couple fighting
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Intimacy is a tell-all, no-holds-barred proposition, right? Not if you intend to stay happily together, claims psychotherapist Judith Sills, Ph.D.
I have two friends, a long-married couple, whose bathroom features face-to-face toilets. To hear them tell it, they generally start the day there together, trading plans, opinions, and last night's dreams. Personally, I never felt the need to be quite that close. But I do admire this couple's openness. By any measure, my friends have a very good marriage, but my own yardstick of their love is this utter willingness to show themselves to each other.

Still, I know for a fact that even these two hold something back.

Holding back in marriage would seem to have a lot to commend it. Philip Roth, of all people, says, "You can tell the health of a marriage by the number of teeth marks on your tongue." Admittedly, Roth is not the poster child for intimacy, but my own grandmother advised repeatedly, "Bite your tongue," and she managed 53 years with the same husband (though they were threatening divorce right up to the nursing home). Roth and my Nanny are essentially on the same page.

Twenty-five years as a couples therapist has put me reluctantly on that page also. In too many sessions I have winced inwardly at an exchange or suppressed the shocked outcry of "You said what?!" at a marital report. Too many times I have been unable to repair the damage inflicted by a heartfelt confidence: "I finally told him his penis is too small. How else could he understand why I don't enjoy sex with him?" "She needs to know she's too fat to turn me on anymore. It's the truth and maybe it will motivate her." "I love him but I'm not in love with him. I just can't get past his looks."

I think of these forthright remarks as disguised emotional muggings, and plenty of that goes on in the name of honesty. But even truths shared in a genuine effort to unburden one soul may simply pass along the pain to the other, like some marital game of emotional hot potato: I felt bad—about the affair, about the money, about what I said to your mother—but now I'm cleansed and you feel bad, till you tell me a truth and pass it back. As the hired healer observing this volley, teeth marks on the tongue would seem to be evidence of progress.

But it is progress at a price. There is an opposite take on love and honesty, a viewpoint to which Roth and Nanny and I no longer subscribe, but one for which I still cherish a secret longing. It says the ideal is the kind of no-holds-barred intimacy that my friends the cheerful toilet talkers come close to realizing.

Plain and simple, intimacy is self-disclosure. You are intimate with someone to the degree that you reveal your hidden self, including what you think and feel as well as what you've done or experienced. The comfort, the relief, the sheer pleasure of revealing yourself, and—if you have chosen your audience well—of being understood and uncritically accepted is enough to explain why intimacy is the Holy Grail of relationships.

From childhood on, we hope to have a best friend, a person to whom we can open our hearts and who will value us enough to risk equal self-disclosure. We imagine we'll have enough in common to make our time together joyful, and enough affection to make our differences tolerable. When it is time to marry, we carry this friendship model forward, throw in sex and money, and there you have it—the dream of perfect intimacy.

Well, naturally it is the sex and money that complicate things—that and sharing a bathroom, inheriting in-laws, and conceiving children. Close friends can agree to differ on child rearing and may even find each other's point of view stimulating. Coparents have to reach a consensus and are apt to find differing points of view alarming. Best girlfriends can trade sexual secrets. Spouses who trade sexual secrets in the spirit of friendship might end up with three in the bed.

In the end, I believe, the intense physical, familial, and financial intimacy of marriage must be balanced by a restraining emotional hand in order to protect some of the illusions necessary for love. At the same time, every untold truth creates a small barrier between you. The best-case scenario might be to marry a person to whom you could say anything and then exercise some care in what you do say. The question is, Which secrets make a marriage more loving? And how do you distinguish them from the secrets that stem from sheer self-interest?

"Emotional distance does not foster great love…But irritated husbands do not make great lovers, either"

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