Interview With Marta Hatter: Sharing Her Thoughts on Creating a Safe + Non-Judgmental Relationship, Setting Boundaries and Much More
1. In every relationship, couples generally strive to work towards creating more intimacy to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling relationship. However a woman’s definition of intimacy may slightly differ from a man’s definition.
In your professional experience does intimacy usually mean different things for women and men? If so, can you point out the differences?
I agree that most couples strive to have more intimacy in their relationship.
Does intimacy mean different things to men than to women? The short answer is yes, often. The long answer is complex, and forces me to generalize in spite of the fact that individuals vary and gender stereotypes are reversed at times.
In our culture, families rarely model or teach emotional intimacy. It is usually assumed that individuals develop the ability to have significant relationships as they mature. Sometimes this is true, but often it is not. So as we negotiate our way through successful and failed relationships, we develop beliefs about intimacy.
Women are often relationship-centered, and frequently verbal communicators.
I find that my female clients often assume their male partners should be the same, and come away frustrated and feeling rejected when this is not true. Men are often performance-centered, and less verbal in their communication. A woman’s definition of intimacy is often about being loved, and feeling safe. Once a man realizes the definition goes beyond sexual intimacy, he often defines it in terms of trust and respect.
A common mistake I see in couples is that each person assumes the other should have the same definition.
Women cry when they feel unloved, men become angry when they do not feel respected. This sabotages intimacy. The healthy balance is to learn to embrace the definition of each other.
So women who would like richer intimacy in the relationship should learn how to make their man feel respected. A woman who feels loved and safe draws near to her man, a man who feels respected and admired draws near to his woman.
A man experiences intimacy with his partner when she desires him physically, expresses admiration, affirms who he is and is generous with praise about his trustworthiness.
2. When we talked with experts on the topic of vulnerability and emotional intimacy, one thing that consistently came up as a general best practice to encourage men to be intimate is to be safe and non-judgmental.
Can you talk about the importance of being safe and non-judgmental and also explain how women can create that environment?
Let me respond at the micro level first, then I will describe my views at a broader level.
To be a safe person, each individual in relationship needs to learn what the fears, insecurities and hopes are of his/her partner.
What topic or insinuation is threatening? What negative beliefs about self underlie insecurities? Being safe is strengthened if we have insight about the fears of our loved one. It takes humility and gentleness to seek and receive this information.
Consequently, our approach in this relationship will be modified in light of what is learned and we will be more accepting and secure for our partner. Being safe and non-judgmental is critical for any person who hopes to enhance connection and trust with the other.
From a broader perspective, encouraging women as a whole it is important to understand there is a balance to being a safe person.
On the one hand to recognize and cultivate the importance of attachment and bonding. On the other hand to respect and provide for separateness, self-determination and individuality. So I am saying to women that emotional intimacy is not smothering or controlling.
To create this environment, I encourage women to personify respect to match the level of unconditional love they would like. A multitude of limiting beliefs are accepted in our culture, one is “respect has to be earned.” The problem is, I have witnessed many women mis-use this as “ I will treat you with respect when I am happy with you.”
Challenging, correcting and telling him what he should have done are often forms of judging.
– Speak with respect no matter the content.
– Accept his thoughts/feelings even when you do not understand them.
– Give honest, humble feedback but do not try to change him.
– Believe in him.
3. You mentioned something very interesting- “So I am saying to women that emotional intimacy is not smothering or controlling.” I suspect quite a number of our subscribers tend to be in the smothering category and they probably don’t realize it. From their point of view, they feel that they are being loving, caring and open but are often confused and frustrated when they see men pull away from them.
Can you shed light on smothering, how it affects relationships and types of behaviors that may be seen as smothering by men?
Smothering behavior implies too much of something; proximity, verbalization, touch, expectations.
The amount a man or woman desires of quality time, touch or verbal affirmation varies person to person. There is no one right answer that fits all. The goal is to be a safe person so your man can give honest feedback, and if he says he feels pressured or needs space, to listen and modify your behavior.
Learning to embrace difference instead of changing the other person to be more like you promotes your personal growth.
Smothering behavior alienates the other person. When someone stands too close to us while speaking, we back up. If they move closer again, we consider how to end the conversation. The smothering relationship is a more complicated version of this example.
