The Path to Harmony for Couples
SCENE ONE: My partner and I are in the car on a road trip, having a glorious time. I’m singing along to an old pop tune, rocking out, while he reads his GPS. I see him furrow his brow and then he asks to turn off the radio — ka-thud.
In that instant, I go from exuberant karaoke queen to crestfallen idiot as a series of scenarios cascade through my consciousness: He doesn’t like my voice; I should be a better navigator; he’s always squelching my expression. And in that micro-moment when I perceive him — and myself — from this lens of judgment, I recoil from him, if only slightly. Left unchecked, there’s a good chance that by the end of our road trip, I will have an internal file of “evidence” outlining all the ways he’s been controlling and judging me the entire trip — and beyond! You get the idea.
Welcome to the World of Withholds
“Withholds” occur when we project old thoughts and feelings onto current reality and (here’s the critical part) act as if they’re real but fail to reveal them. Whatever the content of the withhold, the energetic outcome is the same: we subtly (or not so subtly) withdraw from our partner. A minor incident becomes fodder for what likely is an old and recurrent theme in our life. These themes, or perceptual biases, start to take on a life of their own, and couples can find themselves staring across an abyss at someone they love but can’t relate to anymore.
In exploring the dynamics of thriving, intimate relationships, both personally and professionally, I’ve come to the conclusion that staying current and transparent is a key ingredient to long-term intimacy. This means finding honorable ways of confiding our inner reality to our mate, including the petty stuff. Although most couples say they value honesty, most consistently fudge the truth with each other — or worse, verbally bludgeon their mate under the guise of “I am just being honest.” Ouch.
Sharing withholds is an intimacy practice where both partners agree to share their inner terrain while taking full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings, instead of defending them. When done successfully, blame and shame take a back seat to self-acceptance and empathy. This requires the sharer of the withhold to acknowledge his or her inner world through a lens of curiosity, noting what body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and/or old memories were evoked. Having some distance from the triggering event and choosing to humbly reveal oneself (with one’s mate agreeing to act as a witness) helps bridge a gap before it becomes a gulf.
The practice of sharing withholds is not for the faint of heart or rigidly stubborn. It requires both partners’ agreement to let go of their defensive postures (or at least take full responsibility for them). I guide people to break down a withhold into four steps:
1. Talk about the triggering moment as if describing a snapshot.
2. Name the bodily sensations that occurred.
3. Claim any feelings (usually it’s some version of sad, mad, afraid).
4. Take ownership of any thoughts, stories, imaginings, or memories that were evoked.
It helps — a lot! — when the receiver of the withhold can offer authentic empathy for what’s been shared.
SCENE TWO: Fifteen minutes later down the road, after having sat with my earlier reactions to my mate, I ask him if he’s willing to hear a withhold. When he agrees, I tell him that when I was singing and saw his furrowed brow, followed by a request to turn off the radio, I had a visceral reaction — my throat tightened, my belly knotted up, and my exuberant energy dropped dramatically. I realize I felt scared when I saw his brow furrow and then got angry by his request. I share with him the cascade of thoughts and stories I made up about him and myself, ultimately realizing that it reminded me of scenes with my father in childhood — how he would send me to my room when I was “too loud.” I feel the pain of that early hurt wash through me and dissipate. When I am finished, my sweetheart smiles kindly and says, “I had no idea all that was happening. I was focused on directions and was afraid we were lost!”
“We almost were,” I tell him, and smile back.