Spending too much time at home will put a strain on your relationships. You’ll get on each other’s nerves. Pet peeves will put your love at risk. Even if you get along, you’ll become like roommates; seeing each other continuously, but lacking real intimacy. So, you either drive each other crazy or get bored.
Being close has always been hazardous and getting distance has always been necessary. A worried parent stunts her child. A fearful child confines his parent. A clingy husband irritates his wife. A dependent wife tempts abuse. Cats and dogs together, fight like cats and dogs, and so do brothers and sisters.
It’s hard to be close without losing yourself. The worried parent has too much of herself invested in her child. The fearful child never proves himself. The clingy husband feels his wife takes a part of him when she leaves. The dependent wife turns herself into an object. You may not want to fly into a rage when your partner loads the dishwasher wrong, but if that’s the thing that sets you off, it’s like he has more control over your rage than you do.
Creating some distance can preserve the relationship while maximizing autonomy. The time you are together becomes that much more special. You must be able to tell where your self ends and the other begins. You need to tell the difference between your feelings and theirs. You’ve got to know who you are and have good boundaries. Lack any of that and one person will meld into the another. On the other hand, if you divide the house in two and never let your partner visit, you’ll complain you’re alone.
Another choice is to make closeness safe by regulating interactions. I wrote a book that tells you how to do just that. Make a list of rules that honor each person’s boundaries. Take responsibility for your own feelings and don’t tell the other what to do. Stop readings minds and avoid playing games. Create a path to resolve disputes. Get him to agree to load the dishwasher your way, in exchange for something he wants from you. Having reasonable regulations can go a long way towards helping people live happily with one another. Good fences make good neighbors.
Unfortunately, while regulations allow closeness to happen, they don’t create intimacy. You can’t force it. To force it is to kill it. Intimacy can only be accomplished by two people who want it and are willing to pay the price. This is where they fail. They go to counselors, read books, and practice what they’ve learned, but true intimacy is still missing. They could follow the rules of engagement all day long and not be any closer than when they began. They could go on date nights, have great sex, and go on vacations together, but have no intimacy worth talking about. The pointlessness of a relationship that should be intimate, but isn’t, becomes apparent. Tolerance, acceptance, and obligation are no substitute for joy, enthusiasm, and desire.
The Anatomy of a Breakdown
There is a way you can be intimate, but it involves doing something that’s not pleasant to do. We must dissect the last time you freaked out. Remember the last time a family member got on your nerves? It didn’t have to be much, it could have been a thought, a disappointment, a resentment, an assumption, or a vague feeling of dissatisfaction on your part; or a tone of voice, a look, or an implication on theirs that set you off. Now, look at the chain of events that followed. Next, you felt a fleeting awareness of emptiness. Soon afterwards, on your part, came a version of the fight or flight response.
You may not remember the emptiness because it’s the fight or flight response that gets all the attention. When your loved one gets on your nerves, you might have lashed out. That was fight. You might have distanced. That was flee. You might have done them both; not simultaneously, but in succession. Fight and flight are powerful experiences that make a strong impression on everyone.
We naturally focus on fight and flight because it’s those actions that have the most direct impact. When you created that list of regulations for living together, you were trying to manage your fighting and fleeing so they wouldn’t cause so much damage. You learned the penalty for your anger, so you stopped fighting. You paid the price for stonewalling and withdrawal, so flight wasn’t worth it. You stopped your most extreme responses to loved ones who get on your nerves, but they’ll still get on your nerves; maybe more so because your usual outlet is not available.
The Secret Reason for Fight or Flight
It’s important to understand the function of fight or flight in the family setting, for it’s different from what’s found in the wild. In a state of nature, fight or flight is what keeps you alive when a predator attacks you. There are generally no predators in your family room. Yes, sometimes families have predators that creep into bedrooms at night, terrorize family members into compliance, or hurt someone, but that’s probably not the stuff that’s getting on your nerves. The stuff getting on your nerves are perceived digs, insinuations, petty resentments, and sometimes just being in the same room. They are not worthy of a fight or flight response. Fight or flight, in most family settings is simply a lot of drama.
