Love and intimacy are not created by trying to pull it toward us or manipulating people into giving us what we want. Connections blossom as we create a climate that’s conducive for them. Love and intimacy have a greater opportunity to grow as we cultivate a climate of authenticity.
Being authentic in relationships is easier said than done. It requires that we tend closely to our actual felt experience. Rather than defend and protect ourselves, it means finding the courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and then show that to a person we want to be close to.
Dr. Eugene Gendlin, whose research led to the approach known as Focusing, found that clients who made the most progress in psychotherapy (despite the orientation of the therapist) were those who were contacting and speaking from their actual felt experience. They paused, stammered, and groped for words or images to describe their deeper experience rather than just talking from their heads. Things shifted and opened up as they stayed with their authentic experience from moment to moment.
Apply this principle to relationships: When we share what we’re experiencing with each other, intimacy is more likely to arise. Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples (EFT), invites couples to contact and share what they’re really feeling and wanting — and she helps clients find the words to convey this. Through the power of such authenticity, conflict often yields to deeper connections.
Couples may enter my office complaining that they’re having a communication problem. Although there is often truth in this, more fundamentally, they are usually having a self-awareness problem. They are in touch with their anger, their blame, and their perceptions about their partner (they’re selfish, insensitive, or bad), but they’re not connected to the tender feelings and longings beneath their criticisms and accusations. And they’re not skilled at communicating their authentic experience in a sensitive, respectful way.
Hurling blame and analyzing each other is one way of communicating, but it pushes people away. And it’s covering up what they’re actually experiencing, which is usually something more vulnerable, such as sadness, fear, or shame — or a longing to connect in a deeper way. Finding the courage to contact and convey this deeper experience, perhaps with the help of a couples therapist when necessary, is a key to resolving conflicts and creating a climate for a richer, more vibrant intimacy.
There are layers to our authentic experience. Being authentic means taking the elevator down inside ourselves and noticing whatever we happen to be experiencing right now. It may change from moment to moment.
For example, we might be authentically feeling anger. As we stay gently present with that rather than act it out, it might shift into something else. We might notice sadness beneath the anger, or an unmet need for kindness and closeness. If we can be patient with ourselves — allowing the time necessary to uncover what most authentically lives within us–we can then share that with our partner, which might invite our partner toward us and create the deeper intimacy we want.