Helping Couples: Because Executives are People Too

Questions & Answers

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What makes two persons a couple? Intimacy. What leads to chronic relational strain and conflict in relationships? A breakdown in capacities for intimacy. How do we recover a state of intimacy? By regaining a capacity for communication. How do we develop resilience in our capacity to restore intimacy when its been lost? By learning new ways of communicating and caring with one another.

About Intimacy

Achieving and sustaining intimacy is one of the most fundamental, complex, and important markers of adult development. It requires a special kind of readiness and ongoing attention and care: 1) We must have a clear and healthy sense of our individual identity. 2) We must be able to disclose and explore our values and vulnerabilities. 3) We must be able to subordinate self-interests to an ethic of mutual caring.

Intimacy is an innermost connection to another person. No wonder it’s difficult to find and sustain. And self-identity is not static, it further evolves within this relationship. But the basic tasks of differentiating ourselves as persons and learning to function independently must have been reached if we are to be sufficiently secure and self-possessed to invest ourselves in the relationship.

Definition of Intimacy

in·ti·ma·cy [from the Latin intimus innermost] – a close personal relationship marked by love and affection, characterized by a depth of mutual knowledge, a complete intermixture or interweaving. (Webster’s Third International Dictionary)

Developmental Stage of Intimacy

Intimacy is “the capacity to commit… and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises.” We must face the felt threat of “ego loss in situations that call for self-abandon…The avoidance of such experiences… leads to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption.” (Erik Erikson on intimacy versus isolation)

As much as conceptual definitions of intimacy and norms of adult development may sharpen our focus, the actual experience forming relationships and living as couples is both messier and more difficult. And that’s what I would like to discuss in this brief article, the challenges and problems that arise, and how to handle them.

Addressing the Problems

Positive intentions and high hopes meet the realities of everyday life to create adaptive challenges in any relationship. Being attentive and acting with care is usually a bit easier in the beginning when we are most deliberate. Later, a combination of complacency and unanticipated or novel challenges can arise that test the limits of our capacities to cope individually and jointly. 

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I represent this phenomenon in the Challenge-Development Curve. Early in the relationship we’re highly motivated and committed. We rally our emotional, mental, and practical energies to focus and problem solve issues. But as we enter more demanding moments of life as a couple, we may begin to experience increased levels of stress, strain, and frustration. And if we do not pause, take notice, and recognize the need to get help, relational dynamics and quality of life can take a downward turn.

When couples contact me it’s often only after they’ve tried everything they can think of on their own. They are nearing or beyond the “inflection point.” At that time, they recognize the need for help, and that there is specialized help available that can make a difference and bolster their capacities to navigate peak challenge. Alternatively, feeling hopeless, they may try to “settle” for something short of happiness and genuine intimacy.

Those who call later, after things have worsened and become chronic, finally realize that “settling” is not a winning strategy. It's affected their mood and vitality, and their capacity to experience joy. The ill effects of settling can erode relations with children, life at work, and engender feelings of chronic fatigue. It’s time to either work things out or separate.

How Skill Restores Affection and Connection

When we’re stuck, we usually know it, even if we aren’t willing to consciously admit it. Being stuck causes us to feel out of control and experience feelings of fear or threat, in response to which we activate self-protective defenses. They become like the fight-or-flight response, automatic, reactive, with an intensity that is often out of proportion to the actual risk or danger in the situation.

It's easy to see how those conditions make it difficult to communicate openly, empathically, and with an aim of reaching mutual understanding. And absent that, we take all kinds of impulsive actions that not only do not help, they further distance us and heighten defensive postures. So, it will come as no surprise that the cure must address both self-management of defenses and communication skills.

And this skill-building work must be linked in concrete and practical ways to the recurring themes and behaviors that cause emotional distress and conflict. That is, we must “situate” our skills training in a well-diagnosed context. And then we must pursue progress patiently, not expecting miracles but experimenting with new ways of thinking, acting, and interacting.

It’s Up to You

There is little reason to settle for something short of what you want and can realistically achieve with some help. It’s a choice, and even if you do not choose, that too is a choice – it’s a choice to settle. Do you wonder why I post this article on Linked In and how it relates to my work as a coach? A different kind of intimacy, collegial intimacy, operates by the same principles. Even more to the point, managers and executives are people too!