During Relationship Therapy with my clients, the three most common causes of smothering type behavior I encounter are; poor self-image, processing issues, abandonment/rejection issues.
A poor self-image can undermine a relationship by creating strong feelings of inadequacy that compel a woman to create the “too much” dynamic. This can be calling too much, not allowing ample individual time, demanding, excessive talking or being possessive.
By processing issue, I am referring to understanding how you are wired as a communicator, and how your man is wired.
If the woman is an external processor and pressures her man to talk when he is not ready, share more and to share more quickly-he will withdraw or even shut down. If he is an internal processor, he will feel completely smothered by this. Again, both individuals need to embrace the difference and balance each other out.
My final point is that the fear of being alone, being left, single, or not wanted, may drive a woman to engage is some of the smothering behaviors mentioned earlier. If issues of abandonment or rejection are significant, there have been painful experiences in the past that may need to be addressed in therapy.
4. On the other end of the scale, some of our women subscribers feel that their masculine energy tend to intimidate men and drive them away. This is a common problem especially among successful professional women and entrepreneurs that require them to be more masculine at their workplace. However they find it difficult to transition to their feminine energy in their personal relationships.
In your opinion what does it mean to be feminine and can you provide insights on how women can embrace femininity without losing their identity?
This is a complicated issue.
There is the dynamic of traditional roles vs. feminist roles, confidence or lack of security in either party, and boundaries related to both career and personal life.
Some men may be uncomfortable if the woman makes more money, has more prestige, or seems to infringe upon his “man’s world.” A dynamic, professional woman may not fit his idea of what he desires in a partner. He may not be attracted to women who pursue professional careers.
My challenge to the professional lady is to evaluate her sense of confidence in her career performance.
In our society the pay gap still exists, working women often face insurmountable challenges in making sure that their work is done and their kids (if they are mothers) are cared for. If a woman feels insecure and is out to prove herself, she may display unnecessary aggression professionally. If so, this will be evident to both male coworkers and her boyfriend or husband and can be a source of alienation or a “turn off.”
On the other hand, if she is confident and fulfilled in her role she is unlikely to convey threatening or competitive messages.
If a man is insecure in his position or performance he may feel threatened by a competent successful woman and not pursue her due to intimidation. He may value successful women, but feel vulnerable to being out-done.
Ladies, you cannot take responsibility for anyone but you. If you are doing your job well, not exuding unnecessary aggression and operating with personal integrity that’s as good as it gets. It is important to develop healthy boundaries around your job so that you can “change hats” when you transition from professional to personal life. For some people this has to be intentional until the transition becomes automatic. The skills and abilities needed to be a top performer professionally are not the behaviors that cultivate rich and meaningful relationships.
I am a fan of integration.
I believe a woman can be strong and feminine, independent yet collaborative, a leader and affirmer of team effort, confident while appreciative of coworkers. Military, police department and similar workplaces may be exceptions. But in most professions I have witnessed women who are exemplary in their careers without compromising their womanhood. I encourage each woman to identify what she considers to be feminine. My definition of femininity is thoughts, feelings, values, words, apparel or actions that express or display a woman embracing her gender.
The hope is that a woman’s femininity is an important part of her identity no matter where she is.
Consider a “thermostat” of femininity as a metaphor. It should never be turned to off, but the full continuum may be used depending on the context. A balance that is fluid, lower in the work environment and capable of being turned all the way up in personal life.
5. Another common problem that we often hear from our subscribers is the constant pressure to perform and compete that makes it difficult for them to let the guard down. Some of our readers can’t help but compare themselves with other women on physical appearance, career, relationships etc.
Sometimes they feel sad and get jealous just by looking at their friend’s Facebook page because they feel they have everything going for them.
We live in a very competitive culture.
Sometimes competition spurs us on to do our best, and we rise to the occasion academically, athletically or professionally. Healthy competition motivates us to become the best version of ourselves. Some businesses, companies or corporations are extremely competitive environments, your temperament determines if that is a healthy work setting for you or not.
Comparing yourself to friends and acquaintances, however, is a lose-lose endeavor.
