“Many are finding welcome relief…” »« Humanist Symposium #3

Joined At the Brainstem: Relationships and Privacy

Speak_2Several years ago, I read a piece of relationship advice that always stuck with me. (I wish I could find it now; but I can’t, so I’m going to have to paraphrase.) It was by a lesbian relationship adviser, and she said that in the first six months of her relationship with her partner, they had a rule that, if one of them asked, “What are you thinking right now?” the other had to answer, completely honestly and spontaneously.

BrainstemThe advice writer said that, while this obviously was difficult and painful at times — both for the asker and the askee — it “worked.” At the end of the six months, she said, “we were joined at the brainstem.”

This was before I got together with Ingrid, back in my single days, and at the time, I remember thinking, “What a bad idea.” In fact, it struck me so strongly as a bad idea that I remembered it all these years.

But now that I’ve been in a serious relationship for close to ten years, my feelings have changed somewhat. Now I think about the idea of sharing every passing thought with your partner on demand, and I don’t think, “What a bad idea.”

I think, “What an appalling, unbelievably stupid, extraordinarily horrible idea.”

Brainstem_2Okay. Two reasons. First, we have the actual stated goal of this little exercise: joining with your partner at the brainstem.

Why is that a good idea? Why is that something you’d want?

Brain2I like that Ingrid has her own brain. I like Ingrid’s brain. It’s a good brain. And it’s good in ways that are often very different from my own. The fact that Ingrid has her very own brain means that she can surprise me. She can make me think about things differently. She can make me question my ideas and assumptions. And possibly more important than any of this, she can make me laugh.

None of which she could do if we were “joined at the brainstem.”

After close to ten years together, of course we know each other very well indeed. Of course we sometimes finish each other’s sentences, sometimes know exactly what the other person is going to say. But not always. And while of course I treasure how well we know each other and how close we are, I also treasure the fact that, nearly ten years into our life together, we’re still learning about each other.

Second, and maybe more importantly:

Brain4Having your own thoughts and feelings — which you can share with others or not as you choose — that’s one of the central defining characteristics of being, you know, a person. An individual. A being with some sort of selfhood.

And the idea that you should give that up when you get in a relationship gives me chills.

Now obviously, when you get into a relationship, you give up a certain amount of privacy. The closer the relationship gets, the more privacy you give up. And of course, different people need different amounts of privacy. Some couples are fine having their partner in the bathroom with them while they pee; others need to live in separate apartments.

PrivacyBut the privacy of the inside of your own head? That’s really basic. That’s a huge part of what makes you who you are.

Why would you want to take that away? Either from your partner or yourself?

BitchAnd I’m not even getting into the potential rudeness and hurtfulness of the exercise. I mean, it’s not as if every fleeting thought that passes through my head is one that I really stand by, or even think is true. If I have to hurt Ingrid by telling her something she doesn’t want to hear, I bloody well want it to be something that matters — not some petty, selfish, mean-spirited bitchiness that happened to be crossing my synapses at the exact moment she was asking, “Honey, what are you thinking?”

Telepathy2Maybe I’m being unfairly judgmental here. Maybe this “complete and unedited honesty on demand” thing is just a greater degree of intimacy and a lesser degree of privacy than I’m personally comfortable with. But it just seems like an unbelievably bad idea. Especially for lesbian couples. Lesbian couples already have enough of a tendency to merge, to lose their individual identities in each other and in the couple-identity. And the whole thing that’s cool about a relationship is that it’s a balance between intimacy and selfhood. You can’t have intimacy if you don’t have different people, with different identities, to come together and connect. The idea that more closeness is always better in a relationship is, IMO, a seriously dumb one.

So am I being too judgmental here? Have any of you ever done the “complete and unedited honesty on demand” thing in a relationship? If so, how did it work out? If not, is it an idea that appeals to you? I’m weirded out — but I’m also curious.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t think you’re being too judgemental, but I think you’re right in that different levels of intimacy are right for different kinds of people. What I personally dislike about that advice is that unspoken rider that “this will be an unqualified good thing for everyone in all relationships.” As we see, that’s just not the case.
    I’ve occasionally asked my boyfriend of 10 years what he’s thinking about, and it’s usually nothing much — this is another place where the excersize fails, IMO. For the most part, when I’ve got a serious, thoughtful look on my face, I’m not thinking anything particularly deep or meaningful. Neither is my boyfriend. I’m probably trying to remember the name of that guy who sang that one song, or who that guy in that commercial is. The excersize seems to assume that you’re going to learn something Special and Meaningful every time… I mean, that’s just not how people are.
    Who is this advice person? She sounds like the kind of person who ALWAYS wants to have Deep and Meaningful conversations at all times… you know, that person you stopped inviting out with you and your friends, because s/he was such a buzzkill. Yeesh.

