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Regardless of whether you’re aware of it, any relationship you enter into will make you question how vulnerable you can be. And in the context of a romantic liaison, this consideration is likely to feel even more imperative. So what finally dictates your decision on how close you can safely be to someone?
Doubtless, previous romantic relationships play a role in your evaluating how much self-protective distancing you may need to connect comfortably with another. Nonetheless, my many years as therapist, as well as the clinical literature on the subject, suggest that what most determines the capacity—or tolerance—for intimacy stems from the circumstances of your childhood.
Rightly or wrongly, your so-called “formative years” teach you how much trust is prudent to place in others. So if you perceived your caretakers as manipulative and inconsistent in their messages to you; regularly felt betrayed by them; or if their behavior toward you was neglectful, disapproving, or rejecting, then—however inadvertently—they literally “taught” you that the world you inhabited was untrustworthy.
As a corollary here, if you couldn’t experience your family as dependable, fair, or truthful, you were destined (or should we say, doomed) to trust only yourself. And even that could be challenging if your parents treated you in ways that left you with substantial self-doubt. Additionally, if you disclosed something very personal and they later exploited this knowledge against you, you also learned that sharing yourself with others was too hazardous.
Unfortunately, if you can relate to any of the descriptions above, such a family legacy strongly dissuaded you from being party to an intimate relationship. After all, the key prerequisite for such a close tie is the willingness to be vulnerable. And having, as it were, earned a graduate degree in distrust, you now adhere to the belief that letting yourself be vulnerable in relationships is to forfeit the essential need to take care of yourself. You view opening up to others as “self-desertion”—foolish, troubling, even perilous.
Unquestionably, your early environment has a powerful influence on your social development. So if you could never really feel secure in your family (and maybe not with your peers either), then—however unconsciously— you felt compelled to develop various psychological defenses: Such as repression, denial, dissociation, projection, and rationalization. Back then those protective devices would have helped you limit the psychological wounding caused by your parents’ deficiencies in nurturing you. For most likely they were wounded by their parents, and so unable to provide you with what they’d been deprived of themselves.
In short, if your default mode in relationships became self-protective, without substantial “inner repair” work your opportunities of experiencing the joys of an intimate relationship will be severely constrained. Sure, your “playing it safe” may enable you to effectively shelter your vulnerabilities. But that safeguarding of self inevitably carries a steep price, for it leaves you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Because happiness and a state of well-being can’t be “purchased” solely through outward accomplishments or material success, deep down you may find it impossible to dislodge diffuse feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction, and alienation. (And here you might consider an earlier post of mine, entitled: “Surprise! Your Defenses May Make You More Vulnerable.”)
Now let’s get a little more specific about the origins of your endeavors to keep others at a distance. For if you erect barriers to others actually ready to offer you the love and acceptance you sorely missed in growing up, it’s essential to understand what forced you to shut down and turn away from precisely those individuals who could help you heal your deepest psychological wounds.
- The way your caretakers treated you made you feel neglected, disapproved of, or rejected—in a word, unloved.
For whatever reason, your parents felt threatened by you, or—maybe because of a narcissistic self-absorption—couldn’t make you a priority. Critical of, or unresponsive to, your asserting your needs and desires, or frequently complaining that what you were doing was wrong (and rarely complimenting you for what you did that was right), you concluded you must not be good enough for their acceptance.
It can’t be overemphasized that young children take virtually everything their parents say and do personally. So if you didn’t feel cared about by your family, or may regularly have felt humiliated or shamed by them, you probably concluded you didn’t deserve their love.
Obviously, if you don’t feel you’re worth caring about, you don’t want to broadcast such self-disapproval to others. And if, despite your negative self-image, they still show love and caring for you, their concern will make you suspicious, as you anxiously wait for the other shoe to drop. For conditioned to assume that permitting anyone to truly know you is dangerous—that sooner or later they’ll be disappointed in you and reject you (as, so very painfully, you felt your parents did)—you believe it’s only circumspect to keep others at a distance. Having been subject to the enduring anxiety of never feeling safe or secure in your parental attachment, you vowed never again to let yourself be so vulnerable to the protracted hurt you suffered.
You simply won’t let yourself forget the lesson of distrust imparted to you by your parents’ inability to make you feel loved, or that you were an important member of the family. As a result of this overarching self-protective programming, expressly designed to eliminate the chance of any further emotional pain, you dismissed relational intimacy as unattainable.
Even further, you may have convinced yourself that you didn’t really want or need such closeness anyway. So when it’s actually offered to you, you can’t help but defend against it. What the other person may be proposing simply feels “too close for comfort.”
- You had frightening experiences of abandonment, and so resolved never to allow yourself to be emotional dependent again.
Any close relationship will bring to the surface past experiences with intimacy. And by definition, your first intimate relationship was with your family—and it failed you badly. If you grew up in a chaotic, unpredictable household where your parents were either too emotionally volatile or self-obsessed to make you feel you fit in, you thereby learned you were all alone, that in various ways you had to raise yourself. And this kind of isolation is tantamount to abandonment, since your crucial connection to your caretakers wasn’t really there for you.
