being controlled by the other. Many people had childhood experiences in which they felt unimportant and were expected to submit to whatever was demanded of them. They often bring those trauma–memories into their adult relationships, fearful of being controlled again. Those fears can lead people to push for a partner’s automatic compliance, to allay that anxiety. Many partners alternately pull a partner close and then push him or her away, fearing that intimacy and commitment will lead to entrapment and being controlled.
Stay-in-love partners know that the need to feel in control at times is natural. It allows a person to be fully respected as the stronger one in the relationship at that moment. The other partner has confidence in his or her own autonomy to not react defensively or take it personally. He or she doesn’t feel the need to either counter-control or to automatically submit. Comfort with the situation allows them to seek understanding about what may be driving those behaviors. They also know that they will need to be the need-to-control partner at other times, and will receive the same understanding and respect.
These couples also know how quickly interactions can deteriorate if both want to be in control at the same time. When those situations arise, they work to stay centered and calm, agreeing to take turns listening to what each other need and feel. When they fully understand what both of their desires for control are about, they decide how to best help each other get their underlying needs met.
6. How they respond to urgency.
Newly-in-love couples are most often each other’s first priorities, so they respond immediately to their partner’s distress signals. As life’s obligations intervene and the couple resumes their normal routines, those requests must be absorbed into other priorities. Even though they may realize that being the center of someone’s life naturally somewhat diminishes over time, many partners feel neglected when that happens. They may become more demanding or feel neglected, and begin to blur the line between truly important requests and less urgent ones, fearful that neither may be met.
Stay-in-love couples are authentic, open, and self-reliant, but they also urgently need one another at times. They trust that the other will never take advantage of that immediate availability, and that when an urgent S.O.S. call goes out, their partner will rapidly respond without question or challenge. They trust that those requests are not expressed fraudulently or without concern for the other’s needs. Stay-in-love partners understand the sanctity of personal boundaries, and take pride in their own autonomy. They have learned that one of the most important qualities any person can have is the ability to love again after loss. That drives them to practice forgiveness and humility when a conflict is over. Their mutual goals are to resolve and to reconnect, leaving distress behind as soon as possible.
They know that love must include always living in each other’s hearts, whether they are together in the same place or temporarily separate. They know that the future is unwritten and that they can be taken from each other at any time. The acceptance of that truth continuously reminds them that their relationship is only as good as they are able to re-create it in each present moment.
By Randi Gunther Ph.D.
Becoming close to another person is one of the most thrilling experiences in the human repertoire, both the bedrock of emotional security and a passport to self-expansion. If the relationship is a romantic one—and intimacy is as much the essence of deep friendship as of lasting love—it carries the added charge of desire. Although the term intimacy is often used as a euphemism for sex, anyone with a dear friend knows that physical attraction is not essential for any two people to create a true bond. Intimacy is what you share with another human being who truly “gets” you.
With its inherent expectation of responsiveness, intimacy keeps open a channel for sharing the moments that are too saturated to contain—unburdening ourselves when distressed or disappointed, exulting when joys and triumphs swell our hearts. The antithesis of intimacy—social isolation—bodes badly for us. Science has long established that the lack of close relationships is as much a risk factor for mortality as smoking. The wider our social circle, the better our chances of warding off obesity, high blood pressure, and other corrosive conditions. The depth and nature of our ties to one another matter, too: The degree of support people feel they have from family, friends, and significant others counteracts serious health risks.
Small wonder the quest for intimacy is everywhere, from earnest online dating profiles to bursts of social media confessionalism meant to elicit a long line of supportive affirmations and emojis. While such missives may, in the short term, assuage the yearning to connect that most humans harbor, real intimacy can seem elusive in a world where quick text exchanges and apologies for being too busy to get together often supplant real-time, real-space interactions.
Intimacy is our emotional slow food, the lovingly home-cooked meal in a world of drive-thru orders. One of the most basic facts of intimacy is that it takes time to achieve. The process of opening to another, of self-revelation, takes patience as well as bravery, and the unhurried pace is a necessity for the creation of trust.