Many psychologists who talk about fight or flight believe it’s something we evolved over thousands of years and never got rid of, even though we don’t need it so much anymore. Fight or flight is assumed to be a like your tailbone, your appendix, or a craving for fats and sugars. They’re unnecessary residuals of the evolutionary process. They say fight and flight are hardwired into our psychology. We cannot avoid enacting a fight or flight response any more than we can learn to breath like a fish. It’s simply not in us.
I don’t think these views give us enough credit. I think there’s still a reason for fight or flight, even in the family room. It’s not to protect us from saber toothed tigers. It’s there to provide drama.
What’s drama for? Well, why do you watch hours of drama every night on your favorite streaming service? I think you’ll say it’s a diversion. Netflix is something that takes you out of your normal existence and lets you imagine you’re someone you’re not. Fight or flight, when there’s no actual predator chasing you, provides the same service. Fight or flight is there to divert you from that feeling of emptiness that preceded it. No one likes to feel emptiness, and no one likes to admit they’re empty, even to the ones they love.
If you find the dishwasher loaded wrong and fly into a rage, that rage is making you throw out your chest and bellow. It could make your partner cower or fight. It’s easy to forget you’re empty then. If you avoid the dishwasher, or avoid your partner, you’re doing something about emptiness then, too. You’re running away from it. In either case, you’re pretending you’re not empty. You’re still empty, no matter how much you bellow, and he cowers or fights, or you run away, because you still have no control over how he loads the dishwasher. He’s going to do what he’s going to do. You can raise the price for him when he does so, but it’s still his decision over how he does the dishes. All your bellowing does nothing to change the fact that he’s a separate person you cannot control. In fact, sometimes people will deliberately load the dishwasher in a way that’ll tick you off, just so they can assert their independence.
Ask someone what it’s like to feel empty, and they’re likely to tell you what they do about it or what someone did to make them feel that way. Sometimes, if I ask about the chain of events that led to a blow up, they’ll completely omit this step. Skittering past the emptiness takes the focus off themselves and what they lack, and put it onto other people. As a therapist, I’m always having to draw their attention to uncomfortable feelings. I don’t do this to be cruel. I do it because that’s the way towards intimacy.
Incidentally, emptiness is just one word for this state. People call it all kinds of things: loneliness, frustration, nothingness, the void, the abyss, confusion, not belonging, sadness, grief, uncared for, shame, abandonment, meaninglessness, failure, emotional death, paranoia, hopelessness, and helplessness, when they talk about it at all. Why do I call it emptiness when it’s so filled with so much? It’s empty of anything positive. It represents everything we try to avoid.
No one voluntarily plunges into the feeling of emptiness the first time; they’re forced to do so by a real or threatened loss. After they learn they can survive and come out better, they can volunteer to feel empty. Taking this voluntary step is very different from being forced to feel it. When you voluntarily feel emptiness, you learn you no longer need to run from or fight your feelings.
We do better at permitting ourselves to feel when emptiness comes during major losses, such as a death in the family. Everyone knows the feeling of emptiness is on its way and are not surprised by it. We even set aside places and time to grieve. When the feeling of emptiness might catch you unaware is in the minor losses, like when you find that dishwasher stacked badly. One glance at it might make you feel hopeless and erupt in anger. The anger, of course, comes in response to the hopelessness. The anger is ineffective at getting through to your partner, but it makes you feel a bit better for a minute because you no longer have that empty feeling.
Here’s what happens when you permit yourself to sit with empty feelings. They don’t sit with you. In a minute, they’ll be gone, when you start doing whatever you came to the dishwasher to do. If you came to wash the dishes, you have power over whether they get washed. Bellowing at your partner actually interferes with the dishes getting washed, so it makes you more empty, even as you falsely feel less so.
Admit it, deep down, you’ve known all along you’re powerless over ninety-nine percent of what concerns you. That includes the actions of other people, society at large, and the state of the world. The only part you have power over is how you respond. Will you respond out of a denial that you’re powerless, or will you take it into account and focus on doing what only you can do?
Two Half Empty Glasses Cannot Make One
Let me put it another way. You’re like a glass, half empty. When you found someone to love, your partner was half empty, too. You thought his glass could fill yours. However, that would result in his glass being completely empty. If you filled yours with his, and he’s of the same mind, he’ll refill his glass from yours.
