The Habits of Intimacy - Are You Wanting Some Better Ones?

Habits.  We’ve all got them.  Some of them we learned young and they’ve served us well:  brush your teeth, send that thank you card, go for a walk after dinner.  Some of them could use an update:  stay quiet and eat when something’s confusing, tear up and say sorry before the real feeling comes out.   Often our habits -the ones that serve us and the ones that let us down- don’t even get noticed until we’re in a relationship with someone who we trust.  At first, when we’re falling in love, it feels scary to let our guard down.  But the reward is how amazing it feels when our good habits are finally noticed: “You always look so put together!”, “You’re so considerate!”.  It feels wonderful to be truly seen through the loving eyes of another.


But later on, after the honeymoon, it can turn into a harder experience: “Are you sure you need that extra serving?”, “Why don’t you ever tell me when something’s bothering you?”.  Ouch.  It’s natural that our first reaction to this type of noticing can be defensive; “But I’ve always done that! What’s the big deal?  What’s your problem?”  After all, the habits that you’ve kept this long have probably worked quite well up to now.  Or, if your habit hasn’t been working for you and it still lingers in your behavior, your own inner critic has probably done an adequate job of making you aware of it.  In this case, a common response might be something along the lines of “Back off!  I’ve been struggling with that!  Why can’t you be more supportive?”   


Even more disturbing is when our partner picks up on something that we might not even be aware of.  Some habits start as a way to deal with experiences that are painful, scary or shameful.  Our minds might have forgotten what happened, but the emotions are still there.  What we didn’t have words for in early childhood shows up in our adult coping habits:  overworking, restricting ourselves from pleasure, trying to dominate situations.  It just feels normal to do these things, until someone we care about questions them.  When faced with questions like, “Why is work more important than me?” or “Why do you always have to be in charge?” anger comes up as a natural protective response.   It can feel like the ground is being pulled out from under us.  We’re left feeling like we have to choose between our partner and the actions and behaviors that most make us feel safe in the world.  


Underneath our initial anger at being seen there can also be fear.  In the heat of the moment, we might not express it, but thoughts like, “now that you’ve noticed that part of me, can you still love me?”  can linger on long after kissing and making up.  Overcompensating and feeling disappointed can lead to frustration and acting out.   We find ourselves back where we started.   Couples often come to counseling with a sense of being caught in a never ending and painful cycle: “It’s always the same thing!”,  “We can’t seem to get pass this”, “I don’t even know what we’re fighting about anymore!”  What started as an individual habit has now become a combined habit, a whole system and pattern of being in a couple.  


One of the terms that Sue Johnson, world renowned expert on couples counseling, uses to describe the work of a couples counselor is as a “choreographer, helping couples to restructure their relationship dance” (Johnson, 2004, p.12).   If you decide to pursue couples counseling, you might find that your counselor has a lot of questions for you in your first sessions.  That’s because the counselor is trying to get some idea of what your current interactional patterns are.  The art -or choreography- comes in when there’s enough trust established with your counselor that you can start experimenting with new ways to be in the dance.  

Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection. New York: Brunner-Routledge.