Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Telling the Truth to Create Intimacy

by Miki Kashtan

I have a close friend I walk with every week. We have been doing it regularly for about three years now. The walking and the friendship are mutually reinforcing, and as far as I am concerned, this practice could continue indefinitely.

So I was shocked when, one evening a few months ago, I got an email letting me know that my friend would be taking a break from walking with me, at least for a while, starting the next day. My friend, let’s call her Nancy, asked to know my response to her message, affirmed her sense of connection with me, explained what the reason for the break was (she needed her energy for some major projects in her life, which made total sense to me), and proposed other ways of staying in touch. 

As I sat down to write an email response to Nancy, I connected to a deep well of sadness. I knew that the “right” answer was to express my understanding and acceptance and to let it go. Instead, I chose to express the full truth – without holding back, without losing care for Nancy. In the depth of sadness and loss that I was at, this was no small task. I was particularly upset about the unilateral decision she made instead of bringing the issues to joint holding, so we could figure out something together. 

This started a couple of rounds of emails, followed by a one-time walk we scheduled to have an in-person conversation about it, which spilled into a second walk, and resulted in a reaffirmation of our shared commitment to the walks. They have since become even more satisfying for both of us. 

This seeming miracle resulted from bringing to the light of day everything that had not been said before. Nancy, it turns out, had been trained, like so many of us, to withhold anything that might be unpleasant or charged for the other person to hear. Although her love for me and appreciation for our friendship and time together were absolutely deep and genuine, there were things she didn’t feel able to tell me about ways of acting on my part that were mildly distressing for her. Mild enough in the moment so as to be able to tell herself that she could let go. And yet, over time, bothersome enough that interacting with me required some slight ongoing effort, and made our walks, despite how nourishing they were, feel like “work.” On top of that, she was raised with a strong sense of responsibility, and didn’t feel at ease about canceling if and when she didn’t have the energy for a walk. She pushed herself so hard inside, that she finally lost her ability to hold me with care, and thus came the abrupt unilateral decision.

At different times in our conversation one or the other of us cried as we reached for deeper places in our hearts. Nancy finally got to a place of feeling freer than ever, because she was able to tell me everything, and because we came to an agreement that gave her explicit room to cancel on any given week. I, on the other hand, was finally given priceless feedback I am always so hungry for. I was able to learn something about how my challenge around humility affected both Nancy and some other people I came in contact with through her. It’s no secret to me that some of my ways of being are challenging for others, and I can’t think of a better way of learning than through the experience of someone I care about and trust as much as I trust Nancy.  

On another occasion, with another friend, whom I will call Lorraine, I learned that when she is not doing well she is likely to choose to withdraw rather than ask for support. As we talked about what leads her to this choice, we discovered together that in some fashion she has a habit of acting within her relationships as if the well-being of the other person is more important than her own, which takes some effort. When she is not doing well, she simply doesn’t have the energy to expend on that effort. The result, a somewhat one-sided friendship, doesn’t actually work for me, because I want a friendship that nourishes both of us. To put it somewhat bluntly: a friendship that’s designed to work only for me doesn’t really work for me. While we didn’t come to some epiphany or clear resolution, the mere talking about this dilemma, and the holding of it together, brought us to a place of more appreciation for what we bring to each other, and a clearer sense of intimacy.

I see a striking similarity between these two unrelated situations, and a lot to learn about what makes relationships thrive. However scary it can sometimes be, telling the truth creates more intimacy. Instead of believing that we have to sort things out on our own, we can bring our incomplete process to each other and be together in the uncertainty of life.

Navigating what comes up may take some skill and a willingness to experience discomfort and step into unknown territory. This is probably why so many of us avoid it so much of the time. We tell ourselves we can let go, and yet we build resentment. We stretch to hold the other person with care, and don’t notice that we are giving up on ourselves in some subtle way. We prioritize harmony, and we lose depth and authenticity. Ultimately the source of the difficulty is about seeing honesty and care as mutually exclusive instead of recognizing the extraordinary possibilities that arise when we bring our dilemmas, our sorrows and doubts, and our less-then-together selves to each other at the same time as our love, empathy, and understanding. The result is nothing short of resilient and graceful intimacy, the kind we all desire.