Some people think the solution is to take the two glasses and make them one, so now you have one glass and it’s completely full. This is a marriage in which the identities of the two partners are fused. There’s only one problem. When you start monkeying around, making two people into one, you lose the very things each contributes to the marriage, their unique properties and perspectives.
It’s hard to let go of fantasies of fulfillment, but you must because they’re impossible. You’re just going to have to get used to being a half empty glass, and not look to others to fill you.
The way to be close to your loved ones without losing your mind is to lower your expectations of them to as close to zero as possible. Having an expectation is a sign you’re trying to fill your glass with his. If you lowered your expectations, when your partner loads the dishwasher wrong, you’ll say, he loaded it his way. You might have taught him to load it your way, but you can’t expect he’ll do as you say.
When I say lower your expectations, I don’t say you should put up with every kind of abuse. If your partner is a true predator, then use your fight or flight response for what it was originally designed to do. In either case, the focus should be on your own actions. Are you making a federal case out of a minor annoyance? Are you turning a blind eye away from a capital crime?
If you ever wondered why you get along better with people you aren’t so close to, like those at work, or friends, or extended family, this is why. You have fewer expectations of them than you do of the people closest to you. You can be close to someone and not be driven crazy by them if you lower your expectations.
Sitting with your feelings of emptiness helps you realize your expectations of others will never be fully met by anything you can do. Those closest are not as close as you think they are. You don’t actually know that person. When you think you know someone, the relationship is headed for the grave. If you think you know someone, you lose interest in them and become more self-centered or look elsewhere for interest and enthusiasm. Much of what you think you know turns out to be your own fantasy. Try to see something different in your loved one. If you don’t, then you aren’t looking at the person as they are, you’re only looking at your unchanging belief of who they are. Open up your mind and your interest in your partner will automatically increase. You can’t share the full part of your half empty glass, but you already share the empty part.
Sharing the Empty Part
Once you get in touch with your own emptiness, you can try to communicate it to your loved one. If you’re successful, it’ll draw him closer because he’ll recognize his own. Talk about your own feelings instead of commanding him to load the dishwasher your way, or lecturing him, or shaming him. When you talk about your emptiness, it brings out the best in people; most people, that is, who are not predators. He’ll recognize the chance that you are taking in exposing your most vulnerable side and admire you for doing so. He’ll be better able to relate to you. You’ll still load the dishwasher differently, but you both feel hopeless when others don’t do what you want. He may communicate his own emptiness back to you, and you will have a very different kind of conversation than you usually have.
When I talk about exposing your vulnerable side, many people misunderstand. They picture a dog on its back, baring its belly to its enemy, inviting disembowelment. Communicating your emptiness is not a capitulation, it’s a show of strength. Weak people must resort to bellowing, trying to control others, or running away. Strong people acknowledge their emptiness. They’re not afraid to talk about it because they know everyone has their own. It’s part of being human.
The biggest mistake people make in communicating their emptiness is by inserting the usual set of expectations in their message. Saying, for example, “When you stack the dishes that way, it makes me feel helpless,” may be an attempt to talk about your feelings, but it still makes your feelings contingent on his actions. Remember, your feelings are your feelings. If you feel helpless, then it’s because you’re trying to control him.
How can you talk about emptiness without injecting blame into it? One way is to talk in a general sense about how you struggle with feeling hopeless, without connecting it to how he loads the dishes. Confess to using anger and micromanagement to distract you from that hopeless feeling. Put the onus of responsibility on you, where it belongs.
Another method is to talk about having parts of yourself at war over what to do. “I have a part of me that gets angry with you for how you load the dishwasher. I think it’s trying to distract me from the fact there’s so much out of my control. It’s not that I must control things, but a part of me thinks I need to.”
This method has the advantage of finding a way to talk about all your feelings without committing to any one of them. It more accurately describes what may be going on in your mind. He will see you are divided and understand that none of this is easy, and it is a struggle to be reasonable.
Accepting your, and everyone else’s emptiness is not easy, but it results in an ability to be more compassionate and less controlling of others. It forces you to get something from yourself instead of getting it from others. Paradoxically, the less you try to get from other people, the more you end up getting.