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February 21

Depth in relationships: How to create stronger, more meaningful, relationships

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How can one achieve depth in significant relationships? This article will outline the issues and ideas to do just this. But let me start by saying the clues are in the word HOW. It requires H for honesty, O for openness and W for willingness to be vulnerable, in order to create depth and closeness with another person.

Sharing your heartspace

Sharing with another person what I like to think of as one’s heartspace – that is, allowing someone to know your inner life – develops depth in relationships. It is only by sharing the heartspace that we can truly be seen and heard and be just who we are, with no embellishments and no pretence. It’s a very intimate space that as adults we can choose to move in and out of with carefully selected people who are safe to let in and who are willing to reciprocate. You wouldn’t want anyone pillaging your heartspace, so it is necessary to be prudently careful who you let in. 

Fear may hold you back

So what stops people from being honest, open and willing to be vulnerable – that is, share their heartspace? The big fear most people grapple with is that "if you know what I'm really like, you won't like me, let alone love me!” They (often unconsciously) fear rejection and/or abandonment if they reveal too much about themselves. Many people are so convinced that this fear is true that they don’t dare reveal themselves even to their loved ones. They fear they are unlovable and this fear can present in many ways that are not immediately obvious. 

I recall one particularly sad case of a middle-aged client of mine who disclosed that when he was diagnosed with cancer a year previously he had not told anyone – not even his wife. Nor had he told anyone since, apart from me. Throughout his many months of treatment he had continued to go to work and had gone alone in his lunch break to the hospital for chemotherapy and no one knew. He had kept secret this frightening and important event in his life because he didn’t want to burden anyone, but he came to recognize that the deeper issue was that he really didn’t believe anyone would want to be burdened with his problems. He didn’t think anyone wanted both the “good” and “difficult” bits of him and his life, so he only showed the "good" bits, even to his nearest and dearest, and kept everything else to himself. 

The cost of hiding ourselves

The result was a sad and lonely life in which no one got the option to really know him, and he had no one to share his life with, despite having a wife and family. He also didn’t get support when he most needed it because no one ever knew when he was struggling. He came to recognize that the cost of hiding himself and not being open was too high and that he was depriving himself of love and support. He came to realise that he didn’t want to live like this any more – isolated and alone even within his family. 

It may be hard to let anyone in if you’ve previously had to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of attachment

It may be hard to let people into your heartspace if in the past, and particularly in childhood, you’ve had to give up authenticity in order to secure a degree of attachment with significant others. If you’ve had a parent who was hostile, rejecting, neglectful or threatening, as a child you will have had to give up on your authentic self in order to get your survival needs met as best you could.

Canadian medic turned psychotherapist Dr Gabor Mate explains that authenticity always falls second to attachment needs, so fear of rejection, for instance, can stop a person from authentically sharing themselves. We can only achieve depth in relationship by being authentic, yet the need for attachment always trumps authenticity if a choice has to be made. 

Sometimes what will happen is that one person in a relationship will be open and share themselves but the other will not, or someone will want their partner to be open and vulnerable while not being willing to risk it themselves. This venetian blind approach does not build intimacy and depth because the sharing of vulnerability has to be mutual. 

The habit of finding fault with anyone who gets close

Fear can cause a person to push away what they most want. Psychotherapist Mark Wolynn describes a client who had suffered separation from her mother when she was a young child and as a result found it terrifying when, as an adult, she fell in love and came to need another person. She was desperate to connect deeply and intimately with another, but every time she moved towards this desire she felt such fear that she fell into the habit of finding fault with anyone who got close to her and leaving them before they could leave her. Psychologist Janina Fisher also talks about this internal battle that can arise in a person between the need for safety and the need for connection. 

Such unresolved feelings can be highlighted and brought to awareness so that the client can make the necessary links with a previous damaging experience – not for the sake of dredging up the past but in order to understand what has happened. It is only then, with understanding of the facts of our situation, that we can choose to do something to change our behaviour.

A lack of understanding about feelings can stand in the way too

Sometimes a misunderstanding about feelings can also interfere with attaining depth in relationships. One client of mine was confused because, though she didn’t want to leave her partner, she said she couldn’t understand why, if she loved him, she was attracted to someone else and “had feelings” for someone else. She had reacted to these feelings by distancing herself from her partner. We discussed that feelings are important but not always significant. Having a feeling does not necessarily mean I must act upon it.

