“The problem in many marriages is not that the spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate self-portrait…..That’s important to remember next time you feel like demanding that your partner ‘understand’ you the way you understand yourself.”

~David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage

Live and Let Live

-how to live within a relationship

By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling

Relationships can be both heaven and hell. Somehow we need to find a way to be true to ourselves while taking another essential person into consideration. Problems arise because of inabilities to accept that others or we have different feelings, thoughts and behaviours. If anyone in a relationship needs their partner to be, feel or want the same, then issues can arise. When we have differences and are intolerant of those differences, problems occur. That is universal. If we are not able to soothe ourselves and accept the differences of others, we become vulnerable and unstable.

“Differentiation occurs by
maintaining yourself in the
presence of important persons,
not by geting away from them.”
– David Schnarch, Ph.D.,
Passionate Marriage

Intimacy & Validation

David Schnarch states, “…intimacy seems to develop through conflict, self-validation, and unilateral disclosure.” Relationship growth comes from conflict and while it’s not a sole means of having a relationship we appreciate its value. Relationship gridlock arrives when we’re waiting for the other to validate us. In order for us to feel safe and close we need to possess a secure sense of self, believe that what we feel or think is valid and have no expectation of acceptance or reciprocity from our partner. At the same time, there is voluntary disclosure and acceptance within a healthy relationship. It’s one of those things that if you let it go, it comes to you but if you try to control it, it eludes you.

There’s a sense of secretly entering a competition when we’re requiring our partner to disclose (or “share”) as a form of intimacy – often so that we can have ammunition should they use what we’ve disclosed as a weapon. We want to feel close through sharing but the competition occurs when we want them to disclose first or we’ll feel naked and exposed if we’re the only one sharing. We’re attempting to level the playing field but in effect creating a war zone. It’s seemingly easier for us to think that the other is flawed as well. It’s hard to feel okay about being flawed in the face of someone we perceive as competition or superior. We compare others to our own sense of inferiority and approach them as a dueling partner rather than opening up authentically. We may feel that we need to see them as flawed or less than us in order to feel safe in our own inferiority and this thinking also enables us to unjustly blame them for the issues within the relationship.

When we rely on others to confirm our feelings and approve of us – we place our worth (unknowingly) in their hands rather than having our own sense of accepted self. This is referred to as, ‘other validation’. When we rely on others to feel okay, this limits our ability to have an intimate relationship because we are showing them what we think they want to see rather than who we really are. It is as if we are saying to ourselves that our true self must be hidden – ironically ensuring that we aren’t truly known or accepted. We can still get validation in our relationships but paradoxically because we don’t need it (and can self-validate).

Intimacy (or any other feeling experience) can and does occur for only one person (in a relationship) and just because only one feels it, does not negate the experience one iota. So, if the moment or experience was meaningful, painful, or memorable for you – make it so regardless of the others experience.

Sometimes we try not to ‘want to want’ someone because it makes us vulnerable. Finding flaws in our partner or fighting can be an attempt to reassure ourselves that the other doesn’t love us and to prove that they’re not special and thus can be replaced. Fighting also makes it easier to not want your partner – and thus feel (falsely) protected against being hurt or overwhelmed by them. Not ‘wanting to want’ is to try to protect against the pain of wanting, longing, caring and depending – and not getting. We back away emotionally in this sense believing that this is how we protect ourselves from getting hurt but, ironically, we end up hurt because of the lack of intimacy we have created which may further our beliefs that we are somehow unlovable or inferior.

Differentiation helps make wanting tolerable, though you’re still not safe. No one is ever entirely safe from pain within a relationship – we all hurt each other without intention and that is normal. What’s healthy is if we can soothe and reassure ourselves when we are hurt and allow ourselves to have different experiences.

Fusion

In a way, we are all created in a fused state. When we are in the womb, we are one with mom and it can be the safest place we’ll ever know. There is no sense of “me” or “I”. It is not until a little later in infancy when we become aware that we are a separate being unto ourselves. There is a part of us that desires a return to this sense of ‘oneness’ with another in the hopes of recapturing that safeness again however it’s not possible and is, in fact, a fragile state to be in. Not feeling okay on our own leaves us extremely vulnerable to pain. As we get older and become our own person we need a healthy sense of being our own unique self even if this is different from the desires of our family of origin. (Although it is argued that no one completely achieves emotional separation from his or her family of origin.)

If we are not ourselves and continue to fuse with others (act, feel and think like them) there will be either conflict or lack of personal satisfaction within the relationship. This can occur in any relationship such as a neighbour, a coworker, a boss, a friend, a partner, or a landlord. Also, if the other person is not having the same feeling experience as us, this will feel incredibly painful and invalidating and we may experience this as a wound that further divides us. Being able to accept that others’ experiences are different from us (even when we don’t agree or understand) enables us to maintain a closer connection.

