We are most alone when we no longer feel seen and understood by our partner. Both literally and metaphorically, it is the process of experiencing ourselves through the other, as being truly seen by a trusted loved one, that allows us to connect with the deepest, most vital parts of ourselves.
When we don’t feel seen we either raise the stakes to be seen or we begin to hide as a means of self-protection.
The couples who come to see me for therapy do so for a variety of stated reasons. But a common thread throughout their distress is the experience of disconnection, a falling away from each other that arises from chronically being unseen/unacknowledged. Their breakdowns in communication, the “nagging” and arguing that emotionally twists them in knots, the defensive walls that further the distance between them, all seem to melt away (at least momentarily) when one or both feel understood.
The origin of this need is captured in the following quote by psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott:
“The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein…” ~ D.W. Winnicott
Couples Help: Do Your Really “See” Your Partner?
How can you put this into practice?
Firstly, it’s a process rather than a one- or two-time event. Seeing and experiencing each other needs to continuously unfold, and when you hit a bump in the road, this unwanted detour needs to be acknowledged to allow you both to get back on track.
Secondly, this process isn’t easy, because if it were, we’d all be effortlessly doing it. Part of the emotional rush associated with the newness of a relationship has to do with the excitement of mutual discovery—a mutual show-and-tell of sorts. Early on in your relationship process, you might have found yourself being more open (sharing more of your experiences and reactions with your partner) as well as being more attentive to the process of acknowledging his/her shared experiences. In short, you both felt seen by each other (because you openly shared more of yourself and because you were more attentive and receptive to each other’s sharing).
You and your partner cannot simultaneously hide and be seen. If you are withholding parts of yourself, segregating certain experiences from your partner, the questions to ponder is why this is occurring:
- Why are you not allowing yourself to be fully seen and experienced by him/her?
- Does it not feel emotionally safe to take the risks needed to be vulnerable with one another?
- Would your partner say that you make him/her feel safe enough to be open and seen by you?
Establishing the relational conditions needed for the two of you to be emotionally open and vulnerable is essential to the process of seeing/experiencing each other. And this starts with a discussion. Talk about what you each need in order to be deeply knowable to one another (or to continue to be knowable). If you believe these conditions are currently lacking in your marriage or relationship, why do you think this is the case? Share this without blaming, without finger-pointing, and without the biting sting of defensiveness or accusation.
Relationship Advice: The Power of Expressed Interest
When I encourage this type of dialog with couples, they frequently share that they no longer feel that the other is interested in them any longer. “He just doesn’t care” or “She doesn’t seem to like what I talk about” is their pained refrain. Of course there will be topics and issues your partner discusses that you find uninteresting or worse, maybe even annoying. You won’t find everything you each share fascinating. This is a fact of life and should be understood as such.
But it’s a very different experience to feel lethargic over a particular topic your partner feels the need to discuss versus losing interest in him/her as a person. When we lose interest in our partner in this way, the curiosity about who they are and what they feel and think falls away. Beyond love and concern, it is expressed interest and curiosity that creates the bridge required for connection. Curiosity/interest motivates us to see and experience our partner.
When we only reach for our partner when we’re concerned about him/her or when we feel our relationship is in some kind of trouble, then worry becomes the central motivator for seeing and experiencing the other. When this is the case, once your reaching out placates your partner’s distress or your worry about the relationship, the danger is that you’ll fall back to an indifference default position that will again be felt by your partner.
We need to be seen and experienced throughout the relationship, not just when there are marital or relationship problems demanding our attention.
In leaving you today, here is a question I’d like you and your partner to discuss together (if it feels safe to do so):
What does it feel like to be deeply seen and known by each other?
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)