Feelings come and go. It is important to bring our thinking brain to bear in deciding which feelings should determine our behaviour. If I feel a strong desire to run down the high street naked I would probably choose to ignore this feeling, yet, when it comes to relationship, people sometimes think they must act on every feeling. 

Every feeling is worth noticing and accepting, but not every feeling warrants being acted upon, nor should every feeling decide behaviour. So depth in relationships depends on a degree of discernment and mastery of feelings. Some feelings are simply a legacy of adversity long ago; the part of me who was an extremely shy child will probably always feel dread and a knot of anxiety in my stomach about public speaking, but I do it whenever I have something I want to share - despite my anxious feelings. 

Shame is a powerful deterrent to deep relationship

Sometimes unconscious shame of being inadequate and unloveable can prevent someone forming deep relationships. But shame can be tricky to spot in ourselves. Chris Germer, a leading researcher in self-compassion therapy, points out that only when you have the resource of self-compassion can one even spot one’s own shame. Until we find such self-compassion we may spend our lives reacting to subconscious shame triggers which keep us in shallow relationships that don’t allow anyone to enter the heartspace. 

It is worth remembering that deep relationships are possible with friends and family members and not just with romantic partners, though romantic relationships can produce particularly intense feelings and transport us back to childhood and the desire for closeness felt with parents or that we wanted but didn’t get from our parents.

It is all too easy for adult relationships to be loaded with expectations that our partner will fulfil all our unmet needs – creating a recipe for disappointment and feelings of shame when this doesn’t happen.

What comes to mind is a story I was once told of a woman lying in bed of a morning beside her husband and thinking “if he really loved me he would get up and bring me coffee in bed”, while he lay in bed thinking “if she really loved me she would get up and make me coffee”. Neither obliged nor shared their feelings, so both grew to feel unloved and undervalued as they focused only on what they wanted each other to do, with a growing sense of shame in each of somehow being unworthy of the attention they craved. 

Self-hatred and damage can be passed on through generations

Even more veiled and troublesome can be intergenerational inherited trauma – described by Wolynn – for instance, when a parent has suffered abuse in childhood and in many insidious ways is unable to connect with their own children because of the shame and self-hatred they may feel for themselves. Their children may experience this as rejection which can damage self-worth without being able to point to any specific source of harm happening to themselves. It is important to find self-compassion and understanding so that dysfunctional family traits don't get automatically and unwittingly passed on to the next generation.

The work of spiritual teacher and author Thomas Hubl focuses on the continuing legacy of damage experienced by people now from past events – for instance, the Holocaust – illustrating how individuals can be blighted by societal shame and the shame of previous generations. 

Transformation happens when facing your fear becomes easier than what you do to avoid the fear

American psychologist M. Scott Peck writes that transformation happens when the lengths we go to in order to avoid what we fear become worse for us than just facing the fear – for instance, when avoiding relationship becomes more painful than risking it. Sometimes a person’s experience, particularly in childhood, is that people can't be trusted not to hurt you. With this template for relationship, it takes courage and the learning of some emotional skills to risk vulnerability; one has to learn to judge when it is appropriate, and to weigh up evidence of who is safe to share one’s innermost self with. 

The cave you dare not enter may be the source of your healing

Unfortunately, damaging relationships – particularly with caregivers in childhood – can result in trauma, which can prevent the resulting adult from living in the present, deter them from reacting in new ways to new situations, trap them in automatic reactions that restrict life and leave them with little ability to take in new information. All this blocks full engagement in healthy and deep relationships.

Yet research by therapists such as Germer and Kristen Neff shows conclusively that healthy relationships are the antidote to difficulty connecting with others.

As mythology writer Joseph Campbell says, the very cave you are afraid to enter "may turn out to be the source of what you are looking for". 

