A lifelong student of relationships, I have worked hard – and am a work in progress – at learning the skills needed to create healthy relationships. Intimate communication is one of the most transformative and essential relationship skills, one that I hope everyone will learn.
Communicating with intimacy is important because it happens on deep emotional levels. Our therapist Nancy says that intimacy means “into-me-see”: We allow ourselves to be seen and heard deeply and with acceptance, not only by our partner, but also by ourselves. In this way we can truly understand ourselves and each other, providing a safe harbor for our love, learning, and growth.
Discover your truth
Listening deeply to oneself can be hard, but it can also be so easy and natural if we create the conditions for it to occur. Some create the conditions during prayer or meditation. I simply just stop what I’m doing, set the question in my mind (such as “how do I feel?” or “what do I want from this?”), and then I shut off my brain and listen to the wisdom of my heart and soul. Usually, I get an answer in the form of clarity, a feeling, or a phrase but others might catch an image or a sense in their body to do something, like give a hug.
If I ask the question and seek an answer from my brain, it’s usually fear-based and/or judgmental. Communicating those sentiments whether verbally or nonverbally tends to make things worse.
The genius of Nancy is that she would repeat this query repeatedly, going deeper into heart and soul with each cycle. “Where’s that come from?”, “why is that important?”, “what’s hardest about that?” Even when you think you get to the core of the issue, she’ll ask another round. Eventually, you get to your truth, which often stems from a deep-seated fear or need from early days.
After much practice, I can do this process on my own, though more proficiently with a master like Nancy. I imagine that many of you can too.
Speaking our truth from events from our past helps our partner understand what is painful to us and why, without it becoming personal. The partner can then seek to understand the nuances and contours of that truth, and which things are painful to us and which are not. For example, going out with friends for dinner might feel safe, but going with friends to a bar might feel challenging.
Understand the content (mind)
Listening deeply to others is another essential relationship skill. Often we equate communication with talking and speaking. Listening seems to be the most forgotten skill, even though IMHO, it is the most important.
Quality listening means that you listen to comprehend the content of what is said. In other words, you should be able to clearly summarize what the other person said, and without layering on your own judgments and opinions. For example, “you selfishly feel angry when I go to a bar with my friends, and you want to control my life” layers judgment on a stated need.
Understand the emotion (heart)
Quality listening also reads body language and between the lines for the content that is not spoken. For example, if I ask my partner if he’s attracted to a coworker, and he answers that they’re just friends, what he didn’t say stands out and may merit further exploration.
Often that unstated content is emotional. In the earlier example, I stated that my partner was angry, but if he did not say he was angry, then it’s a guess which may feel like an accusation to him.
Whether you can sense others’ emotions or not, it’s a good practice to ask for confirmation or clarity regarding your partner’s feelings. For example, “I’m trying to understand how this feels to you. It feels to me like anger but I’m not sure. Is that what’s going on for you?”, or “I think I’d feel angry in that situation. Is that your experience?”. These are just different ways of saying “how does this make you feel?”, a question that should have a trigger warning.
Accept their truth, and your own, and the fact that they may differ
Quality listening also means that you accept what your partner says as their truth. You don’t have to adopt it as your truth, unless it is. For example, accepting that your partner feels that failing to send a thank you card is an unacceptable breach of ethics may not be your truth. You can have a civil agreement to disagree when there’s respect for each of our unique perspectives and experiences.
Quality listening does not include problem-solving for the other person unless they specifically ask for it. I’m not the authority on what others should do or what “their problem” is. I focus on attending to my own learning and support others as they strive to do the same.
Commit to learning and growth
Fairy tales grossly mislead us to believe that the hardest work is finding true love, when in fact, the work is just beginning. We switch from an outward search to an inward one, which can be scary at first since we don’t know what we might find under those feelings.
But like the monster under the bed, shining a light on it makes you realize it’s mostly a figment of the mind. Repeating that process helps us to chip away that mountain until it’s a manageable molehill that we eventually put in our rearview mirror.
If you’re thinking this takes effort, practice, patience, and skill development, then you’re right. Just like with any other valuable skill, it doesn’t happen without commitment and ends up being so rewarding. That’s why we talk about committed relationships; it’s not just about promising to be monogamous. It should include promising to learn and grow together, especially when the ride gets bumpy.