Friendships hold just as much capacity for intimacy as romantic relationships. It’s why people who often start out as friends wind up as lovers and why lovers seek friends to confide in when romance falters. As one new groom recently told a New York Timeswedding reporter, being friends first with his bride allowed him “to be more vulnerable in conversation than if I had approached her in a romantic way.”
Typically, we expect more intimacy from a romantic partner than from a friend, physically as well as emotionally, but intimacy threads through both types of bonds in shared secrets, caring touch, moments of laughter and tears, knowing silences. It’s not only about how two people act together, it’s how they make each other feel: connected and understood. Intimacy is what we’re after when we’re stressed or sick and need comfort, yet it’s also the reason why we value being with loved ones in easier times. Intimacy is “what most people want in their social life—it’s what people search for,” says psychologist Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, a key thinker about the nature of intimacy and the processes that underlie it.
What does it take to truly become close to another human being, whether in love or friendship? And what does it take to maintain the vitality of intimacy over the long haul?
Intimacy begins when a person shares something emotionally meaningful with someone else. Risk is at the heart of the matter. The person is taking a chance on a hunch that the listener could be trustworthy—but there’s always the possibility the emotional import will be missed, ignored, unreciprocated. As a result, the first steps of intimacy tend to be cautious ones. Social penetration theory, which defines the processes of relationships, holds that in building intimacy, whether with a friend or a romantic prospect, we engage in exploration. We venture forth with impersonal and superficial information to gauge the reaction of the other. A supportive response encourages an advance in self-disclosure, the proffering of more emotionally significant substance.
Researchers liken the process to peeling an onion, removing the layers of our selves and offering attention and support as the person we’re getting close to does the same. As exchanges become ongoing, the two people alternating between confessor and confidant, they build trust, affection, and, at some point, identity as a pair.
The process feels emotionally edgy because we’re gradually letting down defenses we may have maintained since childhood or adolescence, when we learn to hide those aspects of ourselves that trigger social rejection. You can’t really get serious about a love relationship or call someone a close confidant until you’re ready to tell the person about the darkest moments of your life. Indeed, every step forward in intimacy is a gamble. The information you’re revealing could be used to hurt you.
But you’re betting on the sweetness of the payoff. In addition to the catharsis that self-disclosure carries, “if someone responds positively, there’s a feeling of delighted relief,” says James Cordova, a professor of psychology at Clark University. Listening with an open heart and responding with tenderness proves you worthy of the faith placed in you.
Dating is nothing if not a process of gradual and—here’s the important part—reciprocal self-disclosure, and the risks of self-disclosure can feel particularly acute during dating. While establishing closeness in friendship often happens in fits and starts and hews to no blueprint, dating, perhaps more than any other activity in our culture, is encumbered with expectations and entangled with issues of identity, commitment, and time: What do I want out of this? What are we as a couple? Do we have a future?
If you try sharing something personal and it doesn’t go over well, you may feel the sting of judgment, says Steen Halling, a professor of psychology at Seattle University and the author of Intimacy, Transcendence, and Psychology. It’s easy to make a misstep in the pace of intimacy building: A person probes too soon for your deepest secrets or unloads too many of his or her own. In rushing to get to know you, the person fails to truly see you. “You’re on the receiving end of an agenda and become one of that person’s projects,” Halling explains. “That makes you think, ‘Do I have any say in this?'” There’s a difference between being willing to build intimacy and being willful about it, determined to make a relationship happen.
Not everyone in the dating game is seeking intimacy. The traditional notion of romance emphasizes trust, honesty, connection, and other markers of closeness. But people may date for many reasons: to ease feelings of social isolation, to have fun, or to build their own self-esteem, finds Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College. They may prioritize other goals, such as career, over a close relationship, which takes an investment of time. Having goals that are self-serving doesn’t mean a person is wrong or has intractable “intimacy issues”—even if those goals clash with your own. Better to seek an intimacy-focused relationship elsewhere.