Achieving depth requires self-awareness

If you struggle to have deep relationships, achieving this will require awareness of how and why you've been shaped to mistrust and fear the integrity of intimate others. Wolynn gives a detailed account of how inherited family trauma from past generations shapes us, quite apart from any adversity we may go through ourselves. When it comes to relationship, a fear that must be faced is one of trust – one has to learn to trust that you can reveal yourself fully and be accepted by safe others. It is only by risking such vulnerability that we can forge connection with others that is deep, loving and fulfilling . . . be it with romantic partners or anyone else, such as friends, family members or others. 

Capacity for self-regulation of emotions is important

Developing one’s own emotional capacities can enhance relationships and make them deeper and more fulfilling. Pat Ogden, pioneer in somatic psychology, highlights the importance for emotional well-being as an adult of being able to regulate our own emotions outside of relationship – that is, to be able to soothe and comfort ourselves and not rely solely on others to do this for us (for instance, a relationship partner). 

This capacity to regulate our emotions is learned as we grow up, by the way we are nurtured and comforted by our caregivers. If we’re not shown how to regulate our emotions adequately, then we may resort to compulsive, addictive behaviours that in the long run are damaging to relationships and ourselves because relying on unhealthy comforting is isolating and blocks connection and deep relationship with others. Ogden explains how difficult it is for people who in childhood suffered abuse, neglect and insecure attachment with caregivers to auto-regulate their emotions; there will likely also be difficulty seeking help as well as utilising help from others.

Sitting with feelings

Depth of relationship also requires the capacity to sit with feelings – one’s own and another’s – without trying to fix them or fake them. This can be difficult and painful to do, particularly with loved ones, when you just want to make their problems go away. It can be a big ask to just be with a loved one in their pain and struggles – because you may feel a strong urge to try to make things right and often it isn’t possible to do anything but listen. Yet it can be powerfully and deeply supportive to just be with someone in their distress; to be willing to walk alongside in their time of greatest need and stay the course of their suffering. It can also be experienced by the other person as invalidating, abandoning and rejecting not to do so – even if that was never the intention. 

Using emotional intimacy synonymously with depth, Janet Woititz writes that “the more you are willing to share and be shared with, the greater the degree of intimacy”. 

An invitation

There is a wonderful poem called The Invitation (which to my mind is an invitation to deep relationship) in which the author, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, says: 

“I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, 
Without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. 
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, 
If you can dance with wildness and let 
The ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes.”

It is in sharing the depths of despair, joy, sorrow, and every other intense human emotion that we dive deep into relationship and find the most poignant connections with each other. The Invitation continues: “I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.” This is an invitation to share the deepest human experience – an invitation to love.

For what is depth in relationship anyway if not love?

And what is depth or love but a commitment, according to Erich Fromm.

And what greater commitment can there be but to stand alongside another in the fire of living. 

Vulnerability is not a mandate

However, here is an important reminder from psychotherapist Esther Perel, who has specialised in couple work, about the vulnerability which is essential from both parties for depth in any relationship. She says: 

“Much as it hurts, we are not entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of our loved ones. While we can invite someone to be vulnerable with us, we cannot force it. And while we can ask for an invitation into our partner’s inner life - ‘what’s on your mind?’ - we can’t demand admittance.” 

She continues:

“If we want our partner to be vulnerable with us, we have to accept that true vulnerability is not a mandate. It’s a possible outcome that grows out of closeness and trust.”

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References:

Campbell, J. (1991) Reflections on the Art of Living, HarperPerennial/HarperCollins.

Fisher, J. (2017) Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-alienation, Routledge. 

Fromm, E. (1985) The Art of Loving, HarperCollins. 

Germer, C. (2009) The Mindful Path to Self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions, Guilford Publications. 

Hubl, T. (2021) Healing Collective Trauma: A process for integrating our intergenerational and cultural wounds, Sounds True. 

Mate, G. (2019) When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Vermilion.

Neff, K. (2011) Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself, Yellow Kite. 

Ogden, P. (2021) A Pocket Guide to Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Psychotherapy in Context, Norton. 

Oriah Mountain Dreamer (2000), The Invitation, Element Books. Scott Peck, M. (1990) The Road Less Travelled, Arrow.

Woititz, J. (1993) The Intimacy Struggle, Health Communications.

Wolynn, M. (2017) It Didn't Start With You: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle, Penguin Books.


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