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Taboo Topics

Saboteurs of effective communication.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Many couples work hard at mastering the skills of effective communication. Yet, they find that they don’t always work as well as they expect, and don’t know why.

One of the most prominent saboteurs of intimate connection is the avoidance of topics that one or both partners feel would be a threat to their relationship. When they begin to surface, the couple rapidly resorts to tactics that suppress their continued emergence.

When intimate partners continue to avoid these uncomfortable taboo topics, they significantly limit their ability to fully connect. Often, they don’t even realize how much they are losing of one another by maintaining the silence separateness they create.

All people have thoughts and feelings they are uncomfortable sharing with others, even with those closest to them. When they enter relationships, they tend to keep them hidden. To the extent they continue that behavior, they keep from being fully known by their partner. But every person has to choose what he or she should risk sharing, and what must remain private, no matter what the cost.

Though every relationship may have a different set of taboo topics, most of them have some of the following six. As you read through them, actively explore your own taboo topics and ask your partner to do the same. That process will help you explore, identify, and perhaps rechoose where you might be willing to take the risk of coming out of hiding.

1. How Resources Are Distributed

Every relationship has both concrete and abstract resources that nurture it. That stockpile of nutrients supplies the relationship’s needs and keeps it functioning. A couple must agree on how, when, and why, those reserves are shared.

An example of an abstract resource would be the availability of time and energy. What can each partner count on if he or she needs the other? When is it okay for one partner to allot time to something he or she wants to do that is in place of the relationship’s needs? Do they agree on the fairness of those decisions? Can they negotiate without resentment or martyrdom if each has a different priority at times?

An example of a concrete resource might be how common monies are distributed. What purchases have priority to both, and which must be sacrificed by one partner for the other? How do the partners make those priority decisions? Are the present desires of one partner regularly sacrificed for the future desires of the other? Does a more frugal partner perceive the other as frivolous if those decisions are not mutual?

Time, energy, love, money, availability, preferences, are all parts of that abstract and concrete stockpile of relationship reserves that both partners must agree upon or be able to effectively negotiate. For some couples, those interactions just work. For others, the very subject brings about threatening disconnects and is readily avoided.

2. Sexual Interactions

The way that intimate partners share their sexual thoughts, desires, fantasies, and taboos spans a wide continuum. Some people, perhaps too uncomfortable to ask, hope their partners just will “get them, sexually.” And even those who feel comfortable enough to ask for what they want, don’t always have partners who are as welcoming or willing to reciprocate.

People’s attitudes, thoughts, and feelings about who they are as sexual people begin from early childhood. As they enter puberty, their masturbatory fantasies are formed by those early memories plus the stories they absorb from friends, social media, childhood trauma, books they’re read. Those fantasies remain in some form or another into adult life, and because they take root so early, are often hard for people to share.

Many people, in their quest of their sexual development, have many experiences they might be deeply uncomfortable to share later on. What if their current partners are offended by what they’ve done in the past? What if it changes the way they feel about them, even if they are different in the present? And what if partners from the past are still part of the couple’s current social circle? Is it better to keep those secrets?

The viewing of pornography is a taboo subject in many relationships because it can play such a large part in the way each partner sees the other. Often an innocent outlet for fantasy experiences, the choices one views may be unacceptable or threatening to the other partner.

Many couples share sexual fantasies, secrets, desires, and whims with me that they are not comfortable sharing with the person closest to them. Whether they have been taught to feel shame, or simply fear judgment, they withhold them from their partners, not being willing to take the risk of what might happen if they opened up.

3. Past Indiscretions

Most new lovers, even in the throes of blended passion, are careful to avoid sharing past behaviors they fear might do anything to threaten the relationship.

It is understandable why many people put uncomfortable memories behind them, and why they would want to be seen as the people they’ve become, rather than those they were before. They fear they would be seen as less desirable if their current partners were to know what secrets their pasts held.

Many people ask me if it is okay to keep those “confessions” private and self-label them as taboo topics. “What if something unpredictable triggers me and it slips out?” “Will my partner think that I’m hiding other things if I don’t tell him or her what I am hiding.” “What if my partner gets it that I’m hiding something, and pushes me to share it. Is it alright to say ‘no?’”

There are many examples: a past abortion, a large debt, a police record of some kind, a hidden child never claimed, a sexual trauma, a family member in prison, an STD, or multiple sexual encounters accompanied by vast amounts of party drugs that are no longer a likelihood.

4. Fear of Being Wounded

New love should seemingly abound with forgiveness and acceptance. But, it actually doesn’t. People in new relationships are actually very careful not to reveal vulnerabilities that could result in re-wounding. If they’ve been devalued in the past by sharing their deepest fears and anxieties, they could be hurt even more if it happened again.

Many of those unexpressed, vulnerable thoughts and feelings come from trauma from the past. They often cause people to feel they may be too damaged to be loved. If those secrets were known, would anyone be able to accept them without judgment?

A painful, but not uncommon, example is adults who were silently seduced into sexual connections as children, and innocently experienced pleasure in those interactions. Later, their feelings of shame and self-loathing may have replaced those initial feelings but the original experiences linger. Very often, those terrible mixtures of shame and pleasure have created trauma bonds that confuse and humiliate.

Everyone has occasional thoughts and feelings that they feel too embarrassed or too frightened to express or share, for fear they will be seen as less valuable than if they keep them to themselves. People who are confident in their worth can much more easily share parts of themselves that are not as desirable because they are not concerned with their overall package ever being dismissed just because they’re not perfect, but those creatures are rarer than most people know.

5. Self-Serving Motives

Rarely does anyone act without a combination of both self-serving and other-caring motives. Sadly, most people feel too embarrassed to share the self-serving parts, and, instead, resort to strategy, manipulation, or diplomacy to gain their ends. While their external presentation may appear more altruistic, their hidden motives are not.

Self-serving motives are not necessarily wrong unless they are truly selfish and intended for personal gain at the expense of another. Those acts would be more readily defined as exploitive, rather than simple behaviors that serve self without the desire to hurt another.

It is sad that the self-serving parts of a person’s psyche ever need to be hidden. It doesn’t typically start out that way. Children express the motives behind their behaviors very readily. They are taught by life experiences to relegate them to the taboo arena.

6. Anticipated Negative Reactions

Many people withhold expressions because they fear that direct or authentic statements will be met with anger, withdrawal, sadness, or retaliation. They create their own taboo subject areas by selecting thoughts and actions to suppress, sometimes without asking their partners if they would actually respond in the way that is expected.

“That would only make him angry, so why start something?”

“She’s so sensitive to criticism. She won’t talk to me for days if I actually tell her what I think.”

“We just can’t go there. The results would be catastrophic. Better to leave well-enough alone.”

Sadly, most of these intentionally suppressed thoughts and feelings eventually work themselves to the surface and can erupt in exaggerated explosions. The result is more often much worse than if they’d brought them out in the beginning.

* * * * * *

Start by identifying the topics you avoid when you talk to your partner. Then ask yourself where those resistances originated and what price you pay for your silence. You may choose to take some risks you have previously been too afraid to chance.

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