Too, there are people who seem chronically unable to get close to others, routinely dodging opportunities for intimacy. They may have acquired an avoidant attachment style through early life experiences with caretakers who rebuffed them or ignored their needs. Research led by psychologist Phillip Shaver shows that the risks inherent in building intimacy are particularly threatening to such people; the process stirs their vulnerability to rejection, punishment, and loss of control. Evading closeness “comes from a long history of difficulties and the need to protect oneself,” says Debra Mashek, a psychologist at Harvey Mudd College who researches close relationships. “It’s an adaptive response.”
Even when two people are open to establishing romantic intimacy, being too purposeful can be counterproductive. That’s when the classic date scenario—eating dinner out together—can get awkward, says Halling. The set-up applies pressure to share information and scrutinize each other’s verbal and nonverbal responses, whereas a less stilted act, like taking a walk or doing something entertaining together, could ease self-consciousness while still allowing the opportunity to connect.
Online dating seems to offer an end run around some of the awkwardness of meeting face-to-face. Online exchange allows—even encourages—prospective partners to make intimate disclosures. But extended messaging can dull the thrill of exchange without hinting at the kind of rapport two people will have, says Paul W. Eastwick of the Attraction and Relationships Research Lab at the University of California, Davis. Let the messaging go on too long and expectations rise unrealistically. “Once a face-to-face meeting occurs, those expectations can be violated, which can be distressing,” he says. Cyberspace simply can’t deliver up the whole person, the “warm complex animal gestalt,” as one online dater puts it.
Does Sex Improve Intimacy?
Short answer as of 2017: Yes.
When two people start dating, the question of when to have sex seems pivotal, in part because there’s a widespread expectation that sex brings partners closer together. Desire for emotional closeness and feelings of connection are among the top reasons both men and women cite for having sex, report psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss. Women are no more likely than men to be motivated by a need for closeness, and men are no more in it for pure pleasure than women, the University of Texas researchers find.
Getting physical certainly stirs up the neurochemistry of attachment, mobilizing oxytocinand opioids that generate positive feelings and encourage more of the same. Once we link those feelings with a particular person, we want to stay with that person. Clinch and repeat.
The sheer presence of sexual desire, even when triggered by someone completely unknown, in fact pushes people to do the work of intimacy, says Omri Gillath. He and colleagues at the University of Kansas exposed a bevy of participants to erotic photographs, a known sexual stimulus. Some groups knew what they were looking at. Others were exposed to the images subliminally—flashed so briefly before them that the photographs didn’t register consciously. In both cases, exposure to the images made participants—particularly the ones who didn’t “notice” the photographs—more willing to disclose personal information, make sacrifices to benefit their current romantic partner, and work out conflicts effectively. All those effects are markers of intimacy building.
Sex really does send us down the path of emotional closeness, Gillath contends. He even conjectures that pornography, often assumed to interfere with real connection, might actually play a role in fostering it. “The studies suggest that when we’re sexually aroused, or when our sexual system is activated, we’re more open to intimacy.”
Intimacy in Passionate Love
When romantic intimacy is in full bloom, the intoxication of what happens in bed is rivaled by the charge it gives our lives. The pace of self-disclosure quickens. The drive to connect feels all-consuming. New lovers will stay up until 4 a.m. telling each other everything about their parents, their favorite elementary school teacher, the places they’ve lived, their likes and dislikes. The risk of disclosing every detail of their lives is more than offset by hitting the emotional jackpot of a partner’s interest, attention, and affection. The shared information nudges them down the path of seeing the world through each other’s eyes, abetting the merger into a “we,” the formation of a shared identity. A couple.
Two people essentially enter a zone of shared selves, a willing emotional nakedness. From their joint research on relationships, Karen Prager of the University of Texas at Dallas and Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have identified three components of deeply intimate connection: self-revealing behavior, unwavering supportive attention, and a sense of exceptional knowingness as partners immerse themselves in each other’s lives, feelings, and routines.
Intimacy changes us. Getting close to someone else enhances our sense of our own abilities and possibilities; it enlarges us. The self-expansion model of close relationships, developed by husband-and-wife psychology researchers Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron, maintains that in becoming close to someone else, we fold his or her identity and resources in our own self. We gain from the availability of the other’s point of view and skills as we sort through a problem. We gain experiences—such as shared meals and outings, especially in the early stages of passionate love—and, later, resources, such as a shared home and bank account. Not least among the additional resources is a long-term commitment to the relationship. Closeness with a significant other also increases our belief in our ability to reach goals and helps us feel more in control of our lives.
