This blog is the transcript of Episode #55 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.

Last week was the second of two episodes on community and how we need the collective around us to outnumber our fears. This week I want to return to a focus on intimate partnership and talk about telling the truth to the people we care about the most. Across my private practice, I have recently been hearing about your hesitation and sometimes outright paralysis when it comes to telling your partner what you actually think, feel and need. In this show, I want to normalize why that can feel so scary as well as explore the impact of withholding truths on the aliveness of your love.

Okay, so let’s start by defining some basics. The people we are the closest to – our dearest friends, intimate partners and children – are the ones with whom we feel the most vulnerable.  And vulnerability is at the center of this wrestling match with telling the truth.  Author, speaker and researcher Dr. Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “emotional exposure, uncertainty and risk”. You will note that none of those conditions are what we might call comfortable. They necessarily involve a degree of emotional dis-comfort.  It’s seemingly counterintuitive, but in order for the love to get in and the channels for bonding to truly open, we must get uncomfortable.  It’s just a fact of intimacy.  It’s easy to be grumpy about it, but there’s really no way around that particular requirement for love.

Now let’s think about encounters where you are less likely to feel vulnerable. Perhaps talking with a customer service rep to process a return or running into at an acquaintance at the grocery store.  Think about how emotionally exposed you feel with either of these people. Now think about needing to tell them that you aren’t happy with them in some way.  It might not be easy.  But because you feel less vulnerable – which means you feel less emotionally exposed – it’s more likely that you would just say, “I’d like to return my headphones” or “Excuse me but I was next in line” or whatever it is that is true for you without thinking too terribly much about it.

Now let’s shift the gears and return to the scenario of you and your intimate partner.  The stakes are just so much higher. You have children together, you live together, your families are intertwined, your belongings have merged, and perhaps you can barely remember a time without this person.  The entirety of your skin from head to toe can feel like it’s in the game.

When challenges arise in connection to one another, it can feel like the floorboards of the house are quaking, because in essence, this relationship is the foundation of your home.

Where this scenario gets even trickier is when you have all of these life things in common – a home or finances or children and so on – but not the emotional part of the connectedness.  You may be going through motions in the shared part of your lives and even kind to one another, but but just not necessarily real.  And if this combination has been going on for any length of time, it’s possible that you have found yourself in a sticky trap. One in which you have let your partner believe something or many somethings are true for you, when they are not.

For example, your truth might be as simple as you don’t like the TV on in the late evenings, even though your partner likes to fall asleep with it. Or maybe on a more serious note, you never liked to be kissed in precisely the way they do it, but now that it’s been so long, you just hide your cringe but your heart isn’t fully in it. Or perhaps one or both of you have been avoiding sex but not talking about it or enduring sex but not asking for what you want.  It can be a myriad of things and those things can even seem minor, like the TV example.  But the longer they pile up, the more petrified the pile becomes, and the wider the space between you grows.

Unfortunately, this trap is very easy to fall in to.  For most people, your childhood did not prepare you to tell truths as an adult.  More likely, you learned how to keep the peace so your overworked parents didn’t have one more problem to deal with.  Especially if you were an emotionally sensitive child, you likely learned to cater to other people’s needs in order to maintain the harmony.  This is a very clever adaptation for keeping us safe when we are young. But in adulthood, it can get us stuck when we have needs and it’s time to advocate for them.

What are the reasons most people avoid saying what they need to their partner, however large or small the need is?  What I typically hear is, “I’m afraid to hurt them,” or “I’m afraid to lose them” or just, “I’m afraid to rock the boat”. Ask yourself what your reasons might be. For most people, it boils down to a fear of the uncomfortable emotions that will ensue following the sharing of a truth.  Remember how I said our childhoods did not train us to tell truths?  Typically, withholding from our partners stems from lessons we learned when young which served us then but are hijacking us now.

So what’s the impact on the relationship of truths untold?  Put simply, concealing truths turns our nerve endings numb.  For each thing unsaid, we feel less. And when the things unsaid multiply, we risk losing sensation in significant ways in connection to our partner.  Life can float along but the aliveness just isn’t there.

As you can guess, telling truths reawakens our nerve endings.  The same reason that you are avoiding telling truths is also the reason to tell them – because you will feel more!  It’s good for your heart, it’s good for your body, and it’s especially good for your sexual body.  What was previously numb or cold can sizzle when the truths are finally revealed.

I’m not going to lie to you. The longer you have let something persist that feels distasteful or even disrespectful to you but didn’t say something about it, the harder this practice will be.  It’s possible that your life started organizing itself around a set of assumptions that are now out of touch with who you are and what you want.  And you fear that saying anything to the contrary will topple your world. And it may.  I have had the privilege of coaching couples to reveal and stand for truths that had been buried for years and it actually did topple the relationship, the one they once knew. What grew out of that risk-taking was something so much healthier for both people.

I believe that we are in relationship in order to come more alive. Telling our partners our truths over time is essential for sustaining that life force. If you are feeling that your relationship has become lifeless, you are feeling numb or there’s a sleep walking quality to your connection, it’s very likely that you are withholding truths to play it safe and keep it tidy. But it’s only ever the messy parts that had us fall in love to begin with. We fell in love with a raw, real, imperfect human who touched our hearts. Telling truths puts us back in touch with the ground of our humanness and the person we originally chose to partner with.  It’s a powerful pathway back to love.  And it’s scary for precisely this reason.  Because it has the power to wake us up and transform us into more sensitive, more current and more resilient humans for our partners, our children and our worlds.

For homework, after this podcast ends, turn the media player off and sit with yourself for ten breaths.  You might put a hand over your heart.  And imagine with your out breath that you are radiating compassion for the heart you are holding. With your in breath, receive it. In next week’s episode I will focus on how to tell difficult truths, because what you say and how you say it matter greatly. But for now, just know that it is possible to shift old survival patterns into new adult lessons.  As I close, I am celebrating your willingness to be brave in order to shake you and your partner out of the slumber and wake back alive in your love.

Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash