When was the last time you stepped out of your emotional comfort zone with your spouse/partner?
This was one of the questions I posed at a recent couples workshop on effective couples communication. After a long silence, one of the participants raised her hand and asked, “When we argue, I don’t feel comfortable. Is that what you mean?”
This isn’t what I meant, since the discomfort you feel during marital/relationship conflict is often a reflection of reflexive defensiveness rather than a conscious decision to somehow be and act differently for the benefit of your marriage/relationship.
Marital Comfort Zones and the Status Quo
Individuals and relationships have their own rhythms and energy levels. For instance, you might be more of an introvert who prefers quiet, cerebral activities, while your partner might be more extroverted with a higher energy level and greater desire for social stimulation. Together, your relationship might be some combination of your separate energies and personality styles—you may calm and center your partner at times, while s/he adds an element of charged excitement to the relationship mix.
Sadly, too many couples at some point in the relationship shut themselves off to each other’s energies and rhythms, often because it doesn’t fit neatly and comfortably with their own energy patterns and personality habits. So, in the example mentioned above, the introvert starts refusing to participate in his/her partner’s social activities; or the extrovert makes decisions to be with friends rather than spend a quiet evening at home with his/her mate.
At the extreme, this can lead to a breakdown in communication and become a barrier to intimacy (both emotional and physical intimacy)–at that point you have two people basically living parallel lives with little emotional engagement with one another.
Marriage and couples counselors often witness this shutdown occurring across gender lines. A common scenario is a husband or boyfriend who struggles to meet his wife’s/girlfriend’s needs for greater emotional expressiveness and sharing. In addition to needing certain skills to accomplish this (the ability to identify and name one’s emotional experiences in order to share them), men would also have to come out of their comfort zone in order to accomplish this kind of sharing—especially if the emotional sharing makes men feel more vulnerable.
Relationship rule of thumb: A healthy marriage/relationship requires both partners to stretch themselves, to periodically go beyond their emotional comfort zones in order to meet each other’s needs (and ultimately, feed the relationship). This might involve the overly serious partner in the relationship actively connecting with his/her partner’s playful side; or the absent-minded spouse to push his/her limits and take on a particular responsibility in the marriage; or the husband who typically withdraws in reaction to stress to reach out in some way to his wife on occasion, even when things feel stressful…
Relationship Help Action Step
Think about your typical patterns and responses (your typical ways of being) when it comes to communication, emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy. For each of these, write down what’s most comfortable for you (e.g., “I typically don’t tell my partner about my day at work”).
After you have a clear picture of your typical patterns across these different areas of your relationship (if you’re not sure what your typical patterns are, you might ask your spouse/partner for feedback), write down one way you can momentarily come out of your comfort zone and expand yourself by acting differently (e.g., telling your partner an amusing story about something at work; looking your partner in his/her eyes and expressing a loving sentiment, despite the fact that you might feel uncomfortable/particularly vulnerable in that moment).
The goal of this exercise is self-expansion, but a secondary goal is to surprise your spouse/partner—by shifting (even momentarily) your typical way of being, you infuse the relationship with a new type of energy, an energy that adds a positive charge to the relationship status quo.
When this occurs, self-expansion leads to relationship-expansion.
Dr. Rich Nicastro