“I don’t like how I behave when I’m with my partner.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“I’ve sacrificed too much in this relationship.”
In my work with couples, I’ve heard so many people say these words, or something very much like them.
You may remember that I’ve written in an earlier post that being willing to compromise, accept influence and, ultimately, change your part of a pattern that’s not working are all important intentions to bring to any committed partnership.
I still stand by that advice. Work in progress that I am, I may not always follow it, but I definitely still stand by it. In a relationship it’s always important to be willing to give, even sometimes to give in.
But just as relationally important as this willingness to compromise is our willingness to share our true thoughts, feelings and needs openly – in short, our willingness to be our authentic self, even if that self seems at odds with our partner’s.
Because the act of hiding our needs, goals, and values doesn’t build intimacy; it builds resentment and emotional distance.
Living, as we do, in a world that is not always tolerant of difference or discomfort, we’ve developed a lot of ways to avoid authenticity in relationship.
Here are three I encounter a lot, both in my work and, yes, in my contributions to my own relationship:
Saying Yes When We Mean No
The longing to be liked and the desire for approval – both are common human needs, and both can lead us to say “yes” when we really mean “no.”
Similarly, worry about hurting someone else’s feelings, can also lead us to default to agreeableness, sometimes pathologically so. It’s hard to get real when being real might result in someone else being really sad.
These worries – about what others might think of us, or how they might feel after experiencing our “no” – can tempt us to be dishonest or unclear about how we really feel, what we really want or don’t want. Afraid that our partner won’t react well to a true expression of our needs, we become afraid to delineate what’s okay and what isn’t. Afraid to decline a request, or speak up about a wrong.
The truth is that “no” does not mean “I don’t like you” or “I don’t care about you.” Nor does it mean “you’re wrong” or “we’re so different that we can’t be a we.”
No just means no. As in, “No thanks, I don’t want to do that” or “No, I’m not especially fond of that” or “No, I don’t agree with you there.”
No is not a repudiation of the other person; it’s just a healthy boundary for you, as Brene Brown so eloquently explains in this video.
Pretending Everything Is Okay
We’ve all been in a position where it felt right to “take one for the team” in our relationship, a time when we’ve put our own needs on hold for the good of the order.
Perhaps we’ve looked past our partner’s critical complaint and responded instead to the request or longing embedded in their harsh words. Or maybe we’ve agreed to take over as primary parent for a while so our partner could get some much-needed rest, even though we were pretty shredded ourselves.
We are definitely called to give of ourselves in relationship. But we should only give in this way if we can do so with true generosity of spirit. If we give more – or more often – than we feel we should, if we fail to let our partner know that we now need something from them, if we hold back our hurts, frustrations or needs from our partner, we create the perfect conditions under which resentment and distance can take hold.
Sure, it’s hard to tell our partner we’re unhappy with some aspect of our relationship. Most of us don’t want to hurt each other, and it’s possible – likely, even – that the ensuing conversation will be uncomfortable for both of us. And, worse, there’s always the possibility that our honest sharing of our concerns might not result in our partner accommodating them. Sharing something hard can feel pretty risky.
But it’s precisely in this authentic sharing of the hard stuff – our hurts, our unmet needs, our disappointments and frustrations – that we find real intimacy and connection in relationship. Because talking about problems usually leads to talking about goals, fears and dreams. In this way, we can use “conflict as a catalyst for closeness,” as Kyle Benson of the Gottman Institute says.
Keeping Our Dreams A Secret
So that brings us to dreams.
Maybe we think our partner won’t understand our dreams (maybe we don’t totally understand them yet ourselves). Maybe we’re worried about how our goals will clash with their goals. Maybe we’re keeping our true desires under wraps so that we don’t have to engage in the hard work or risk-taking that is necessary to explore them.
Whatever the reason, it’s a mistake to keep our dreams and goals a secret from our partner.
They are a part of our deepest selves, our striving for our calling and purpose, and need to be shared so that our partner can truly know us. Otherwise they only know a façade of us, a paper cutout of who we are, not the real thing.
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I get it. It’s hard to be on the giving end of an expression of self that clashes with, or feels like a rejection of, our partner.
It’s no picnic on the receiving end either.
Whether it’s an “I don’t want to” or a “I don’t agree with you” or a “Things are not okay for me,” – whatever the form, and even if it’s followed by a positive statement of what our partner believes or prefers instead, we often hear it as a slamming door, a rejection of both our own soul and the “weness” of our partnership.
But the fullest expression of love always includes an offering of authenticity.
As the philosopher Alain De Botton wisely warns us:
“It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks, or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love.”
So put on your big kid panties and get real with your partner. Say “No” when you need to. Say, “Everything’s not okay” if it’s not. Finally voice your dreams out loud.
Do all of this with love, of course, but for sure just do it. You’ll know who you are, you’ll offer your partner a chance to truly know you, and you’ll be well on your way to true intimacy in relationship.
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What about you? Do you struggle with authenticity in your relationship like I do? Let’s talk about it!
And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like these: Me Too or Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad.