Partners sometimes try so hard to protect each other's tender feelings. Their protective defenses become cumbersome. They cannot connect, draw close, or touch each other emotionally because of these defenses. The object of truth-telling is to break down these defenses -- to stop the protection and tell the truth.
But there is a catch. Before telling the truth to your partner, you must learn what "the truth" means. Then you must learn how to tell the truth in a way that minimizes the risk of destroying that very thing you want to create.
The truth we are talking about is not about the facts. It is about how you feel. We can always argue about the facts. But you, the speaker, are the authority on how you feel. You are the only one who can represent your emotions. The most powerful truth is how you feel about the other person in the present, the "right-now-as-we-speak" moment.
I call these expressions "sacred secrets". Such self-disclosures are exciting and dangerous. When you first meet someone, you follow a socially expected script. Whether you call this a line or polite conversation, it means you do not express your real feelings --perhaps a nearly overwhelming desire to touch the other person, or an immediate feeling of trusting the other person, or a fear of rejection. When you follow a script, everyone knows what to do and what to say. But when you tell what you really feel, you change the script, and no one is certain what will occur.
When you speak a sacred secret, the truth is out. You cannot contain it, and you cannot predict or control the outcome. When you tell the sacred secret, you can't predict how your partner will feel or what your partner will say, and you don't know how you will feel once you've heard the response. This is the wonder and mystery of the spirit of love.
In fact, this is the answer to the question, "How can we keep passion in our relationship?" The early stages of most couples' relationships contain a fair amount of sexual passion. With the passage of time and neglect, the passion all too often disappears. "How to keep love alive" is a hot topic in women's magazines, and advice may include preparing sexual surprises, buying slinky nightgowns, and other such tips. But these intriguing suggestions are not the real answer. The way to keep passion and excitement in a relationship is to learn how to tell each other important truths. When you throw away the script, you face the challenge to respond to the unpredictable. This need to be creative and aware keeps the excitement and passion in a relationship.
When a couple tells sacred secrets, it is as if they are rafting down the Colorado, just the two of them. The river carries them, and they must ride, because there is no exit until the raft reaches the takeout point. These sacred secrets can capsize the boat. The truth can kill an individual spirit. A great deal is at stake. But once out of the rapids, if the couple has told the truth, revealed secrets and survived, they have cleansed their relationship and it has a chance to become whole, stronger, and more exciting.
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For a couple to be able to tell each other their sacred secrets, they must be safe together. Being safe together means that each partner must have the capacity for empathy and compassion. Empathy if the desire and the ability to understand one's partner compassionately. It is the second essential element in building love's spirit.
Acceptance is the most important component of empathy. Acceptance means that one partner can speak her truth and that the other partner will acknowledge it as her truth without trying to convince her of his own. The listener works to accept what the speaker feels as a statement about the speaker and not as a statement about the listener.
It is even possible for the listener to absorb with empathy ugly words and expressions the blaming person speaks. This does not mean that empathy justifies or forgives abuse, but only that empathy offers help in understanding the source of abuse. The skilled empathetic listener understands that blaming, name-calling, and bitterness are statements of the speaker's anger that come from the speaker's hurt and fear. Such statements say far more about the speaker than about the one spoken to.
For the listener, giving empathy takes strength and skill. It requires listening, reflecting, and acknowledging, all done without blaming. If truth-telling is the fire fueling the spirit or passion of a relationship, empathy is the fireplace containing the fire and protecting the relationship from a blaze that can destroy and injure everything in its path.
Boundaries Lead to Freedom
Another requirement for building love's spirit is creating boundaries. Boundaries mark the emotional safety zone that permits a couple to tell each other their sacred secrets. Boundaries include physical walls, time boundaries that set aside and protect the couple's time together, conversation boundaries that create limits to what one can say, and personal-space boundaries that define how one can be touched. Boundaries protect the relationship from romantic competitors and, perhaps more important, from well-meaning friends, family, and children.
The paradox in this principle is that boundaries, which at first appear restrictive, actually are a means of creating more freedom and excitement in a relationship. Without the emotional safety that is provided by relationship boundaries, couples cannot relax enough to share their personal truths.
Just as it is difficult to love and value a person who does not love and value himself or herself, it is difficult for parents, children, and friends to respect a love relationship that does not create its own boundaries. Children especially have no interest in supporting their parents' intimate life. They don't even want to know about it. Neither do friends or parents. No one cares about your sex life but you and your partner, and it is up to both of you to create the boundaries that protect your intimate moments.
A couple must make time to be alone together, take time to talk without interruptions, and "get away" now and then. Sometimes a couple can spend a weekend away from the family or hire a babysitter during the day when both still have energy to pay attention to each other and to be adults alone together. Couples who cannot afford relief of this kind can go to another room and shut the door for a while or ask a friend to keep the children.
Boundaries that set off time and place are important, but more may be required to prevent others from intruding on a relationship. If you and your partner plan a romantic weekend away but spend the whole time talking about the children, you have not formed effective boundaries. Set up the boundaries -- then, within them, give your attention fully to your spouse.
Have Faith, Make Room, Know Love
The last element required to nurture love's spirit is a sense of belonging. A feeling of belonging together is essential when a couple lives together. In a love relationship, each party must feel that he or she belongs beside the other. One witnesses this spirit when one member of the couple approaches the other in a crowd and somehow space is made for the approaching mate. The atmosphere changes, and the two people create a warmth or energy that wasn't there before. The approaching party has obviously been made welcome.
One part of a sense of belonging has to do with a partner's expectation. If we believe we belong and that our presence is welcome and desired, this expectation of belonging can create part of our sense of belonging. Another part is what we do to make our partner feel welcome. This might mean small gestures such as saving for our partner a place beside us or introducing our partner to our friends. The third part of a sense of belonging is acceptance. Acceptance implies a knowing, a knowing that comes from truth-telling and sharing sacred secrets. Acceptance means that a person is known -- the good and the bad -- and loved. To know and love is the greatest gift we can give to one another.
Boundaries, empathy, and telling the truth also contribute to a sense of belonging, and all are essential components of love's spirit.
Published by Beyond Words Publishing, Inc. ©1997
Create Your Own Love Story: The Art of Lasting Relationships
by David W. McMillan, Ph.D. (Foreword by John Grey)
Shows couples how to take their shared histories of how they met, fell in love, and overcame trials to create a love story that makes their relationship stronger and more satisfying
Recommended book: Why Mars and Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress by John Grey.
About The Author
David W. McMillan, Ph.D., inspires readers to have the highest vision for their own relationships. He is the creator of the Sense of Community Theory and the founder of the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute. He is co-author of Teach Your Child About Feelings, and A Craving for Life. Visit his website at www.drdavidmcmillan.com