Romantic relationships are wonderful. They make us feel alive, dynamic, validated and loved -- when they work. They can also make us feel deficient, undesirable, depleted and broken when they don't.
A key ingredient in successful relationships is the ability and willingness of each partner to be authentic. Authenticity requires transparency, which is pretty easy for most of us when things are going well, but throw in a wrench or two, such as middle age, kids, and a long trail of failed relationships, 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 others the benefit of the doubt, even if we don't think they 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 from our adult lives, as well as from our childhoods. For those of us who have had a lot of past hurt, rejection and trauma, it's easy to hide and protect ourselves from potential future pain; it's rather automatic in fact. In other words, for many of us, when we feel threatened, all transparency flies out the window.
When I was in my early 20s 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 without warning, our once easy banter was replaced with stilted awkwardness.
As I floundered about trying to rediscover our former easy 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 hypervigilance 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 (dare I say), emotional neediness. And what was my ultimate fear? That he wouldn't understand my feelings, and would reject them, ultimately rejecting me in the process.
Yet despite my fear, whenever I found myself at this juncture in a relationship -- when the magic mysteriously transformed into distance, I would resolve to take the high road and act like the self-respecting, mature and self-assured woman I claimed to be -- the woman who sought higher ground and rose above the emotional ick with grace, the woman who spoke the truth and was transparent in my vulnerability.
I thought about this higher ground when one evening my 20s-something boyfriend was being particularly remote. I thought about this high road when I answered his phone call while playing loud music in the background. I thought about rising above when I acted like I couldn't hear him over the music, 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.
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 want me again (simmer down, I came clean within the hour). By responding to his need for space with a fire hose of anxiety-induced game-playing, I used an age-old marketing technique: I attempted to make myself scarce, in order to increase his desire. I've since learned that while this tactic may be effective in the short-term, 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.
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. And a few months later when he circled back around asking for another whirl? Well, I just didn't have it in me. All that posturing and play-acting was very hard work, and I was completely worn out.
When I had a private practice I often counseled couples in crisis and I quickly noticed a theme that extended across virtually all of my coupled clients. Regardless of age, culture and even education level, most of the couples I worked with over-personalized each other's behavior, attributing meaning (often negative) where none was intended. I believe this dynamic occurs because the expectations we have of our partners are very much influenced by our past experiences.
My clients often experienced one disappointment after another as they repeatedly projected past painful experiences onto their partners. And as a result, rather than perceiving their partners as teammates with common goals, they viewed them as enemies with the power to hurt and destroy. And rather than viewing their relationships as playgrounds, they saw them as minefields. And as such, they would stake their claim, dig in their heels, and fight for their cause, weapon in hand, with the the singular goal of winning the war.
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 these are the very behaviors that are vital ingredients in love.
Responding to the transparency dilemma will be different for each us, depending on our histories of loss, our childhood dynamics (including the relational patterns we learned), and most important, our willingness to be courageous in stepping out of our comfort zones and taking the risk of relating differently in the future. 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 with treating our relationships as minefields, and our partners as enemies, and for those of us who are committed to developing intimate relationships based on authenticity and transparency, we have no choice but to set down our weapons, take off our shields, and walk outside and play in the sun.