“We take on the resources, perspective, and identities of another,” says Mashek, who studies self-expansion. “Your partner becomes a part of you, and you become part of your partner. You and me becomes we.” The rapid expansion that marks the initial rush of intimacy building is an unforgettable time. Getting close can seem enchanted, magical—particularly because staying close, for many couples, is anything but.
Men, Women, and the Work of Intimacy
Intimacy can be challenging to maintain over time. The reasons are rooted in the way closeness begins. Two people come together loving each other’s strengths and quirks. Each promises to be the person the other can confide uncertainties and weaknesses to, and each has permission to let his or her guard down in turn. But having stripped off all emotional armor leaves partners particularly vulnerable to perceived slights from each other, as, over time, the supportive focus on each other competes with the demands of daily life. That means that a grouchy comment or a bout of moodiness from a mate, however normal, can really sting. It takes restraint not to reply in kind or emotionally withdraw.
As a result, closeness tends to diminish over time, which Cordova sees as a normal process of decay. Parenting responsibilities or other everyday stresses exhaust a pair’s emotional resources and lead them down a path of least emotional resistance.
Once that process sets in, reversing its course can feel daunting. Couples often believe that they have to fix all their problems in order to feel close again. In fact, Cordova finds, simply paying more attention to each other is the best salve.
Figuring out how to enhance intimacy takes time, effort, and no small dose of what University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotion work”: managing or even suppressing your own feelings so that you can provide emotional support to others. In committed heterosexual relationships, emotion work is itself often a source of stress because men and women tend to have different ideas about the optimal level of closeness and amount of “emotional space,” says University of Texas sociologist Debra Umberson. She finds that same-sex couples share more similar ideas about intimacy and personal boundaries, and consequently share emotion work more equitably.
Friendship: Are Men Missing Out?
At first glance, the research on friendship seems to confirm traditional gender stereotypes about intimacy—that women value emotional closeness more than men. Male buddies tend to spend time together doing things—playing sports, listening to music—while female friends place talk, often of personal matters, at the center of their time together. Women say that intimate conversation is the most important facet of friendship, helping them understand who they are, improve their sense of self, and solve problems with other loved ones.
But men are not born to shun deep intimacy. In fact, studies show, both men and women value friendships with women—precisely because those relationships tend to be especially emotionally intimate. Outside the Western world, male-male friendships tend to be highly intimate and expressive.
North American men are well aware that sharing personal information will bring them closer to a friend than will doing an activity together, finds Beverley Fehr, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg and the author of Friendship Processes. What stops them from engaging more often in self-disclosure with other men, she says, is fear of rejection. Sharing makes men feel too vulnerable, perhaps because it conflicts with another value men hold—competitiveness.
What would happen if men were put in a situation where they were expected to share private information with other men? Fehr wondered. Would they benefit the way women do?
She turned to a tool widely used by relationship researchers: “36 Questions,” developed by Arthur and Elaine Aron. The questions, which couples ask each other, are designed to create a temporary feeling of closeness, even between strangers, in an experimental setting. Beginning with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” the questions gradually escalate in emotional intensity. Question 18, at the halfway mark, gets highly personal: “What is your most terrible memory?” The final question puts interlocutors in intimacy central: They’re asked to share a personal problem and get the other’s insights into how to handle it. By the time they finish their questioning, lab partners are not only sharing emotionally fraught information, they’re essentially acting just as people in real relationships do—being responsive to each other’s needs.
Fehr brought into her lab pairs of men who were already friends and launched them on the 36 Questions. As the conversations progressed to a pointedly personal question, she observed a common response. “Typically, the men looked stunned,” she reports. “Then they fell silent. Then they uttered either the ‘f’ word or commented, ‘That’s deep.'” But to her amazement, they all really opened up in their answers.