  2. jraoul says

    In my youth, when I might have taken the advice offered with great enthusiasm, I do remember an effective form of intercourse was to say what you were thinking EVEN IF it didn’t exactly correspond to the truth, so long as you then followed up with “No, that’s not it.” The idea being: better to take a stab at it, even a terrible stab, than to be intimidated into silence by the fear of not getting it right. Better to circle in on the truth than to get nowhere near it at all.
    I don’t think this is the same thing as what the advisor is advising at all; just thought I’d toss it in for mulling.

  3. Buck Fuddy says

    I have to agree with you. I’ve always hated being asked what I was thinking. Hated it.
    And you know, I think if I always answered the question “completely honestly and spontaneously,” my partners would hate it too. Maybe even a little more than I do.
    Here are some possible answers.
    “I’m thinking about the last time I fucked Susan, and I’m really looking forward to fucking her again.”
    “I’m wondering if you’re maybe putting on a little weight.”
    “I’m just wondering what it would take for you to do something a little creative in bed.”
    Okay, so you’re probably thinking I’m a total pig right now. Sorry, but I really do have thoughts like that. I can’t help it. But the reason most people don’t think I’m a pig is that I don’t say them or act on them. I just think them.
    No, I’m not taking her advice. I don’t think it would make my relationships better.

  4. Hayley says

    Greta,
    Wow. First I have to say, that I read your essay on being single and I really like what you had to say. I really related to it. Before meeting Chip, I was always single and felt bad about it. People were always asking me why I didn’t have a boyfriend, that I seemed like a nice person, etc… could they set me up with someone. And I really didn’t have a good answer. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, because it is true that society does seem to view a single woman as a person not in a point of equilibrium who will eventually find their way to equilibrium by coupling up. Then I got some headspace and got a lot more comfortable and accepting of myself. It was around that time that I happened upon a book, called “Bachelor Girl”. It was a history of single women in America and showed how in the past 100 years or so there were campaigns against single women, that they were a threat to families and destroying the social fabric of the country and I realized that in a way I was on a roadway of the arc of the role of women in this country. And that maybe some of the reasons I didn’t feel great about where I was in my life didn’t all come from me. Funny, that now that I am with someone I can really appreciate the years I spent alone. I grew up in a big family with a lot of drama and problems and very little space or time for myself and I guess without realizing it I took the time I needed to have some time to myself. In retrospect, I wish I could have earlier come to the conclusion that you did that this was a choice I made and was happy with instead of feeling like I was failing some test that everyone else had passed. Re: telling your partner everything in your head. I dated someone once who got really frustrated with what he thought was my holding out on what I was thinking. I started again feeling like I was doing something wrong. When we broke up I talked to some friends who were married about it and they said they had gone to marriage counseling and talked about communication and that intimacy and getting to know someone is not something that necessarily comes on command or can be demanded. It is something that develops by sharing your life with someone and thoughts as they come up. I have a policy that I try to employ if I happen to hear something that was said behind my back. If it was important for someone to tell me, they would tell me to my face. If I don’t hear it firsthand it means much less to me. I consider that the same as thoughts in your head that you chose not to share. When I was in grad school I used to do Buddhist meditation every Friday night. It was a great thing for me, because I used to really suffer from racing thoughts and just exhausted me. If you sit quietly alone for 45 minutes it is amazing how many random thoughts go through your head. In fact, it is near impossible to go the entire time without thoughts going into your head. My teacher called it the monkey mind. That’s what your brain does, generates thoughts and ideas. When I realized I didn’t need to give attention to every thought in my head, it was so freeing. I get to chose, I don’t have to follow every nutty thing my brain creates. It serves me, I don’t serve it. So, another problem with this lesbian’s relationship advice (in addition to all the ones that you mention that I am pretty much on board with) is it forces you to be acknowledge all your thoughts (regardless of their quality, value or helpfulness) and then give them even more weight by sharing them with someone else. I don’t always feel the need to muddle up the air with the white noise that goes off in my head sometimes. Also, I don’t agree that telling someone every single thought in your head necessarily makes you closer.

