How Problems Lead to Intimacy

There are unsolvable problems in every relationship. Choosing a partner in a committed relationship is choosing a set of problems–in many cases, irreconcilable.  You can decide to throw in the towel, divorce, and choose a different partner down the road, but you will be choosing another set of problems. Not romantic, I know. But here is the bottom line: depending on how partners talk or don’t talk about them, problems can lead to an increase in intimacy, or it can lead to a decrease in intimacy.

So now I want to talk about intimacy.  What everyone wants is a partner who admits, acknowledges, listens, confides, understands, accepts, sympathizes, and forgives.  Am I right?  In a word, we’re all looking for intimacy, to feel known.  Intimacy results from telling your partner your main concern and feeling that he or she understands, and your partner’s telling you the same and feeling that you understand.

A fight is never more than a sentence away.  However, intimacy is also never more than a sentence away, although neither of you is likely to be in a state of mind in which it is possible to come up with that sentence, particularly when the two of you are in the middle of a fight.  You have to wait until after the fight.  When you’re in a fight, you’re unable to confide your main concern or even to know what it is!

George and Eileen are a married couple in their early thirties. George works in finance and Eileen is a nurse. Eileen feels resentful that George doesn’t help more around the house.  She blurts out.

Eileen raised her voice: We’ve got a great division of labor here! YOU mess up the house and I always clean it!
George: (defending himself) What are you talking about??! I do a lot around here, damn it! And you just don’t see it! You just love to criticize me, as usual!  And speaking of messes, take a look at the mess on your damn desk sometime!

And they get into a fight.  So far, that is not new.  In fact, that is what everybody does.  One partner is sarcastic or critical, the other is defensive, and they get into a fight.

But then Eileen and George do something that is new.  After they have the fight, they use the fight. They use it as an introduction to a conversation and a pathway to intimacy.  The next day, when both have cooled off, George comes up to Eileen and talks about the fight.  He says he didn’t realize it at the time, but he felt disappointed.  He had been making an effort to do more around the house and Eileen didn’t seem to notice.  And he was also disappointed in himself because now that he thinks aobut it, he hasn’t really been doing as much around the house as he had vowed to do.

Suddenly Eileen and George are having a conversation rather than an argument.  Since Eileen isn’t being accused, she doesn’t need to defend herself.  And when people don’t need to defend themselves, they are able to acknowledge things.

Eileen: Well, you have been helping more, and I appreciate it, so I don’t know why I’m still upset about it… (And when people don’t feel the need to defend themselves, they are able to discover things…)

Eileen: I guess I’m upset because the fact that you are helping makes me realize that we don’t work well together.  You have your own way of doing things and I have mine.  We; ‘re really very different people.  And we lead such separate lives.  I’ve got my friends and you’ve got yours.  I’ve got my job and you’ve got yours.  I take care of the house, even if you are helping more, and you take care of the yard and the car, and I hardly help you at all in those jobs.  Sure, we do our jobs okay, but we go our separate ways and don’t connect very well.  And I’m upset about that…

George says he has been feeling the same way and that his trying to help with the housework was an effort to connect a little better. S now, Eileen and George aren’t just talking about the problem of who does housework.  They are using this problem to discover another more general problem: their worry that they don’t connect as much as they’d like to…

If George and Eileen have the view of intimacy that a lot of people have, that is, if they believe that intimacy is spending a lot of time together enjoying the same things, and having the same interests,-they’re likely to have a nightmare view that they are just incompatible and getting married might have been a mistake.

If they were to have a view of intimacy that I’m talking about, however, they’d know that talking about not being intimate can itself, be an intimate act. That’s because talking about feeling unconnected can be connecting if it’s not done in a tone of criticism or blame. For a moment at least,
George and Eileen would be in it together, which is the point of this blog essay: confiding without blaming about concerns such as feeling too separate is perhaps the fullest way in which people can intimately connect.

Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.