So far, Fehr has found that the prompted self-disclosures have increased feelings of closeness between friends as well as boosted satisfaction with the friendship. Time will tell whether the men reap the same lasting benefits women do from friendships— heightened self-understanding and self-worth, an added sense of meaning.
Keeping It Going
Maintaining intimacy in a friendship is not a topic that gets a lot of attention, in part because our society tends to value friendship less than romance. Counseling services abound for committed couples on the rocks, and family and friends rally around them to help them stay together. But faltering friendships trigger neither the same mobilization of resources nor efforts to shore them up. And friends themselves seem to have absorbed the message; they tend to be more passive than couples about resolving conflicts. Friendships can end dramatically through betrayals of trust or an act of disloyalty. But most often they wither from neglect.
Yet they are remarkably responsive to resuscitation—by picking up a phone or meeting for coffee. The way friends stay close, says Fehr, is by going back to what drew them together in the first place: sharing information about their lives, offering support, and spending some time together.
Sometimes, though, intimacy between friends is revived in unexpected ways. Halling finds that experiences of reunification can be startlingly significant, often so profound they deliver transcendence. “You feel close to a person because you are truly open to them, and the feeling of being alone in the world is suspended for a time,” he says.
Murray Suid, a 74-year-old screenwriter, met Bryan, a charismatic professor, when the two were in a Bay Area men’s group in the 1970s. They became friends, then they lost touch. Two decades later, Suid was living in Los Angeles, and Bryan began making regular trips there for cancer treatment. Suid volunteered to ferry him from airport to clinic and back again. The prognosis for Bryan was grim, and he often talked about how scared he was. Suid, in turn, confided that his old friend’s ordeal was stirring up his own fears of death.
Suid had always thought of dying as something that created a wall between people. But “I found that instead it was a door, enabling two men to feel close to each other in a way that hadn’t happened before,” he says. Twenty years after Bryan’s death, Suid still treasures the drives back and forth to the clinic for their otherworldliness. “The intimacy wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the chance to talk, with me in the role of just being his driver,” he says.
That’s the thing about intimacy. It can offer up otherwordliness without fanfare, although Halling finds that moments of deepest connection tend to spring from a shift in circumstances. Going on a trip, being in nature, even working on a project together can pave the way for unselfconscious union, when time falls away and the present moment shines in sharp focus. “We’re open to the person, and touched and surprised by who we see,” Halling says. “It’s an experience of awakening.”
When Intimacy Is Imbalanced
Sometimes, the slow dance of self-revelation—the core of intimacy—becomes a bit lopsided. One partner may be more forthcoming or attached than the other. That doesn’t mean the relationship has to be scuttled. It is possible to help a skittish partner open up..
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
Self-disclosure is a process not an all-or-nothing proposition. Intimacy takes time. “The more comfortable partner should positively reinforce any attempts,” says psychologist Catherine Sanderson.
SEEK OTHER CONFIDANTS.
Don’t expect your partner to fulfill all of your intimacy needs. “Nurture connection in friendships by being genuinely interested in your friends’ worlds,” psychologist Debra Mashek advises.
SHIFT THE FOCUS. The direct gaze can be intimate—but also daunting, especially for people who struggle with opening up. Spend time side-by-side instead. “Some intimate conversations occur when driving and the focus is not directly on each other,” psychologist Steen Halling says.
NURTURE YOUR SOLO SELF.
If you’re inclined to want to do everything with your partner, try some adventures on your own, suggests Mashek. Go to the movies or take a fun weekend trip alone.
OPEN UP ABOUT OPENING UP. Don’t hide your interest in how your partner is feeling. If your partner seems to be shutting down, let yourself wonder out loud about the reason, Halling recommends.
BE COMPASSIONATE. People who are reluctant to self-disclose may have been, early in life, punished for talking about emotions or expressing vulnerability. “We have to be kind, encouraging, and full of care for the genuinely fragile heart that we have invited into an intimate relationship,” psychologist James Córdova says. “We have to use our imagination to empathize with what it must be like to be afraid.”
By Lisa A. Phillips
Have you ever felt hesitant about approaching someone you met eyes with? Or felt nervous talking to someone you’re interested in? Or felt a knot in your stomach while finding the courage to ask someone on a date? Most likely, you’ve experienced at least one—or maybe all—of these feelings, because anxiety and dating are a difficult pair to separate.