Jealousy can be a part of emotional fusion; at its most severe, it reveals our intolerance for boundaries and separateness from those we love. When we rely on being needed and can’t settle for being wanted, we perpetuate poor functioning in our partner who cannot be themselves and must adapt to our ‘need to be needed’.

People with a high level of fusion are often dominated by the feelings of those around them and are easily stressed into dysfunction often experiencing anxiety and struggling with interpersonal skills. They may also react by appearing to be more agreeable (or passive) in an effort to maintain peace rather than asserting the autonomous self. Individuals who are weak at being themselves pull away and distance themselves when they feel the tug of fusion. Those who rely on ‘other validation’ often believe they are taking care of others through their silence or absence – they don’t want to burden, challenge or intrude.

Fused individuals see that intimacy is maintained through ‘sameness’ including feelings and activities. Should their partner want to do something that they disapprove of or don’t understand, they see that as abandonment. Such beliefs can serve to suffocate the partner if they adapt and stay and also suffocate the relationship. The suffocated partner may then take a more passive-avoidant role – a double bind for them. If they say how they feel and their feelings are contrary, they will be met with an angry or wounded victim but if they remain silent they deny themselves and are miserable. Or they find their freedom, much like teenagers, through lying and manipulation thereby feeling like they get what they want but all the while creating distance in the relationship. And if caught, there is an emotional storm, where the first partner demands honesty and is infuriated by the truth driving the second partner into passive complicity and so on and so on.

The passive fused individual is reliant on others’ opinions or keeping the peace. They are classically heard to respond to inquiries with, “What do you want?” rather than stating their desires. They watch others’ reactions to decide how to behave or feel rather than being authentic.

The overtly fused individual needs others to constantly disclose their feelings in an attempt to be reassured but if they don’t like what they hear, they are immediately invalidated and triggered and often motivating the other to ‘comply’ or ‘placate’.

If you’re fused, you can imagine the pain of losing someone even if they’re awful. If you’re reliant on them to feel good enough, all your self-value goes out the door with them.

Differentiation

A person with a strong sense of self (“These are my opinions and values . . . This is who I am . . . This is what I will do…This is what I won’t do . . . “) expresses convictions and clearly defined beliefs. This individual will not sacrifice himself or herself in order to keep the peace. They have a strong sense of separateness and boundaries with others. This individual accepts that others have their own, contrasting and diverse feelings and are not threatened by that nor do they lose themselves in the relationship nor are they defined by it. This individual keeps their sense of self when their partner is away or they aren’t in a love relationship. They value connection, but don’t fall apart when they’re alone.

People often leave their families at the highest levels of differentiation their parents ever achieved and tend to pick people who are at about the same level as they are in long-term relationships. The family system is poorly differentiated if they had to run away from home to escape their parents’ influence or family members cut each other off rather than accepting varying views and staying in touch. Differentiation happens when they are able to be themselves in the presence of others.

If we’re not at the same level, relationships tend to end early. If you’re together longer term, this means that you have similar levels of intimacy although it may be expressed differently. You’re brilliant sparring partners because you’re at the same level. You’re likely emotional equals no matter how you might believe it’s different. If you start to look at how you’re equal, you’ll see the tradeoffs.

Differentiation is the ability to soothe your own anxiety and resist being infected by others anxieties. It does not need validation or to twist disclosures out of our partner in the name of intimacy. It is allowing others’ opinions, silences or responses to be of their own and not scripted by us. Needing to know that others will accept or not react to how we feel or behave before we do it is dependency. Long-term intimacy stems from validating ourselves rather than requiring our partner to make us feel safe. If we’re waiting for validation from our partner we’re rendered helpless until they change (or if they change). We’re giving them the power to deny us our feelings and our worth at anytime when we rely on them for these purposes. Reassurance needs to come from ourselves otherwise we’re dependent and we may become less willing to risk disagreement and hence rejection. The more we’re intimate with someone, the greater their importance to us is and the greater the sense of threat to our own identities if they don’t agree with us. When their importance exceeds that of the relationship with ourselves, we stop disclosing. We withdraw, have communication problems, alienate or lack intimacy.

The more we’re able to have a strong subjective self and accept others to be or feel in whatever way they do the more versatile and adaptable we and the relationship become. The more we can understand that others are separate and different, the more we can fully attune to them as individuals and thus increase their desire to be close.

Fusion demands rigid devotion and fewer resources. Being ourselves allows us to function more independently and interdependently. We rely on ourselves and ask or give support as required.

We don’t have to love our differences – the object is to accept they exist. In order to stay intimate, the importance and validity we place on ourselves must at least match the importance we place on the opinions of our partner.

We strive for mutuality – having the same respect, relationship and interests and go forward with our own self-developments while being concerned with our partner’s happiness and well being.

If you wish to copy this material to other publications please ask for permission by writing cindy@mycounsellor.ca.
Thanks for your friendship.

To download a PDF of this article, please click here.