This is not healthy competition. If you compare yourself to those who “fall short” of your self-evaluation you may become arrogant or conceited. You may think more of yourself than you should. If you compare yourself to those who you think “out-do” you, self-depreciation and discouragement may result. You will think less of yourself than you should. This type of thinking must be resisted, it can only hurt you. The only competition in the world that matters, is “How are you doing compared to the best version of yourself?”
In contrast with the message from our culture that you are not enough, need to do more, be more, look like more…….each of us needs to decide what characteristics are important to us and healthy for us to cultivate in our life. How important do you believe appearance is compared to character? How important do you believe body size is compared to personality? What are YOUR values separate and apart from the society?
Being at peace with who you are and how you look decreases the vulnerability to unhealthy competition/comparison.
We are imperfect beings, but striving toward healthy goals personally and professionally is good for us. Your guard should only be completely let down when you are in the presence of people who are safe for you. That said, it is also easier to relax and be authentic when your self-respect is in place. You will never ever meet everyone else’s standard. Strive to meet your own.
6. Being vulnerable and allowing yourself to open up can be sometimes scary especially when you have been betrayed and hurt in your previous relationships. It requires resilience and fearlessness to move past the fear of becoming hurt again, but as you mentioned in one of our columns, “there is no intimacy without vulnerability”.
What are some ways for women to encourage vulnerability in themselves despite the negative experiences of the past that may be blocking them from opening up to their partners and connecting them at the deepest emotional level?
Another great question, we could write a book or create a seminar based on each of these questions.
Negative experiences of the past must be evaluated before initiating a new romance. Unintentionally recreating past relationships is a risk as well as over-reacting in the present because of drama in the past, if this work has not been done first. If you have worked through past experiences with either trustworthy confidants or a therapist, part of that work should be how to open up again when you meet someone of interest. This includes looking at personal responsibility, as blaming prohibits personal growth.
If this process has been accomplished, I encourage each lady to move ahead and focus on who she is and being true to herself.
Specifically, identifying your boundaries related to what you will/will not say and the type of communication you will/will not accept. And what behavior or actions you will/will not engage in and the type of behavior you will/will not remain present with. Relationships develop when vulnerability exists. There is no risk-free formula for entering into any type of relationship but if you live by boundaries that sit right with your heart the risks decrease. You cannot tell anyone else what to do, but it is your responsibility to decide how to conduct yourself and what is acceptable in your relationships.
You can be discerning and proceed with wisdom.
Enter into the place of vulnerability step by step. It is like a continuum, you begin with a low level of vulnerability and gradually increase as the trustworthiness remains apparent in the other person. If you are true to yourself and your boundaries, unsafe guys will disqualify themselves by disrespecting or sabotaging your boundaries. This is the critical point, do you have enough self-respect to give up the relationship if he disqualifies himself. By doing so, you avoid bad experiences and become available for quality relationships.
7. You talked about having boundaries and how if you stick to your boundaries, you automatically weed off the wrong men. What would your advice be for women who have never had boundaries in a relationship? Some of our women subscribers also ask when and how to set these boundaries and more importantly how to communicate them in a way that doesn’t make them (the women) come across as someone hostile and defensive.
Can you share your thoughts on this topic?
The time to identify and live by your boundaries is now.
Boundaries define you. Boundaries have to do with who you are, the line between where you end and others begin. A boundary is a defining aspect of who you are, you set it for yourself. Boundaries are not set for other people, boundaries are for ourselves and are already in place before we meet someone new. In the physical world boundaries are easy to see, in the interpersonal world they are just as real but often harder to see.
Examples of boundaries;
“ I do not mind light cussing, but I will not participate in a conversation with a ‘gutter mouth.’
“ I enjoy being with those who drink socially, but choose not to be in relationship with a problem drinker.”
“ I do not use drugs, and choose not to be in relationship with an illicit drug user.”
“ I will not have a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship.”
Feelings, attitudes and beliefs, behaviors, choices, values, limits, thoughts and desires all lie within our boundaries.
Boundaries are not something to be given to someone else.