Additionally, you may have suffered through circumstances that you couldn’t help but perceive as desertion. Perhaps one of your parents abandoned the family, was hospitalized for an extended period, was incarcerated, or died when you were young. Or your parents divorced and the way they communicated to you about the break-up ended up making you distrust the whole institution of marriage (especially if infidelity was involved). Or one of your parents molested you, and their making you feel like an object for their gratification left you feeling totally alone in the family—particularly if you were either sworn to secrecy or, if you did tell the other parent about this intimate betrayal, you weren’t believed. And so on, and so on.
There are, finally, so many ways you could have experienced abandonment in growing up. And what, likely, they all have in common is that they determined you not to set yourself up to be “discarded” ever again.
One of your parents sought to “absorb” you into themselves. This is what’s known by mental health professionals as engulfment—the opposite of parental abandonment, but not really any less abusive. And in your caretaker’s relegating you to the position of giving them the caring or connection they never received from their own parents, they flagrantly violated a generational boundary central to your healthy development.
Feeling this subjugation acutely but without the ability to articulate just what was happening to you, their behavior would have made you anxious—as though their ongoing endeavors to dominate you were swallowing you up, not permitting you the freedom to be the separate individual that (even as a child) you needed, and had every right, to be. Their continuing efforts to “take you over” made you feel so crowded, so invaded, that you later swore you’d never let yourself to be so transgressed against again.
In such instances, where you had constantly to struggle to achieve some sort of autonomy from an overly possessive parent, cultivating an intimate relationship with someone could feel much too threatening. Never having had the opportunity to rectify your parent’s chronic intrusiveness, you’d fear that if you became too close to another, you’d no longer be able to hold onto yourself.
Given such defensive programming, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another would distrustfully be linked to forfeiting your own control, self-determination, and freedom—that is, virtually your whole identity. So you’d seek to ward off such intimacy, since you’d assume that the other person’s hidden agenda would be to rob you of, well, you. So even though you might actually crave the loving, respectful relationship another might offer you, from deep within you’d experience an irresistible urge to push them away.
To sum up, there are—existentially speaking—only two ways of being in a relationship: vulnerable or self-protective. As long as you’ve developed the resources to deal effectively with your vulnerability, you won’t be overwhelmed by it. You’ll feel at liberty to take the risks necessary to form intimate bonds with others. But if your original family relationships were harmful to you, you may shy away from further vulnerability—and end up alienating yourself from those who could actually love you for who you are and so help you heal your past.
Assuming that, nonetheless, you find yourself romantically involved with another (and even marry them), your suspiciousness about close relationships will lead you to undermine such a union. And this ambivalence guarantees that the relationship won’t truly fulfill you—or your partner. In short, you won’t let the other person in, you’ll turn away from their love. For their devotion will feel endangering to your sense of safety, even your selfhood.
If you struggle with the challenges of intimate relationships, here are a few suggestions. And admittedly, they may not be all that easy to implement. But remember, this is a process of self-reprogramming that can happen only over time:
- Become aware of what you’re protecting against: namely, the fear (or dread) of being re-hurt or -shamed; re-neglected or -abandoned; or re-exploited, -dominated, or -consumed. You can’t begin to change knee-jerk reactive patterns until (1) you clearly recognize them, and (2) identify the underlying emotions provoking them;
- Ask yourself what in your relationship with yourself needs to be strengthened, so that another’s behavior won’t so upset your mental equilibrium that you’ll either over- or under-react to them. Once you can come from your more mature, rational adult self—versus being ruled by defenses belonging to your past child self—you’ll be able to discern who (and who not) to trust. You’ll be able to give others the benefit of the doubt, which till now your self-protective armor has rendered impossible;
- Review, and critically reevaluate, your history, realizing that the dynamics of your dysfunctional family hardly represent all of humanity. Although it makes sense to be somewhat wary of others’ motives, most people are more compassionate and understanding than were your parents and not driven to take advantage of you. In other words, you need to rethink your assumptions about intimate relationships being inherently dangerous. Only by re-perceiving others will you be able to make yourself more open and “safely vulnerable” with them;
- Consider that your well-entrenched defenses against vulnerability have succeeded mostly in making you more vulnerable. They’ve culminated in your feeling more anxious in close relationships than you would otherwise. They’ve also led you to feel a certain emptiness inside and alienated you from those whose caring (however unconsciously) you’ve so long yearned for;
- Practice being vulnerable through—bit by bit—sharing yourself more than you’ve allowed yourself to earlier. Let reality show you that your residual childhood fears about self-disclosure are exaggerated—that the (assumed) risks you’re taking in letting your authentic self be known are far less than what you’d concluded in the past;
- Be (unashamedly) honest. Communicate to your partner, or prospective partner, your ambivalence, hesitancies, and anxieties about intimacy. Help them understand how your upbringing strongly cautioned you against letting anybody get close to you—and that this isn’t their problem but yours. But also tell them that they can assist you in resolving these difficulties by not taking your impulses toward relational distancing personally, and by being patient and offering you reassurance when you can’t do this yourself.
And if old, adamant “survival programs” continue to restrict the transformation you’re trying to effect, there’s always the option of working with a therapist trained to facilitate the process. That is, there’s no reason why ultimately you shouldn’t be able to achieve a reversal of what (so necessarily) had constrained you up till now.
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.