I have seen intimacy barriers, or walls of defense, ultimately lead to breakdown in communication in my experience as a San Diego therapist. This breakdown usually manifests in one of two ways – blame/criticism or shutdown/withdrawal. Intimacy doesn’t always feel good and sometimes includes wrestling and struggling with issues and one another. But, if done mindfully, and with respect, it will bring you and your partner closer.
Disagreement is different from conflict which involves tempers, stalemates and hurt feelings. A disagreement can be respectful and the end result is both parties better understanding each other and come to some form of resolution. Future problems are then avoided and resentments don’t build. Below are three steps that you and your partner improve communication and intimacy, and lessen conflict.
Step 1: Avoid blaming or criticizing.
The first step when entering disagreement or potentially volatile ground is to remind yourself not to blame or criticize your partner. This is made easier if you remember to speak about yourself, your feelings and your experience instead of focusing on what you think your partner did “wrong”. The classic “I statement” is a great start. It’s also equally important not to shutdown or withdraw by choosing to avoid a potentially tense discussion. If you really need time away from the conversation, tell your partner you’ll resume it later and give an estimate of time when you’ll be ready to talk again.
Step 2: Tell your partner what you feel.
To do this, you may want to do some reflection and gather an inventory of feelings you can express. Examples are “I felt disappointed when you did X”, “I didn’t feel cared about when you did X”, or “I didn’t feel respected when you did X”. Keep in mind, its difficult to argue with someone’s feelings. If I say, “I feel disappointed”, a person would be hard pressed to say, “No, you’re not”. But if I say, “You shouldn’t have done X”, or “You made me feel disappointed”, it’s sure to lead to a debate or argument which moves us further away from each other emotionally.
Step 3: Ask for what you want and need.
This is the part most people really have difficulty with because it is here we make ourselves vulnerable. But, vulnerability is essential in any healthy relationship. It’s a lonely place with the walls up, and most people are never going to get to you unless you remove the barrier. You may not always get what you want from your partner when you ask, but they will have a better understanding of who you are when they know your wants and desires. That, in itself, is intimacy as there is deeper understanding. Plus, your needs will more likely be met when you open up the conversation expressing your feelings as your partner will not feel defensive and will be more willing to work with you.
Even if your partner cannot give you what you are asking for (seeing your point of view, changing behaviors, etc.), simply validating feelings will go a long way. If someone’s experience or feelings are validated and heard, they feel cared about. And, at the end of the discussion, both people will know more about each other, an argument will be avoided and the intimacy in your relationship will increase.