Dating enhances several of our deepest fears: rejection, being judged, getting emotionally wounded. It can be challenging to overcome these fears and put yourself out there. In fact, our dating culture has shaped itself around these fears in an attempt to make the process of dating “easier.” But in many ways, this evolution has made dating more complicated and anxiety-inducing than ever. Take, for example:
Meeting People Online
Many online websites and apps have been created so people can screen potential suitors before ever having to physically meet them. For those who engage in online dating, there is a multitude of new concerns to contend with: Is this person real or are they just “catfishing” (using a fake profile)? How are they going to perceive me based on my profile? What questions can I ask to get to know them? This is all before the anxiety of actually meeting the person.
Knowing “The Rules”
It has become the norm to refrain from showing too much interest in someone you’re getting to know. This standard has produced a set of unspoken “rules” for any person engaging in modern dating culture. Some of these rules include:
- Don’t double text (i.e. send an additional text before the person responds to your first text). This makes you seem too eager.
- Don’t call someone. This will likely be met with distaste and confusion because phone calls are essentially obsolete.
- Don’t respond immediately to a text message. This makes it seem like you were sitting around waiting for them to text you.
- Don’t “like” any old posts or photos on their social media. Otherwise, they will know you were “Facebook stalking” them, or intently monitoring or looking through their Facebook updates or history.
- Don’t let them see you typing for too long on systems that show the other person when you are typing a message (e.g. iMessage, Facebook Messenger, etc.). Then they will know you were putting a lot of thought into saying the perfect thing.
If someone breaks these rules, they are typically perceived as desperate and unattractive. So if we like someone, we have to bury it away. It’s almost a competition of who can be less interested. How can our pride be hurt if our attitude is: “Oh I wasn’t really that into you anyway”?
Dealing With “Trendy” Rejections
The way people reject those they are casually dating is constantly changing based on what’s “in.” For a while, the trend was “ghosting,” or abruptly ignoring the person on every channel of communication. This causes the person rejected to anxiously wonder when the other person will respond and what they did so wrong. Similarly, there is also the “slow fade,” which is the same thing, except more drawn-out.
As if those trends weren’t bad enough, there’s a new one coined “breadcrumbing,” which is not being interested in someone, but continuing to lead them on. People who do this are trying to keep a person interested while they seek out other options.
How Can We Make This Easier?
With all these challenges (and more), it’s important to maintain your mental health when trying to connect with someone. And it’s important to remember that dating isn’t hopeless—even if you experience a mental health condition that makes it even harder. Here are a few things you can do to reduce your anxiety while dating:
❤️ Accept Yourself First
As cliché as it sounds, it is essential to love yourself and be happy with who you are before you add another person to the mix. A lot of dating anxiety happens because of insecurities within ourselves. Learning to be content and fulfilled while single before looking for a relationship is extremely helpful towards dating in a healthy way. When your happiness isn’t dependent on your search, you won’t put as much pressure on the situation or feel as anxious about every person you meet.
“Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have.” – Robert Holden
❤️ Be You Always
Once you have accepted yourself, you will feel comfortable being open and honest about who you are. You will respect yourself and won’t waste your time playing the usual games to pique someone’s interest. If someone doesn’t like you or the fact that you are open with your feelings, then they’re not the type of person you should be with anyways.
❤️ Dismiss Exaggerated Thoughts
Thoughts that rev up anxious thoughts need to be either ignored or thought through in a logical way. For example: “I’ll be alone forever” is not a rational thought. Yes, you may have to wait to find someone, but most likely, you will not be alone for the entirety of your life. Being able to recognize that a thought is exaggerated can be helpful in minimizing your anxiety.
❤️ Know It’s Okay to Feel Anxious
It’s okay to feel nervous, awkward and uncomfortable when first meeting someone. And it’s also okay to tell them that when you meet them—chances are they feel the same way. After all, it’s human nature to feel nervous at the prospect of finding a partner.
Laura Greenstein is a communications coordinator at NAMI.