  5. Buck Fuddy says

    “I dated someone once who got really frustrated with what he thought was my holding out on what I was thinking.”
    And, boy, I’ll bet his attitude, like, really made you feel like you could open up to him! ;-)
    A couple of things I’ve learned over the years:
    If someone you’re involved with is not sharing their thoughts with you, that is a form of communication. It means they’re not comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. You need to think about how you’ve responded in the past when they’ve shared them. The last thing you should do is ask, let alone demand, they tell you what’s on their mind.
    The best way to get someone to tell you their innermost thoughts is to be receptive to, respectful of, and genuinely interested in their outermost ones.

  6. Gilrandir says

    Hi, new comment on an old post, but I was linked to your blog today and was randomly browsing around and wanted to put in my two cents. If it makes any difference, I’m a girl and a sophomore in college.
    I crave intimacy, mostly physical intimacy. I’ve been living with my boyfriend in his apartment almost since I met him, even though I have a dorm room of my own, because I love being near him. I want to know what’s going on in his life because I love every aspect of him.
    The thing is, the both of us aren’t people-people. We aren’t particularly social, usually have no idea what to say in a given situation, and are generally fairly shy and reserved. (Well, *that* was a qualified statement.) So my first two relationships with other guys kind of flopped, because I wouldn’t talk to them. As my first boyfriend put it, he’d have a tsunami of words building up and looming over the beach where I was standing on the sand, and then I’d hold up a surfboard and the whole thing would come collapsing down. The thing was, I really didn’t know how to hold a conversation back then, so I’d give short answers with no “tails” to hook further conversation on. My second boyfriend was also shy and so most of our time together was spent silently holding hands or hugging. We just had no idea what to say to each other.
    So now I encourage my boyfriend to share his thoughts with me, and even ask the “what’re you thinking right now?” bomb every so often. It’s a somewhat artificial way of stimulating mental intimacy, but neither of us know how to go about it naturally, and this works. I’m not offended if it’s something trivial or even somewhat insulting to me – after all, I did ask! And I know no one can possibly be thinking deep or complimentary thoughts all the time, that would just be inhuman. It’s just another way to know what’s going on with him. And in return, I share my thought processes with him. And we maintain closeness.
    I’m not saying my situation applies to everyone! But it works for us.

  7. David Harmon says

    Another new comment on an old post… but the prior commenter, Gilrandir, swiped most of my point:
    “It’s a somewhat artificial way of stimulating mental intimacy,” Yep, that’s the point. It’s an *exercise* in building intimacy.
    The thing is, a lot of people take therapeutic exercises like this and try to turn them into general commandments, or even pseudo-religious observances — and this makes no more sense than sharing you thyroid meds with all your friends, because “everyone needs a healthy thyroid”. Just like physical treatments, such exercises need to be used in appropriate contexts, not universally.
    On a more personal level, my mild autistic disorder (NLD) means that I think much faster (and much *more*) than I talk. Trying to tell someone — especially a “normal” someone — “what I’m thinking” would be lengthy, frustrating, and ultimately pointless, because most of those fleeting thoughts are indeed fleeting. They’re just parts of free-association chains, not necessarily relevant to anything at the moment.

  8. (blank) says

    There is a always a right time for honesty but I also have to say that even though in a relationship, both parties are trying thir best to stay stronger, it would be very selfish and demanding of a person to ask his/her partner of the thoughts anytime. I mean, honesty is not enough to prove one’s love for each other right? And I also believe that willingness to open one’s thoughts is much more effective than demanding one’s honesty.
    (author name and URL deleted due to commercial content – GC)

  9. says

    There was a study of people who blurt out their thoughts immediately in relationships with “verbal inhibitors”, people who can’t do that. (It was female blurters with male inhibitors, but it’s probably applicable beyond that.) Basically, the inhibitors initially welcomed the open communication of the blurters, but unless the blurters were considerate of the inhibitors’ need to think first, they tended to become angry and verbally abusive of the inhibitor, and that was hurtful, and the relationship came apart. Basically they thought the inhibitors were holding out on them, and they weren’t.
    So what I’m suggesting is that to observe your partner’s nature and be gentle in what/how you ask goes a long way, whether you try the exercise or not. Keep it invitational, not confrontational.
    Buck Fuddy’s second post could have been written by me. Damn that’s scary. Where in my head are you?
    Being able to trust the other person’s response and use of the information if they do hear your thoughts means everything – trust, intimacy, all that. If what your partner tells you is used for anything other than loving them, you need to work on yourself. If what you tell your partner is used against you, you probably should run. Far, far away.

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