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The Vital Ingredient In Relationships

Romantic relationships are wonderful. They make us feel alive, dynamic, validated and loved – when they work. They also make us feel deficient, undesirable, depleted and broken when they don’t. Being authentic in relationships requires transparency, which is pretty easy for most of us when things are going well, but throw in a wrench or two, and for many of us, all transparency flies out the window.

Being transparent means having thoughts, feelings and motives that are easily perceived. Being transparent requires the ability to trust, to see the goodness in others, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t always deserve it, and even when it’s scary. Being transparent with friends, family, and even our co-workers, can be challenging at times, but many of us can manage this without too much difficulty. Romantic relationships are different though because they often serve as a portal through which we re-experience all of our past hurt, rejection, and trauma – both in our adult lives, as well as in our childhoods. For those of us who have had a lot of past hurt and trauma, it’s easy to hide and protect ourselves from potential future pain and rejection; in other words, transparency flies out the window.

When I was in my twenties I found myself in yet another relationship where the initial glee gave way to that far too familiar pit in my stomach when my boyfriend of about three or four months suddenly started acting remote, indifferent, and rather cagey. I cannot recall anything that caused this shift (I never could), but suddenly our once easy banter was replaced with stilted awkwardness. As I floundered about trying to rediscover our former rhythm, it seemed as though everything I did just pushed him further away. Rather than recapturing our former glee, I found myself monitoring his responses to me with a sense of hyper-vigilance that only increased my angst, and his distance. And the more I tried to be transparent, the more I felt compelled to hide my true feelings of fear, anxiety, and yes, neediness, for fear that he wouldn’t understand my feelings, and would reject them, and me.

In the past, every time I’d found myself at this juncture in a relationship – when the magic mysteriously transformed into distance, I would resolve to act like the self-respecting, mature, and self-assured woman I knew I was – the woman who rose above the emotional ick with grace. I thought about this higher ground while answering my boyfriend’s phone call one evening with loud music playing in the background. I thought about it when I acted like I couldn’t hear him, and when I thanked a mysterious someone for pouring me a drink that I made sure clinked the mouthpiece of my phone – all from the comfort of my very own quiet, lonely living room couch. So regardless of my best intentions, I once again matched a boyfriend’s seeming indifference with my own, doing my best to create enough distance to compel him to love me again, which involved a whole lot of posturing, and the projection of a false self (not to mention a false social life).

By responding to his need for space with a fire hose, I used an age-old marketing technique, making myself scarce, in order to increase his desire. Ultimately I learned that while this tactic may have been initially effective, it had a relatively short shelf life. I wasn’t being honest, I wasn’t expressing my true feelings, and I certainly wasn’t being transparent; instead, I was hiding. Ultimately our dance of ick created a false dynamic, where my fear, anxiety and negative expectations led to an inescapable self-fulfilling prophecy, and we decided to end our relationship. All of my posturing and play-acting was very hard work, so when he circled back around a few months later, I’d already moved on, if for no other reason than out of sheer exhaustion.

As much as we may want to believe that we live in a gender-neutral world, I believe that men and women are still very different. Whether through genetics, biology or socialization (or a combination of all three), we often think differently, feel differently, interpret differently, and as a consequence, behave differently. I believe this is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to be transparent in a romantic relationship. It’s challenging to understand another person’s worldview when it’s so divergent from our own, but a key component of an intimate relationship involves accepting these differences and not personalizing them. Another challenge in being transparent relates to our expectations of love, which are very much influenced by our past experiences.

When I had a private practice I often counseled couples in crisis and I quickly noticed a theme that extended across all the couples I saw. Regardless of age, culture, and even education level, most of the couples I worked with over-personalized each other’s behaviors, attributing meaning (often negative) where none was intended. They often experienced one disappointment after another, as they relived childhood experiences, which they repeatedly projected onto their partners. And as a response, they would stake their claim, dig in their heels, and fight for their cause. Rather than viewing their relationships as playgrounds, they saw their relationships as minefields and their partners as the enemy, with the power to destroy. They strategically tiptoed forward, weapons in hand, with the almost singular goal of avoiding the next explosion. The skills necessary to win a war include out-maneuvering one’s opponent, and anticipating disasters before they occur. Revealing our thoughts, feelings and motives, will get us killed on the battlefield, but they are vital ingredients in love.

Responding to the transparency dilemma will be different for each person, depending on their childhood dynamics, their histories of loss, and their willingness to be courageous. It takes courage to be transparent with another human being, particularly when our hearts are on the line. But for those of us who are no longer content to treat our relationships as minefields, and our partners (and potential partners) as the enemy, and who are committed to developing an intimate relationship based on authenticity and transparency, we have no choice but to set down our weapons, take off our shields, walk outside and play.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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