Many couples come to my office because they don’t feel deeply connected. Often, one of them is lonely in the relationship because they feel like they can’t bridge the distance.
These couples describe their relationships as containing little intimacy. But something recently reminded me of the divine ingredients of connection and how simple—but not easy—it can be to (re-)connect.
During a recent appointment, John, an educated man, was vigorously questioning the #MeToo movement. He spoke about issues of race and gender, and how identity politics has become negative and destructive.
When he paused, I suggested that the identity movement made him feel defensive and angry.
He denied feeling defensive, but shared that, as a teacher, the new politics forced him to be hypervigilant about his words and actions with students, lest he be wrongly accused.
I empathized with his experience and how hard it must be to be a teacher today. He then went back to his well-constructed case about the movement’s faults.
As the conversation continued, I kept an eye on his partner, Nel, whose expression had glossed over. She had checked out. It seemed the possibility for connection was gone.
But I had seen an opening just before; a little piece of John had emerged when he was talking about the difficulties for teachers nowadays. Hoping that I could get a little further than John’s teacher experience, I inquired, “What does it trigger in you personally, having to be in the thick of it, required to participate in this dialogue and all the forms and training sessions you probably have to participate in?”
With that very simple invitation, within the safety of our relationship, John showed up. In an instant, his entire facial expression shifted. Suddenly, he was there—the person, not the narrative.
John then expressed how toxic the whole thing felt—how he was forced to be in a conversation that was not his life, not valuable to him—and that he was not interested in any of it.
He felt put upon and trapped by the environment of identity politics, in a constant fight about issues that he didn’t resonate with. He felt he had to prove he wasn’t guilty of something that didn’t, in any way, belong to him.
The specifics of what he felt were less important than what was inspired from the fresh truth that John shared.
Suddenly, Nel was there in the room. A palpable energy moved through the room, and she reentered the space behind her eyes. In that moment, for the first time, I could see real empathy for her husband spread across her brow.
They were sharing the same space, perhaps, for the first time in a decade. Nel was looking at John with an entirely different expression. She was really looking at John. Tears welled up in Nel’s eyes; connection was happening.
At last, what had been separating them all these years—all her husband’s ideas—were out of the way and she could feel him; be with him.
John had been honing his ideas and intellect all his life, using arguments to validate his experience. He was skilled at proving his rightness, but his ideas came at the cost of connection. John didn’t get to feel connected to anyone or, for that matter, to allow anyone else to connect with him. He was an island surrounded by an ocean of mind.
Many people remain stuck in the land of contents—with the context underneath the contents rarely reached. Men particularly seem to get locked in their thoughts, information, and ideas. This can shut them out from their own hearts and shut everyone else out in the process.
Being with such individuals feels like being trapped in a corridor with no door, no way to be together, and no way to touch them. Loved ones are held at bay by the thoughts, opinions, and arguments that make up the armor that protects these individuals from vulnerability.
Since it’s not possible to join their experience, developing empathy for them must happen from a distance. You can get an idea of what they’re experiencing, but cannot feel it with them. For the partners of such individuals, being together is an experience of loneliness and separation. Hearts can’t touch; life can’t be profoundly shared.
When John expressed his personal experience—not his narrative, his justification, or his knowledge—his truth came through in its raw, real, and live form. Nel could see and feel her husband. She was finally with him.
They were together in the same now.
His intellectual defenses were out of the way for a brief and blessed moment. Nel could then experience the sensation of being in true company—not being alone together. She later confirmed this to me in an individual session.
Couples spend decades trapped, like flies in spider webs, inside the arguments of content, of who’s right and of who’s justified in feeling the way they feel about the contents.
They get caught, sometimes for good, in a battle for whose experience deserves empathy. This happens for many reasons.
One is that we mistakenly believe that we are our thoughts and opinions. Proving our rightness is, thus, a life and death struggle to ensure survival.
If you’re feeling that you can’t reach your partner, like you’re alone when you’re together, check to see if the both of you are trapped in the land of contents—of mind—with no access to each other’s hearts.
Is your communication stuck in the land of opinions and ideas? Is your relationship waylaid in the purgatory of commentary, an airless box of comments on life that keeps each of you forever a step away from shared experience?
If that resonates, consider asking questions to reach your partner’s heart—that unknown territory of real, felt experience—and offer yourself the same invitation, to deepen the connection with yourself as well.
Here are questions that invite feelings:
- What is your experience in that situation?
- What does that situation trigger in you?
- What does it feel like when you’re in that situation?
- What makes it so hard, for you, when you’re in that situation?
And, when you describe your own experience, try modeling the communication style you want to receive from your partner. For example, “For me, when that happens, I feel …” “What makes it so hard for me is …”
Actively model talking about your feelings and experience, rather than your narrative about the situation. Maybe, even name that distinction so that your partner can hear the difference. When your partner is able to express his or her direct experience or a newly discovered feeling, remember to offer him or her a supportive response.
Don’t correct or dismiss the experience, no matter what it contains. Each time your partner moves from the known storyline to the unknown felt experience, he or she is growing.
When you respond with loving acceptance, you encourage steps in this direction and invite a deeper connection.
True connection happens when we communicate from our vulnerable hearts, not the protective stories in our heads. The most important journey we take in a relationship, and in life, is from our heads to our hearts.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com