Authenticity in Intimate Relationships: It’s Worth the Risk

Apr 12, 2019

By Robyn D. Walser, PhD

The need to feel connected is fundamental to being human, and most of us hope to find a partner with whom we can build a loving relationship. Intimacy comes through deeply sharing our varied emotional and psychological “colors,” revealing the complex and beautiful painting that is our own inner experience and seeing the same in our partner.

When we are genuine in our relationship interactions, we reveal our authentic selves. This can be an amazing journey for two people, growing ever closer through sharing emotions, thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams – building intimacy and lasting love. But sharing one’s self also means taking a risk: revealing our true thoughts and feelings can be scary.

In my work with couples, I’ve seen a wide range of fears around being authentic. Fears of loss, misunderstanding, and non-acceptance can lead partners to fall quiet about what they’re really experiencing. Concerns about still being loved and accepted if one were to truly know the other’s inner thoughts and emotions are frequent topics of discussion.

Darrell and Sheena’s Story

Former clients, I’ll call them Darrell and Sheena, illustrate the perceived risk of authenticity – and why it’s worth taking. When this couple started therapy, their relationship was in turmoil. Darrell’s adult son from a previous marriage had recently reentered his life after a long absence. Sheena was initially happy for Darrell, but growing resentments began to interfere with their relationship.

Darrell was spending more and more time with his son and was sometimes away for long stretches on the weekends. Sheena suspected he was even keeping some of their activities secret. While she enjoyed getting a little time alone, eventually she started to feel left out, hurt, and angry. But she couldn’t share her true feelings because she didn’t want to appear jealous and “ruin” the reunion between father and son.

Meanwhile, Darrell began talking less about his son and deliberately hiding some of their encounters. He was picking up on his wife’s discomfort and thought it better not to share too much of his excitement about the rekindled relationship.

Both began to imagine what the other was thinking and feeling and assuming they knew the other’s true experience. They started to argue about it, Sheena focusing on the hidden phone calls and “secret lunches” and Darrell responding with accusations of jealousy. Neither was sharing their fears.

Darrell’s deep fear of losing – and Sheena not accepting – his son, and Sheena’s deep fear of being left out and not feeling connected to her husband were lost to arguments about time spent away and jealousy.

Darrell and Sheena were afraid to reveal their authentic selves because of the perceived risk that they wouldn’t understand each other, that they would feel judged or not accepted.  But the fears themselves were driving both to act in ways that challenged their relationship.

Jumpstarting the Connection

Building intimacy requires taking risks. Feeling unsure and fearful can lead to shutting down – closing off authenticity. Anger, feeling helpless, or like we’ve been treated unfairly can make us turn inward, hiding our feelings and desires. This can lead to behaviors that are inconsistent with deeply held values and interfere with building the love we want with our partner.

When Sheena and Darrell cut themselves off from sharing their emotions, it distorted and hid their inner truths. As time went on, it became harder to genuinely express themselves. A little therapeutic work removed the barriers to connection and returned Sheena and Darrell to authenticity. Listening deeply to each other share their emotions, thoughts, dreams, and desires helped the couple reestablish a caring and loving connection.

The Work Never Ends

A true sense of self and recognizing what is authentic means getting clear about the actions and behaviors that are consistent with our most deeply held values. It isn’t always easy. Recognizing that it’s difficult to be genuine all the time, and that we don’t have to reveal everything in all situations, is part of building authenticity. Think of it as a process, not an outcome; an ongoing value lived, not a goal attained.

Speaking our inner truth takes courage. Returning to Sheena and Darrell’s process, let’s look at some ways that can help you speak yours.

  • Remember, the task is to grow your love for each other, not change your partner. Darrell and Sheena each wanted the other to change their behavior. By sharing their inner fears, they were able to offer understanding instead of insisting on change.
  • Tune into yourself. Listen deeply to your inner experience and explore what resonates with you. Both Darrell and Sheena took time to reflect on what they truly felt and feared and then found the words to describe it. This process facilitated clear communication as they shared these explorations with each other.
  • Notice your motivations when feeling challenged. Is fear driving your behavior? Darrell and Sheena were making assumptions that each would be judged by the other, and it continued to drive their fears. Sharing in an honest and heartfelt fashion helped them clarify these misunderstandings. It felt risky, but it paid off. Both were able to see how their assumptions were limiting how they viewed each other.
  • Listen deeply to your partner. Be intentional and work to understand. Darrell and Sheena worked to listen to each other, attentively and non-defensively, while revealing their inner fears. They didn’t interrupt each other, and they asked questions to get clarification as needed. This helped each of them see that it was safe to be authentic in their communication.
  • Cultivate open-heartedness in your relationship. Can you let go of assumptions and expectations? Darrell and Sheena agreed to be curious about their assumptions and expectations, “holding them lightly,” for ease of letting them go. They worked on checking in with each other before reacting. Practicing curiosity and openness helped them express their fears in a non-defensive way, reconnecting them to love and intimacy.  

Painting in True Emotional Colors Makes A Richer Portrait

There’s an art to intimacy, and it starts with tuning in to the colors painting your inner landscape. No one can read your mind, not even your partner. You have a responsibility to yourself and them to be clear about your needs, desires, and fears. Knowing and sharing what you want regarding intimacy, time alone, support, independence, and financial security is part of building a relationship that’s grounded in authenticity. If you can risk sharing your inner experience, you can forge a deepening partnership that grows richer and more colorful over time.  

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robyn D. Walser, Ph.D. is co-author of Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills Training Manual for Therapists and The Mindful Couple: How Acceptance and Mindfulness Can Lead You to the Love You Want. She has also co-authored two additional books on ACT focused on trauma and spirituality. She currently serves as Co-Director of the Bay Area Trauma Recovery Center and Director of TL Consultation Services. She maintains an international training, consulting, and therapy practice.