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In my previous post, How Two Identities Become One, I compared relationships to roads. Roads are helpful but they require significant effort to build and maintain. Potholes and dead ends threaten to prevent you from arriving at your destination: connection and closeness.
On the road, potholes represent the fear of intimacy. Destructive conflict is a result of the inability to tolerate intimacy. And what is intimacy, really? Intimacy is nothing else but reality: the way things really are — flaws and all.
How much do you want to know the way things really are? God knows you perfectly. Do you want to know others and yourself perfectly? Reality is scary sometimes. Being authentic requires dropping your guard. Are connection and closeness worth the risk?
If the risk is too great, you can opt for denial and attempt to maintain the status quo (avoid conflict). If you want true intimacy, you can accept the condition of the road and plan a road construction project (embrace conflict).
Denial Makes for a Long, Bumpy Ride
Denial is like driving without your lights on at night. You can’t see the road. But sometimes you don’t want to see.
If you came face-to-face with the brokenness of your fiance and you realized your mate-to-be can’t meet your deepest longings, would you still want to get married? What if I told you the purpose of marriage isn’t to meet your deepest longings? God is merciful here in that de-emphasizing some of your potential mate’s faults allows you to appreciate their positive qualities and pursue marriage.
However, a flat-out denial of your or your mate’s immaturity will weaken your marriage in the long run. You can use denial to obscure a painful reality. Denial helps you cope with the disappointment of discovering flaws only by keeping alive a false hope.
Conflict will come, however, when you realize your mate isn’t capable of what you hope for the most. If you feel entitled, as in your mate owes you, then you’ll probably pick a fight. Fighting allows you to keep the hope alive that your mate can meet your needs. Else, why bother to fight if the situation is hopeless?
When you can’t accept reality one option is to blame your partner for the condition of the road. Conflict becomes a perpetual attempt to avoid facing the death of hope. You reason:
If I try again a different way, even if I create bad conflict, I keep hope alive. They could meet my need if they wanted.
You remain in denial that the other person can’t or won’t fix their road.
Acceptance Allows Detours of Opportunity
In this context, a fear of intimacy is a fear of unfulfillment.
I’ve been hoping all my life to finally make a connection and experience that I’m loved, needed, and wanted. I can’t handle not experiencing this with my mate.
Sometimes there is no fix. Or, at least, no immediate fix. The best solution, healthy grief, allows for the acceptance of true intimacy.
What I want isn’t going to happen. That really sucks! But I’ll be okay.
Putting aside your denial and moving toward acceptance is a tough, but mature, move. It puts a roadblock in the path of your hopes.
Yet, the blocking of one path allows you to see other paths you couldn’t see until now. That “I’ll be okay” can transform future conflict from bad to good. You’re no longer an unreasonable negotiator. You’re emotionally able to consider alternative solutions.
Wait. You mean there’s more than one way for me to experience peace and fulfillment?
Now you’re ready to see your partner in a more realistic light. A mature person wants to see reality more than they want instant fulfillment. Ironically, once this happens, a deeper fulfillment is possible. You’re no longer held hostage because you’re believing there’s only one solution to your pain problem.
Intimacy which results in seeing the limits of the relationship doesn’t have to lead down a path to a dead end. You can see the potential and put up a road construction sign and begin work to fill the potholes and expand the road in the direction God provides:
- You can start pursuing self-intimacy (knowing yourself), instead of focusing so much on changing your partner.
- You can feel good about yourself, even if your relationship is limited.
- You can accept yourself and the needs you have, even if they aren’t currently being met how you want.
- You have more reason to negotiate because you have more acceptable outcomes.
- You move beyond destructive conflict because you accept true intimacy.
- Acceptance allows you to appreciate your mate for who they are, not who you want them to be.
After you’re able to manage your fear of intimacy, you’re ready to resolve conflict. Next week, I’ll discuss cleaving together by defining a set of team values and negotiating decisions.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.