Moving in together can be a stressful event. On top of packing, signing leases and carrying everything you own up a five floor walkup; there is also the emotional stress that comes with sharing space with someone while taking the next step in what has become a pretty serious relationship.
Intimacy isn’t easy for most people. (Normally we define intimacy in terms of sexual relationships, but in this instance intimacy is described as a close interpersonal relationship defined by characteristics such as enduring behavioral interdependence, repeated interactions, emotional attachment, and need fulfillment). Many people have a basic fear that if they are vulnerable with another person, they will get hurt. Oftentimes, people reject the love their partners give them (in one way or another) because of low self worth: “How could he/she really love me?” The partner’s love may be “questioned” or doubted and that doubt and self consciousness can keep the individual from being open and trusting in the very way that is necessary to truly love. They may even require their partners to “prove they love them” or place other “tests” for their partners. If a person continually feels that they are unlovable they may go about effectively proving to the other person that they are unlovable, saving themselves from the vulnerability of an intimate, honest, loving relationship. People often forget they fall in love due to their own and their partner’s loveable qualities and only concentrate on the irrational thoughts and expectations they have toward themselves and their partners.
When co-habitating, couples make it very difficult to hide from each other, and the stress of burgeoning intimacy may reach a critical mass. To complicate matters further, men and women experience and cope with stress in different ways. Men often seek space and solitude to forget about a complicated issue – like the stress of a new residence and the developing intimacy. In their fortress of solitude, men may solve small problems, like videogame challenges or work on small projects. This re-builds self esteem and chemically regenerates the testosterone that men lose when experiencing stress. Women, on the other hand need to rebuild oxytocin and self-security by talking through their stresses and feeling heard and emotionally validated.
As you might surmise, the way that men and women handle stress seems in direct conflict with each other. It seems all too easy for couples to only add to each other’s feelings of stress and isolation. It is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to work through their stress and irrational beliefs, but with a little bit of effort couples can effectively communicate and help each other get through a challenging time of transition. Spending some undistracted time listening to his partner every day – without trying to solve her problems (men often fall into the how can I fix this mode rather than actively listening to their partner), a man can help her feel that her feelings matter and emotionally validated. Also, women can practice trusting that their partner needs his “alone time” just as she needs to be understood and validated, and that his behavior may be his coping mechanism for stressors. By not trusting their partner and not demanding immediate self-security and emotional/communicational validation women will allow their partner time TO process and cope with stress.
When love and intimacy is what you and your partner want handling stress is just one aspect of helping and developing intimacy. The greater ongoing challenge is overcoming the irrational fear of vulnerability by working on loving and accepting yourself. One can only truly accept another if they first accepts themselves. Practicing positive self-talk and personal acceptance seems simple, but if we’re honest, this is quite challenging for most of us. Trust that it gets easier with practice, and that this isn’t selfish behavior. The more love and acceptance one cultivates within, the more they have to share with their partner. Especially this time of year when stress is inevitably high, consider practicing love and self acceptance in this very real way; cultivating it within to be more sincerely loving in your intimate relationships.
“Acceptance is not love. You love a person because he or she has lovable traits, but you accept everybody just because they’re alive and human.” –Albert Ellis
Next up: Kristene Doyle, Ph.D. on The Single Most Important New Year’s Resolution (Part I of 3)