I’ve been thinking about intimacy a lot lately. Perhaps because so many clients seem to be bringing relationship problems to our sessions. Definitely because I am preparing to lead a workshop on the topic in the fall. And always because intimacy has long been a challenge and therefore a curiosity for me; something I address pretty constantly in order to be in and maintain the relationships I so value in my life.
Intimacy is a timely subject. We are living in a world where there is a deluge of communication – email, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, of being constantly available – but there is little real connection. And with this loss of connection comes a loss of intimacy. We live estranged from others, from the world we live in, and worst of all from ourselves.
And intimacy is also a timeless subject. It evokes, and always has done, a natural ambivalence in us all – we both long for it and fear it. A well-known parable, ‘Schopenhauer’s Porcupines’ illustrates the point:
A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened.
And so it is in relationship. We are those porcupines out on a cold winter day, wanting to huddle together. We crave warmth and connection, but sometimes getting too close can be painful, so we retreat. This dance of intimacy is what defines our relationships with everybody we encounter. There are both evolutionary and psychological reasons for this duality. From an evolutionary perspective, we are biologically drawn to coupling for procreation purposes. Further biological drivers exist between mother and child at birth to literally sustain the life of the still helpless infant. Additionally, we are, in our biology, pack animals for the simple reason that coordinating as part of a group helped ensure our survival. So far, so simple. We are programmed to come together. But then staying in relationship and achieving true intimacy cannot happen without exposing our vulnerability, our fears. Deep in the limbic brain (often called ‘the emotional brain’ and distinguished from the more recently evolved neocortex where our logical thinking occurs), our programmed response to threatening situations we fear is fight/flight/freeze. Psychologist Daniel Goleman has referred to this as an ‘Amygdala Hijack,’ named for the part in the brain responsible for the emotional hair-trigger response. Unchecked, these defences act as ‘quills’ that keep us away from relationship.
Freud’s term ‘repetition compulsion’ postulates that a drive to relive or recreate unresolved wounding is an unconscious attempt to ‘master’ the original struggle
From a psychological perspective, we seek relationship to address unresolved conflicts from our earliest relationships with primary caregivers. Freud’s term ‘repetition compulsion’ postulates that a drive to relive or recreate unresolved wounding is an unconscious attempt to ‘master’ the original struggle. Thus the compelling myth of ‘Magical Other,’ someone out there who will make our lives complete, restore a sense of ‘belonging’ in our disconnected world. It is the stuff of ‘happily ever after.’ Virtually all of popular culture – TV, films, romance novels and more – feed this desire. And yet there is an opposing force in the ravages of our personal histories. Our first intimate relationships are within our family-of-origin, so it is no surprise that these are where our programming for connecting with others starts. How we experience these early years, particularly in relation to our primary caregivers can shape our later relationships in powerful ways. If these relationships were secure (in Attachment Theory terms), we tend to have the capacity to act with openness and flexibility in later relationships. On the other hand, if these early relationships weren’t secure (characterized by avoidance, ambivalence or disorganisation), this wounding is likely to show up in later life as being overwhelmed or abandoned in relationship. We then engage in a number of ‘adaptive strategies’ we learned to employ in order to protect ourselves from additional wounding. These adaptive strategies – whether controlling, people-pleasing, avoiding, clinging, or other – are further barriers to intimacy. More quills.
adaptive strategies – whether controlling, people-pleasing, avoiding, clinging, or other – are further barriers to intimacy. More quills
The way forward, it seems, is to acknowledge and embrace this duality; to go ahead and be scared of intimacy but take the chance anyway. I say this because beyond biology and psychology, there is another, spiritual, force that argues for relationship. If the soul can be defined as an energy that wants something of us, which impels us to live up to who we potentially are then it can be said that this energy seeks relationship as a place where it can work out its destiny. A tall order, perhaps, but one that makes sense if we consider both the healing and growth that occur in relationship.
‘Love and the work of the soul are inextricably entwined,’ the Jungian James Hollis said, ‘The Other is not here to take care of our soul, but rather to enlarge our experience of it.’
‘Love and the work of the soul are inextricably entwined,’ the Jungian James Hollis said, ‘The Other is not here to take care of our soul, but rather to enlarge our experience of it.’ How does this happen? As so much wounding early on was done in the relational field, this is also a place where healing occurs. Moreover, being in relationship with others expands our circles of intimacy. In deepening the truths we can name and share with each other, we break down the delusion of isolation. Maybe for these reasons, the poet Rilke offered, ‘ For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is preparation.’ A view of the ‘preparation’ required comes from another poet, Rumi, who wrote ‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have build against it.’
