I came across a wonderful analogy last week that can help you to keep your romantic relationship where you want it to be: as the strongest and most enduring of all your relationships. It was developed by Dr Shirley Glass, a psychologist who focussed her career on an in-depth study of infidelity in relationships.
What’s The Secret?
It’s known as ‘Windows and Walls’.
What does architecture have to do with preventing infidelity and promoting strong connections with your partner?
Windows and walls refers to what you tell your partner vs what you tell other people outside your relationship. At least some of the windows into you should only be available to your partner, not anybody else, and there are things about you, and about the relationship itself, that only your partner knows: there are walls up which prevent anyone else from seeing these most private things.
What Dr Glass discovered is that when people cheat on their partners, it usually starts because they let another person see into themselves and their relationship (e.g. discussing your marital difficulties with a colleague) and start to put walls up with their partner (e.g. not telling them how you’re feeling anymore, but sharing that information with others).
What I like about this explanation is that it addresses the ‘hidden’ side of infidelity – that physical betrayal often starts with emotional distancing. You might never cheat on your partner, but it’s a lot easier (and more socially acceptable) to be ‘cheating’ on them emotionally by keeping them out of the loop about your life – taking secret trips to the pub, hiding shopping purchases, or telling your best friend how mad you are at your boss while telling your partner that work is ‘fine’.
It almost seems too obvious: if you want your partner to be the person closest to you, then give them the most access! So why is it much more difficult than that?
What real world people say
Relationships form a big part of my work, because the state of our most intimate relationships plays a big role in the development or maintenance of anxiety, depression and stress states. Through talking to lots of people about their relationships, I know that the simplicity of the ‘windows and walls’ idea doesn’t mean it’s easy to put into practise (actually I know that from personal experience too!).
Where most people start to have difficulty applying the concept is when their partner doesn’t respond the way they’d like. You show your partner a window into your most secret parts and they respond negatively. Ouch! Who wants to repeat that? There can be lots of reasons why this might happen (telling your partner sensitive information when they’re tired/ stressed/ sad, difficulty expressing your feelings without putting blame on them, there’s nothing wrong with the timing or delivery - your partner just is an insensitive jerk), but the end result is you feel hurt and that creates a new problem - next time, you put up a wall instead of opening the curtains again.
The story we often end up telling ourselves is that the reason they responded poorly is to do with us, not with them. That if they gave you an insensitive response, it’s because you’re somehow lacking.
Spoiler alert: How other people react to us is all about them! Stressed people take their stress out on you, and that hurts. But when you’re stressed, you probably do the same thing, and expect others to just ‘understand’ you’re stressed! People can say hurtful things, but not because they’re telling you ‘the truth’ about yourself. They are just telling you the truth about themselves (and only about themselves in that moment, too – it’s not necessarily a reflection on their character either).
If you believe that your partner is rejecting you, it’s easy to put up a wall. Sort of makes sense to, to protect yourself. But it’s at the cost of two relationships – your relationship with your partner, and your relationship with yourself.
How walls affect your relationship
Put up enough walls and it’s likely your partner will too. That’s how people ‘grow apart’. You stop getting the response you want from your partner, and so you stop involving them in their life a bit. Little by little, decision by decision, the walls get higher until they live together, on opposite sides of a twenty metre high brick structure! And if it turns out there are other people around who respond more favourably to you, giving you the reaction you want, then the sledgehammer is there to start creating some windows with them, where there used to be walls.
How walls affect you
By not expressing yourself to your partner, you send a message to yourself too: that who you are isn’t valuable and worthwhile being expressed. That you can’t be honest about who you are, even if that person isn’t always that pretty. If you can show your secret side to some other people, even if they’re not your partner, this affect will be less, but at its heart, hiding ourselves from others says one of two things: I’m not good enough (if I show who I truly am people will leave me) or I’m not strong enough (If I show you who I am and you reject me, I won’t be able to cope with that).
The Real Secret
The real secret to maintaining a healthy relationship then is to keep sharing what’s going on for you with your partner, even if their reaction hurts or disappoints you. If you keep doing this, you will keep in touch with who you truly are, and be sending the message that ‘I’m okay. And I’m strong, too’. If you get a constant stream of hurtful and disappointing reactions to that, you may decide to toss your relationship anyway. But at least you’ll be doing so from a place of having given it your best shot, having given your partner plenty of opportunities to respond better (and sharing your feelings and ideas about what constitutes a better response with your partner should be part of that process, to give them a fair chance).
Generally we don’t do that. We shut down early and easily and stop expressing who we are (at least part of the time). Particularly true if you’re the kind of person that likes to avoid conflict! And that keeps us out of touch with both ourselves and our partners, leading to stress, anxiety and depression. Leading to low confidence. And leaving the door wide open for someone else to waltz in and take up residence in our relationship.
So if you’ve been doing some dodgy renovations, then make the Christmas break a time to fix them up. Start saying how you really think and feel (in a respectful way of course!) to your partner and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised by their reaction! But pay attention to how it feels to be honest again too. And if someone’s been getting a little too close who shouldn’t, then pick up some bricks and start building a wall again.
If you'd like some help in overcoming the fears you have about yourself or your relationship, I'm here to help. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started now.
Hope you have a wonderfully connected Christmas.
PS Synchronicity shout-out to author Elizabeth Gilbert, for mentioning Dr Shirley Glass in her book ‘Committed’ and inspiring this post.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.