Fear: An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Intimacy: See Fear, the opposite of.
Well, not really. Not entirely. Fear was taken from the reality of Merriam-Webster. Intimacy was taken from the reality of human relationships. But, ultimately, it’s true – when we are afraid of the consequences, we cannot trust our partners to listen to or fully support us. When we are anxious about their reception, it’s terrifying to consider revealing our deepest feelings, hopes, or dreams.
And why should we make ourselves completely vulnerable when we are afraid? Our internal wiring does its best to prevent us from opening our hearts to those we fear will hurt us emotionally, let us down, or leave us, and this – in the language of evolutionary psychology – may be called an adaptive trait! It’s healthy. We need to protect ourselves!
Dr. Gottman understands this. His book on trust tells us to listen to these feelings, but also provides incredibly important methods for discerning how trust functions (or malfunctions) in our relationships. He doesn’t waste any time in getting to the core of the issue: trust begins in emotional attunement. Emotional attunement is often rooted in the ways in which we speak to each other – trust is built and broken in our everyday conversations.
In the endlessly over-stimultating, high-speed world we live in, we are culturally forced into a seemingly limitless barrage of superficial chatter. While small talk is harmless and often incredibly effective in maintaining an amicable work environment at the water-cooler, non-stop superficial conversation is toxic to any intimate relationship. Dr. Gottman finds irony and a cause for concern in the bizarre applicability of Jean Piaget’s findings on “collective monologue” to our everyday conversations. Originally found in preschoolers, the effect may also be observed in adults these days: around the dinner table, we often alienate each other without even realizing what we are doing.
We behave like toddlers. We somehow forget to leave our meaningless chattering water-cooler selves at the office, and wonder how it is that we end up missing each other entirely.
Consider the following exchange between Mia and Jesse at the dinner table, taking place on her arrival home from a long day at work and night school, and after he has spent all day dragging the kids around to various activities:
Mia: “Augh, I can’t believe how much stuff I have to do these days, it’s insane! I don’t understand how these classes can assign so much homework, don’t they realize we have jobs?!”
Jesse: “These tykes were crazy today, Bobby didn’t want to go to swimming lessons, and he keeps talking about being a lifeguard. Maybe we should stop sending him, they’re not cheap.”
Mia: “And I have such a stupid boss. He doesn’t even get it – I keep having to work overtime shifts!”
Jesse: “It’s not as if he even talks about life-guarding that much anymore – these days it’s all about dinosaurs. Sometimes it all feels so ridiculous…”
Mia: “What if I get laid off?”
Jesse: “WHAT? What are you talking about?!”
They are talking past each other. Think back to your recent conversations. Sound familiar?
When we are in a stressed-out state while trying to communicate with our partners, we risk unintentionally sending the wrong messages to each other. Damaging messages like, “I don’t care much about you/your feelings” or “I’m too tired/stressed to treat our relationship as a two-way street.” These days, we seem to need to re-learn the basics, to reconsider what an intimate conversation even looks like. According to Dr. Gottman, many of us are laboring under some serious misconceptions, which may explain why intimate conversations so commonly provoke anxiety.
Intimate conversation is not about constant headlong plunges into touchy subjects and conflict discussions; in fact, overzealous plunging has the potential to tear relationships apart. Intimate conversation is about Sliding Door Moments. Intimate conversation is about sharing closeness and solidifying your emotional bonds with loved ones.
For more on intimate conversation, we encourage you to explore Dr. Gottman’s recent release, What Makes Love Last?. In the meantime, please enjoy this short clip taken from an exclusive interview with Dr. Gottman about the book:
The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.
More in The Archives