“I’m freezing!” “It feels like a sauna in here!” Have you ever fought over the thermostat, trying to find a comfortable setting? It’s one of those classic battles that couples often have over temperature comfort. I see something similar that goes on in couples counseling when it comes to determining the closeness of a relationship. There’s a battle over the set point of the relationship “thermostat” to determine just how close the couple will be. But underneath this obvious battle is a powerful hidden programming that moves them together or apart. Like a thermostat, it’s an automatic and unconscious regulation of the relationship to keep it at a comfortable level of connection, which actually may be more distant that what the couple says they want. So, if you’re wanting your relationship to be closer than it is, or just more predictable, you’re going to need to know how to reprogram your “relational thermostat.” So let’s get learning.
TACOS INSTEAD OF HAMBURGERS
In over 20 years as a psychologist, I have yet to hear one of my clients in couples counseling say, “I think we’re just too close and intimate in our relationship. Can we find a way to be more distant?” Most are frustrated with the lack of connection, or predictable connection, in the relationship. When they are ready for it, I lay out the shocking truth for the couple: “If you knew what a closer relationship involved, you would have picked a different partner.” I’ll usually get a lot of pushback from this statement. However, it’s an important starting point to consider for the people I work with in couples counseling, if there’s going to be any chance for change. Please understand that I am not saying these couples, or you, picked the wrong partner. You don’t have to find someone new if you’re going to have that close, connected relationship you want.
Think of it this way. If every time you went to get a hamburger you came back with a taco, I’m going to wonder whether you know where to find a hamburger or, possibly, whether you even know what a hamburger is. This happens with couples who pick partners who aren’t able, yet, to give them the desired connection. Digging a little deeper I find that this partner who pines for more connection hasn’t ever actually had the kind of relationship they say the are ready for and want. Something just doesn’t add up, does it? The reality is, it’s highly unlikely you could pick a different partner who is capable of a closer, more connected relationship until you make some changes to your own internal thermostat with couples counseling.
IT’S ALL SO “FAMILIAR”
So do you really want a closer relationship or just one that’s more predictable, something that doesn’t move in and out of closeness so frequently or suddenly? I hear the pleas in couples counseling, usually from the ladies, that they really want a closer relationship and are frustrated with their man’s resistance to more connection. Usually, I can see what they’re talking about. Honestly, we men are typically less inclined to pursue relational and emotional closeness. Sorry if that stereotype offends, but it’s right more often than not. But a funny thing happens when I’ve been working with couples for a while and begin to open up that closed off man. As he starts to reach for more connection and is available to be closer, a confused and frightened look comes across his partner’s face: she doesn’t know what to do with more connection now that she has it. Her “thermostat” kicks in and she begins to push away to a more comfortable distance.
Picture a “thermostat” in each individual that regulates the level of relational closeness. There’s a middle band where couples feel comfortable with the connection. If it gets too distant, the “heat” turns on to increase the level of closeness. If it gets too close, the relationship will get cooled down to a more comfortable distance. It’s an automatic process and couples usually don’t even know that they’re doing things to keep the connection in a comfortable zone for them both. Usually, the couples I see for couples counseling have a similar “set point” for closeness in the relationship. Unconsciously they are working together to keep the level of closeness within a zone that’s comfortable for both of them, even if there’s a sense that something is lacking. That set point for closeness was programmed early on in life. It’s usually what “normal” connection looked like in their family home growing up. In couples counseling, each individual usually talks about their family of origin as, “pretty normal.” What else would you know about relationship closeness except what was “normal” in your own family?! After all, the root word for “familiar” and “family” is the same. Couples gravitate to the level of closeness they have known because it feels normal. But normal isn’t always adequate.
Just because a couple adjusts expectations for closeness and no longer feels the impact of their loneliness and disconnect, doesn’t mean that the decline to relational death has stopped. It’s like hypothermia. The body is an amazing creation and is continually working to maintain balance, just like a thermostat. That’s why your brain gives you the sensation of being cold when your body temperature drops too low. You will shiver and get goose bumps as a way of generating heat. If that fails, eventually the shivering stops and the sense of coldness goes away. It’s not that you are okay, it’s the body shutting down at an extreme level to conserve its temperature. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is impaired brain functioning that leaves the person unable to think clearly and take appropriate actions for help. Eventually, the person will just go to sleep and peacefully freeze to death.
In the same way, couples often die a slow, uneventful death in their relationships as they gradually stop “feeling” the impact of the distance. That’s when the really muddled thinking clouds up the situation further and they become oddly friendly and cooperative with each other. I’d rather have couples counseling where the couple is fighting because they are still alive and connected with the desire to warm up and be closer. But if the numbness has set in on your relationship, keep hope alive. I have been doing couples counseling for many years and seen many relationships resuscitated and then grow into something more amazing than the couple ever had before. So let’s run some diagnostics on your relationship to better understand your own relational thermostat programming.
DIAGNOSING YOUR CONNECTION COMFORT ZONE
If you want to put your relational thermostat programming through an evaluation of where your comfort closeness is, it will only take about two minutes. It’s something I do with couples in couples counseling that is fantastically simple and highly revealing. Sit down on a couch with your partner facing one another and close enough to touch each other. Then for two minutes, say nothing and simply look deeply into their eyes. The kind of looking where you are taking a long look into their soul and beyond the physical appearance. While you are doing this simply notice the following things in yourself and in the other person.
Is sustained, deep eye contact possible?
Is deep eye contact relaxing?
Do you feel like you have access to look deeply into your partner?
Do you feel able to give your partner access to look deeply into you?
Is it possible to maintain this meaningful eye contact longer than two minutes?
The more questions you answered with a “no,” the more likely it is that your thermostat is set toward a more distant comfort zone for connection. In couples counseling, I’ve had couples startled by the neurotic, uncontrollable laughter that bursts out when they try this exercise. It’s very revealing. Even an infant will avert eye contact when they are uncomfortable with the relationship or the level of closeness. The eyes truly are a window into the soul.
RE-PROGRAMING YOUR CLOSENESS COMFORT SETTINGS
So if you’ve discovered that there are some blocks towards increased closeness in your relationship, here are a few questions you can talk about with your partner that can open up new possibilities in the relationship.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you are too close?
How do you create more distance if you feel too close?
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you are too distant?
How do you increase closeness if you feel too distant?
Where was the set point for relationship closeness in your childhood family and how was it regulated to stay at that set point?
Is there anything your partner can do that would help make a shift toward closeness a little more comfortable?
So the swings in relational closeness for couples are following really specific and unconscious programming. When things start to heat up or cool down in your relationship, realize that it’s not accidental: it’s programmed and regulated. Also, realize that the programming can be changed, but lasting change is going to require pulling out the diagnostic tools and looking for what the beliefs and feelings are around having a more connected relationship. I hope this article gives you a start in working toward a closer, more connected relationship. If you need a little help with the re-programing, or just don’t want to read the manual yourself, I’m a relational HVAC couples counseling specialist and would be happy to help.