My boundaries are for me, and are part of how I live my life. Develop your boundaries now, based on who you are, then live in a way that is true to yourself. When you meet someone, do not compromise your boundaries based on who they are. That is how people end up in destructive relationships. If you practice your boundaries naturally, and share your views as you become closer to a man, there is never an uncomfortable or hostile communication to declare them.
A problem guy will criticize and try to change your boundaries. A good man will respect your boundaries even if he does not completely understand them. A great man will help you to maintain them.
8. Another question we get asked from our women subscribers is if there is any danger of having sex too soon in a relationship. Some women feel a strong chemistry and are sexually attracted to men they are just seeing but are not sure if they should have sex and if having sex too early will be detrimental towards creating a long term committed relationship.
Can you share your thoughts?
Women vary in their conceptualization of femininity and the role of sex. The most important thing is that your beliefs and actions are in accord so that your self-respect is strong.
There are many dangers of having sex too soon;
- The man has a different idea of what sex is comprised of and you have a very negative experience
- You get a STD
- He never calls again or stops seeing you
- The natural process of attachment is not yet to the place of the attachment increase you experience following sex, so a significant gap in attachment is created between the two of you
- The actions and your values do not line up, so your self-respect is reduced
There is important scientific information to understand.
Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone released by the pituitary gland into the brain (notably during orgasm, childbirth and breastfeeding) and is known to affect our behavior, promoting bonding.
It is important to recognize that sex plays an important role in strengthening relationships in a way that goes above and beyond mere procreation.
So the notion of sex-only relationship, or “friends with benefits” concept are actually challenged by science. And when a couple begins a sexual relationship before defining the relationship or making a commitment, the woman may become quickly attached out of proportion to the actual developmental stage of the relationship.
My encouragement is 1) Don’t panic and rush 2) Don’t settle 3) Allow a relationship to evolve developmentally through the stages from acquaintance to one of depth.
9. Another common question we frequently get asked from our readers is when they should talk about marriage in a relationship. Some of our subscribers would like to get married soon, start a family and are quite wary of a ticking biological clock. For them, time is crucial and they don’t want to waste their time with the wrong men. Some men when asked about marriage respond “Maybe, some day I want to get married” or “Yes, I want to get married some day in the future.” Women are not quite sure whether they should wait or if they should move on when they hear this response.
What would your advice be for women in this situation?
My advice is to begin by considering the meaning you attach to “I love you.”
I am assuming that the woman and man have exchanged this declaration prior to her wanting to talk about marriage.
Some people use the phrase very lightly, as they would for “I love frozen yogurt.” Other individuals will only say “I love you” if they consider their partner someone they would make a long term commitment to.
My advice is to be clear about what you mean, and clear about what he means with “I love you” before your mind transitions to talking about marriage (if this was not mutually understood from the beginning).
First things first. The earlier answer about boundaries is relevant in this conversation.
Many of my single, women clients never introduce the topic of marriage believing it is the role of the man to do so. Others make it clear by the time they become exclusive in the dating relationship that life goals include marriage. And others are comfortable taking the initiative to discuss intentions for the future from the beginning.
Some women only date when a man approaches them and communicates that he wants to pursue a serious relationship, so they are more assured of his intent from the start.
Regarding the responses from the men that are quoted in the question, I encourage the woman to clarify what “some day” and “in the future” mean. Then she can evaluate how the clarification does or does not fit in with her expectations.
If he remains vague, evasive or nonchalant when you clarify what he means you need to move on.
- Be clear about the meaning for each of you regarding “I love you.”
- Practice personal boundaries, being true to yourself so guys who are unhealthy for you have already disqualified themselves.
- Be honest about your life goals; marriage/family are major ones.
- Be safe and accepting so he can honestly share his goals with you.
- If your goals are different, not close enough, or he evades clear communication you need to consider your departure.
10. What books or resources would you recommend for women that are looking to create long lasting fulfilling relationships?
I want to caution single women; if you choose to read books on marriage DO NOT place traits/responsibilities of a husband on your boyfriend.
About Marta Hatter
Marta Hatter is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, EMDR Certified Therapist in private practice in Irvine, California. Her goal is to share in the counseling success of her clients by providing quality professional services to equip them for challenging life events, and to encourage relationship healing and personal growth.
To know more about Marta, visit her website www.revelationcounseling.com.