The first circle of awareness is personal; to start with what is right here in ourselves; to become intimate with our own being. Intimacy with oneself may sound a bit strange but it is a precursor for intimacy with others. Unless we come to know who we are, all that we seek is futile because we don’t know the seeker. We have to know and accept ourselves in our totality; if we cannot do this, how can we expect others to accept us, and how will we be able to extend this same acceptance to others? It does no good trying to find intimacy with friends, lovers, and family if we are starting from alienation and division within ourselves. If one of the fundamental problems in relationship is unconsciousness on the part of the people involved, a first stop in achieving a more successful relationship is bringing our own unconscious baggage into focus. The shadow is a term for all that is within ourselves with which we are uncomfortable. Intimacy demands we get comfortable. In order to do this, we have to first explore the shadows, get up close and personal – yes intimate– with our deepest fears and anxieties. We bring an investigative light to the darkness. In doing so, we start to take responsibility for our own growth, our spiritual journey. Regardless of our historic wounding, we hold ourselves accountable in the present.
If one of the fundamental problems in relationship is unconsciousness on the part of the people involved, a first stop in achieving a more successful relationship is bringing our own unconscious baggage into focus
We formulate an awareness of our patterning, but learn not to react from this place but rather to respond to information in the present. As Viktor Frankl put it, ‘between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ The all-important ‘space’ that he refers to can be reclaimed through reflection and meditation on the internal dynamics driving our choices. When we find ourselves suffering in relationship, whether due to the absence of it or caused by conflict in it, we can ask of ourselves some fundamental questions:
- Where in me does this come from?
- What does it hit in my history?
- What does it feel like?
- What hidden source is creating repetitive patterns in my life? How do these patterns constrict myself?
- What am I asking my partner (or potential partner) to do for me that I, as a mature adult, need to be doing for myself?
- Am I living my life in such a fashion that I will be happy with the consequences of my choices? If not, when do I plan to start?
- What are my fears? And what are the fears that lie beneath those fears? How do these block me from living my life?
- In what ways do I seek to avoid suffering?
Here a pause, some space is warranted. Because the temptation, I know, as someone who has sat with these questions many times over the years, is to answer them quickly and move on. The quest for healing and growth can lead us to want to just get on with it. And quickly. But questions like these are too important to brush over lightly. We can get answers this way, but often they are of the pre-programmed variety, not always attuned to the intricacies of our true being. We need to slow down, pay attention. This healing stuff doesn’t come on demand. It takes cultivating what I’ll call an ‘intimate awareness.’ While there are countless books, theories and questions that can help us understand our challenges with intimacy, these will only get us so far in our journey. Indeed, ‘hiding out’ in psychological explanations can be yet another defense against true soul work with is more one of personal reflection. Just sitting with one question, maybe for 20-30 minutes asking it repeatedly, silently, and opening to what arises can make room for a deeper understanding.
Often, the support of a therapist in this process can be helpful. Even then, it’s not easy. The pursuit such self-awareness requires infinitely more courage and work than all of the effort we put into our avoidance tactics. And the work isn’t finite; it is the ongoing process of returning to the circle of what’s here. Of saying ‘what’s going on right here, right now, and can I open to it?’ But there is a payoff: when we are focused on our own psychological development, we can relate to others from a position of personal integrity. In identifying our historical complexes, we can then achieve some distance from them. We can objectify rather than identify with them. We don’t remain the byproduct of our personal history. We can say ‘I am not (only) what happened to me. I am (also) what I choose to become.’ (Jung’s words, with my added qualifiers.) This is the basis for intimacy.
When we are intimate with our inner reality, we no longer need to project it onto others.
A commonly accepted principle of relationship is ‘what we do not know about ourselves, or will not face in ourselves, will be projected onto the other.’ When we are intimate with our inner reality, we no longer need to project it onto others. Rather than suppressing our shadow aspects, we ‘attend and befriend’ them, as psychiatrist Dan Siegel would say, so that we don’t need to look to another to do it for us. As Jungian Daryl Sharp puts it, ‘There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the search for a soul-mate, your other half, with which you’ll live happily ever after. The mistake is expecting to find our ‘lost other’ in the outside world. In fact, it is our inner other who should be the object of our search.’
Once we have found the capacity to be intimate with ourselves, in our inner circle, – to be aware of our vulnerabilities and fears and hold them with understanding and compassion – we can extend this ability in relationships with others.
‘Intimacy with distance’ is the way Daryl Sharp describes the middle way between isolation and fusion. He argues that intimacy with distance doesn’t mean living in separate quarters, rather it is about ‘psychological separation, which comes about through the process of differentiation – knowing where you end and the other begins…. intimacy with distance can be as close and warm as you want, and it’s psychologically “clean.”’
For us porcupines, another way of looking at it is we need to be able to generate our own warmth, comfort in our own being, in order to keep just that little bit of safe distance from the others. When we have this internal security, this sacred space, we no longer need to look to another for completion. We can invite others in, but out of choice rather than need. We are not living lost in the cold, in isolation, nor are we dependent on another to warm us. Our own circle is intimately known, and so safe to widen to others. Relationships, approached this way, become expansive, rather than terrifying. ‘I live my life widening circles that reach out across the world. I may never be able to complete this last one but I give myself to it.’ I’m with Rilke on this one.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1851: Pererga und Paralipomena. Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396.
Goleman, Daniel. 1996: Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Deli
Hollis, James. 1998: The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Wallin, David. 2007: Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guildford Press.
For information on the author’s Opening to Intimacy workshop scheduled for October 2016, contact firstname.lastname@example.org