These principles apply in all relationships, and most especially in intimate partnerships. If you would like to know more about telling truth to create intimacy, and other ways to make your relationships work, I would like to invite you to a workshop I am facilitating called "Peace Starts at Home". It's primarily designed for couples, and is open to anyone who wants to explore dialogue as a way of life.


  1. I think I would enjoy reading more detail about your "challenge around humility". I'm giving some thought to things in my own life that I relate to humility.

  2. Pernille PlantenerJune 9, 2011 at 3:59 AM

    I'm in the middle of expressing myself honestly towards my 2 siblings around a several year-long sadness of mine. It's about them holding back towards each other and superficial everything-is-ok but behind the back of the other, charged things being shared with me, and me trying to support and empathize and seeing the humanity in both but also suffering from the tension when we've been together. I'm really trying not to educate and play I-know-best but rather just be me(which is such a challenge) and giving myself empathy because there's (in my interpretation) fear and self-protection on either side that connection is really hard to obtain. So far, I sense no positive results, just that I've been stirring the pot with the same result as an elephant entering a glass store.
    Your entry gives me hope and reassurance, so thanks a lot Miki. I'm longing for being more clear and true to myself moment by moment and getting inspired to dare so.

  3. Miki,

    This touches me very deeply. There is a quality of how you interact with me often that is so relieving and inspiring, yet which, until reading this post, I didn't have clarity about what it was. I now understand that it is the colaborative, communal, "bi-lateral" approach to working with what comes up for us that creates such a sense of partnership for me.

    The honesty / authenticity component addresses the full ownership of our lives and emotions, while the partnership, bilateral, and communal holding of the experience affirms an intersubjective component of our experience.

    Inspired by your previous writings on this. I have shared myself fully and seen both relationships become incredibly more intimate, connecting, and loving, and on the other hand have seen 1 or 2 relationships recede from my actual life at present. The point is that the practice has strengthened both my trust that showing up fully can and often does lead to deeper intimacy and connection, AND that I am more and more willing to show up fully and accept how authentic expression with care may be experienced by others. So the practice which I find concurrent with this (and I'm assuming you do too) is a deep opening of the heart to whatever arises in the other person as a result of our expression, without blame or judgment in "self" or "other."

    The paradox seems to be for me, that we, as individuals, must somehow take full responsibility for the bilaterality of holding something together, and also open to the depth of this request of the other AS a request, so that we can keep our hearts open if they are not open to a shared holding. I'm realizing now as I write this, that I never really did take responsibility for holding my predicament with this person together, and out of care and fear acquiesced to the other person's unilateral decision, telling myself I was honoring their request.

    Something true about this - and then also, as I see now, it was really about the pain for me of receiving a 2nd no. Its as if in my un-willingness to hear no twice, I gave up on something (perhaps the other person's capacity to care for me). I find myself thinking that as a "man", I am very sensitive to respecting a woman's "no", believing that if I don't, I will be seen as violent and oppressive. And since care is so important to me, and because being perceived as "violent" in the past has stimulated much pain inside, I am noticing how challenging it is for me to stay with an other woman's "no" long enough to still show up in the face of this no and risk a second no (and perhaps a first yes). Yet just realizing this as a challenge somehow dissolves it and now I find myself willing to explore it and learn.

    Thanks for this incredibly life-provoking post Miki!

  4. I call this kind of statement "the complex sentence" when I teach it to my couples.

    People have the tenancy, when they feel more than one way about something, to pick only one thing to say. So if I come home tired & my wife suggests going out to something I would like to do, instead of either stuffing the tiredness and saying ' yes' or giving up on going with a ' no' I say the whole truth, "I'm too tired to go without a nap, and I need some dinner first, and I really appreciate your finding this option for us and I'd love to spend the evening with you."

    In this way I give both of us more information about all the needs which are present, and so very often we both get all our needs met!

    BTW: The Naturalized NVC Tele-workshop was great! 60 participants AND breakout groups of 3 really worked! You get the NVC-Techno award for sure!