“I just cannot talk to him about this!” I’ve heard that declaration from patients and friends alike over the years. Sometimes the “this” is something related to sex, but sometimes it’s related to issues that have festered—everything from “he doesn’t spend time with my side of the family” to “I always have to be the ‘bad cop’ to his ‘good cop’ with the kids.”
The topic itself doesn’t matter much because all topics come down to the same things: “Do you care about me? Can I trust you?” says Ann McKnight, an experienced social worker and psychotherapist in my community. “We want to tell ourselves it’s just about this one issue, whatever that is, but this issue is often sitting on top of other hurt that hasn’t been addressed.”
Intimacy is all about connection and trust. Deepening intimacy involves making yourself vulnerable. Being real. What makes it so difficult to talk about things that really matter? Ann says reasons vary. We might do it because we think we are being considerate of the other person. (“He’s under so much stress right now. The last thing he needs is another problem.”) We might not feel confident in our ability to navigate through the conversation. Or we might worry that the conversation will result in so much anger that the relationship will never recover. And the longer we don’t talk about the topic, the harder it becomes. The resulting resentment can erode even the best relationships.
But it’s actually the very things we try to avoid, like sensitive topics, that increase intimacy. Ann asks, “What would happen if we saw these conversations and the pain and anger that come up in them as an opportunity to learn something that might result in growing closer to each other?” While there are no guarantees, Ann has seen this happen over and over in her practice.
After you decide you want to bring up the issue (and you’re sure that you’re not expecting the conversation to lead to a change in behavior for the other person) then you’re ready for the conversation. You might start by saying something like, “Our relationship is so very important to me that I’m willing to risk feeling uncomfortable right now to work on strengthening it. I’d love to know more about what ____[issue] is like for you. Would you be willing to talk with me about this? When would be a good time?” In some cases, you might want a therapist to act as facilitator.
While such conversations are painful, they are also necessary. How can your partner respond if you haven’t shared what’s going on? “If we are not bringing ourselves forward to be known and seen and cared about, it’s easy to tell ourselves we are not lovable to others,” Ann says. “But when we take that risk with people who hang in there, the rewards can be huge. It can be freeing and it can help people shift out of places that seem impossible to get out of.”