I’ve been reading “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. Richard Schnarch again.
I read it a few years ago when Devin and I were going through a rough patch and it totally changed how I saw relationships, and myself in them. The author recommended picking up the book every few years or so and reading it again–to look at the things you highlighted the last time, and find all the new things you didn’t have the awareness to see before.
This time the concept of Self and Other Validated Intimacy jumped off the page at me and I had to share it with you here.
Let me take a step back and outline the broad strokes of his philosophy for marital therapy. First of all, Schnarch defines marriage as any long term, loving commitment between two people. It doesn’t actually matter if they have a ring on it, just that they are committed for the long term. His big glossary words are “differentiation” and, its opposite, “emotional fusion.”
Differentiation originally comes from the process stem cells undergo to change from their original form into all the different cells of your body: your muscles, liver, brain, skin, etc. They all started the same, but they end up highly specialized and working in concert with each other to make your body.
Schnarch tweaks this term to represent how we become adults in society. To truly become our own person we have to individualize, differentiate, and become intimate with who we are at our core–try to truly understand our core values, learn to soothe our own anxieties and feelings, and pursue our passions to find meaning in life.
This is a pretty standard narrative: you grow up under the counsel and guidance of your parents and siblings, then, upon leaving home, you “find yourself” and “become your own person.” This is all good! These are encouraged, especially in our highly individualized culture.
But we have another pernicious narrative about marriage running alongside this adulthood story. The marriage story is familiar to everyone: You’ll find someone, some day, that is your soul mate. They will fulfill your every desire, complete your sentences, know what you want before you do, and vice versa. When you’re happy, they’re happy, and when they’re sad, you’re sad. Sounds like true love, doesn’t it? The problem with this “true love” is that it is the OPPOSITE of differentiation. It asks you to give up your self for the other: to become mirrors of one another, endlessly reflecting each other until the image is hard to recognize.
This is what Dr. Schnarch refers to as “Emotional Fusion.” Each partner in the couple expects the other to accept, validate, and agree with them on everything, because that’s what people who love each other do, right? The problem is that we are all different people. Modern Marriage, and our popular idea of “true love,” is trying to force us back into being children that need someone else to come and dry our tears, laugh when we laugh, and tell us we are the smartest and the best in the world. After awhile this pressure inevitably builds into Emotional Fusion. Each partner expects the other one to soothe their anxieties by reading their mind and feeling how they feel, and when they don’t, it creates more anxiety and a sense of constant betrayal. This can express itself in different ways: one partner may become more clingy and push for more intimacy, either sexual or emotional, while the other partner tries to reassert their differentiation by creating space in the relationship. This often leads to adultery, even if neither partner knows why they’re so unhappy. They feel like they’re not communicating, when, in reality, they know everything the other person is thinking, they just don’t want to hear what needs to be said.
Differentiation is the ability to hold on to yourself, even when you are emotionally and sexually intimate with your partner. It’s the ability to soothe your own anxieties and worries: your insecurities about your body, money, intelligence, talent, without needing your partner to do that for you. And when you can do that, it actually frees you to be a better partner, and support their passions as much as your own.
That brings us to Self and Other Validated Intimacy, which I have expanded for myself into Self and Other Validated Reality.
Someone seeking Other Validated Intimacy will have thoughts like this:
“I’m really worried about how I look, and if I’m good enough for this promotion at work. Why can’t my stupid boyfriend realize that I need his support right now? Why is he just playing fantasy football? He doesn’t care about me at all, does he?! I mean, if it was the other way around, I would DEFINITELY be giving him exactly what HE needed! He must not love me.”
In this scenario, the partner doing the worrying is depending on the boyfriend to fix their own anxiety. They are emotionally fused with the boyfriend’s opinion of them. The problem is, the other boyfriend, initially, probably DID give them what they needed: in the first year or so he told the worried partner they were beautiful and smart and worth everything in the world. That in and of itself isn’t a problem. Other Validated Intimacy does feel good. But if we can’t soothe our own anxieties first then someone else’s validation will always ring a little hollow, and we will always yearn for more. It’s like a drug. We become resistant to it and need more and more.
Self Validated Intimacy functions very differently. Here’s a quote from “Passionate Marriage” that I love:
“I don’t expect you to agree with me. You weren’t put on this earth to validate and reinforce me. But I want you to love me, and you can’t if you don’t truly know me. Yes, I fear your rejection, but one day when we are no longer on this earth, I want to know you KNEW me.”
In this case the partner doing the thinking has already dealt with their anxieties and insecurities on their own, and they trust the other partner to do the same. This gives both partners the freedom to express who they really are with one another–true intimacy–without the threat that one or both partners will be thrown into emotional turmoil.
What I realized for myself was that not only was I expecting a lot from my boyfriend, Devin (especially with the heightened anxiety of moving to NYC, getting a new job, leaving behind friends, family, etc.), but I was also completely fused to the other things in my life as well: emotionally fused serving tables: getting way too stressed out when a table didn’t like my service or the food or whatever; fused with my writing: worrying about what others will think of me if I share my work professionally; fused with Devin: worrying if he still finds me attractive (when really it’s mySELF that doesn’t find me attractive).
At the root of the problem was my anxiety over how much my life has changed over the last few months. But instead of trusting in my own power to soothe my anxieties, I was looking to my boyfriend to soothe them, and blaming my job and my art for creating more anxiety.
By taking responsibility for our own feelings and anxieties we lift that burden from our loved ones and the world at large. Then the icy relationships with ourselves, our jobs, our talents, and our loved ones can begin to thaw, melt, and move easily again.
Think about the areas in your life you may have fused with. Do you expect others to soothe your anxiety? Do you allow your work, your partner, to dictate whether or not you are happy? If you find yourself running those old scripts, try taking a few deep breaths and calming yourself down. Your anxiety is YOUR responsibility, and no one else’s.
I hope I can remember it too! Talk to you soon,