True Intimacy: Why It’s So Crucial—and So Challenging

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There’s now consensus among mental health researchers on how intimate connections are critical to our health and well being. Yet such secure human ties don’t come easily for us. We show an almost irresistible tendency to develop potent defenses against a bond that might seem entirely natural—if not instinctual. After all, we’re one of the most gregarious of species. So just what seems to be holding us back?

The reason close, warm, confiding and trusting relationships are relatively uncommon is that (however secret to ourselves) what we most desire is also experienced as too fraught with danger to open-heartedly pursue. Consequently, we’re overcome by the deeply felt need to reduce the sense of vulnerability inevitably accompanying such a union. All the same, when we close our hearts to better safeguard ourselves from another— and their possible disapproval or rejection—we end up committing an act of dire self- sabotage. To be sure, in the short term we avert having to re-experience past disturbing incidents of failure, abuse, or abandonment. But at the same time we prevent ourselves from what, as human beings, we all yearn for . . . and always will.

This post further advances the thesis of my last one: namely, “Illusion of Connection: Better Than No Connection at All?”. In that piece I focused on how we forfeit true connection because of its risks and, unawares, embrace a Fantasy Bond that can only create the ultimately dissatisfying illusion of connection. The present post centers on gaining a broader knowledge of what may be essential to our welfare.

It’s comprised of two parts: (1) a summary of why it’s imperative that we strive to develop truly intimate relationships—particularly with our significant other, and (2) a discussion of why so many of us fail to do so. My next post will discuss what we must recognize, confront, and change if we’re to establish the satisfying intimate attachment that, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we long for. And paradoxically, that “reformed” connection will at once separate us from our partner and enable us to reconnect with them in a way that enables us to become whole. It’s a somewhat scary personal process of “unblending” from our partner, so that both of us can reaffirm our core individuality, yet within the (healing) context of our most important relationship.

Why Authentic Connections Are Vital to Both Our Physical and Psychological Health

Emma Seppälä, in her “Connect to Thrive: Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity,” cites a study by university professor Steve Cole (at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA) demonstrating that lacking adequate social ties actually constitutes more of a personal handicap to health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Such a “pro-social” conclusion has become almost routine among researchers investigating the core ingredients of a healthy lifestyle—or Wellness, as it’s commonly called. Seppälä, referring to the studies of Cole and others, relates meaningful social ties to strengthening our immune system, helping us recover more quickly from disease, and lowering our rates of anxiety and depression. And she adds that it may even be instrumental in increasing our life span.

Interviewing Brené Brown, professor in the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston, Seppälä quotes this popular speaker and author as emphasizing:

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

So despite the unfortunate circumstance that people today seem more and more concerned with their independence, purchasing power, looks, career, and social status, their much deeper (and little-recognized) need is to feel accepted and have a heartfelt connection with others. And that feeling isn’t derived from how many friends or acquaintances we have but from something much more subjective—and internal. That is, if we feel connected to others, then we’ll reap the benefits of such a bolstering mental and emotional state.

Finally, to further underscore the seminal importance of interpersonal connection, we might note an outstanding work by Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychology, UCLA (and also at the Semel Institute), entitled Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013). Citing over a 1,000 studies on the subject, Lieberman’s research confirms that “being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion. It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.”

Enough said?

The Barriers to Meaningful, Intimate Connection

In my previous post, I talked about the psychoanalytic concept of your protecting against primitive fears of caretaker abandonment through constructing a Fantasy Bond with them. That way the terrifying possibility of being left totally alone, with all the anxiety and bewilderment linked to such desertion, could be pared of its prickly thorns. And this unusual non-reality-based feat is accomplished by projecting onto your caretakers—who weren’t, or couldn’t, be there for you as much as you required—a host of positive qualities that, ironically, you had to deny in yourself.

That is, to internalize your parents, to merge with them so you could feel more secure in your relationship to them, you’d feel obliged to see yourself as you imagined they saw you. So if you didn’t experience yourself as sufficiently cared for, “defaulting” to this comforting fantasy bond would necessitate perceiving yourself negatively. Feeling neglected, criticized, or broadly disapproved of, would compel you to identify with them to mitigate such feelings.

Safeguarding this most fundamental relationship in such an elemental way would help lower your separation anxiety. But such a stratagem for emotional (vs. directly physical) survival would also carry exceptionally high collateral costs. Because such an early adaptation is basically unconscious, once it takes hold it can generalize to how best to relate to others—even how best to be in the world. Which is why this adverse theory of a fantasy bond is frequently viewed not only as psychoanalytic but existential as well.

In this section, I’d like to further elaborate on how, later in life, such a foundational defense system can be almost tragically self-defeating.

Anxiety-reducing fantasy bonds determine how genuinely close you’ll let yourself get to others—particularly your life partner—so they won’t be given the opportunity to reopen psychic wounds from your childhood. And this now outdated tactic to lessen the felt danger of close relationships doesn’t really allow for true intimacy. For that connection depends on a willingness to take risks and make yourself emotionally accessible to another. That is, make yourself more vulnerable, with all the trust such vulnerability entails.

In a nutshell, the universal quest for authentic close connections naturally draws you to others. But if in growing up you didn’t feel you could rely on your (insufficiently nurturing) caretakers, you’d be wary about the threat you’d come to associate with intimate relationships. And, as contradictory as this might sound, you’d find yourself especially attracted to someone most likely to revivify these old (and still unrectified) emotional hurts. For the child throbbing inside you still has “unfinished business” with his parents. And because hope really does spring eternal in the human heart, you’d be attracted to someone who negatively resembles your caretakers—and so put yourself at serious risk for falling right into the fire again.

The unconscious (pseudo-) solution for all this? Somehow, dimly recognizing that the parental safety and security you felt as a child was more imagined than real, you’d endeavor to protect yourself from—and maybe even fend off—whatever intimacy might be offered you. After all, when you were much younger certain ways of safeguarding your vulnerability were “programmed” into you. And eliminating these no-longer-appropriate defenses isn’t something that happens on its own. If healthy, therapeutic change is to take place, conscious awareness of such maladaptive programming must occur beforehand.

But if, on the contrary, you’re compulsively driven to shield yourself either from getting too close to others, or letting others get too close to you, the relationship you’ll end up with won’t be very satisfying. Focusing exclusively on marriage, then—whether through the defense of anger, submission, stonewalling, or withdrawal—you’ll contrive to facilitate a “safe” distance between you and your partner: one that prohibits whatever genuine, loving connection you experienced during the warm glow of courtship (which, of course, prompted you to marry in the first place).

At that earlier time, you felt separate from them and could value them as individuals, apart from yourself. But now, unconsciously replicating your parental fantasy bond with your now “attached” other, you “fuse” with them. You substitute the former individuating “I” with an enmeshed (yet detached) “we.” For the separation anxiety you originally felt with your parents literally demands you do so. Otherwise, old psychic alarm bells could go off inside you.

Given that this self-sabotaging scenario tends to be intergenerational, repeated by your family over many decades (or centuries!), you simply recycle your family history rather than break free of it and assert your freedom to live your own life—and on much healthier relational terms. You “stiff-arm” the one person who, potentially, might help you feel truly loved (as your parents weren’t able to). For you’re driven to protect your inner scared child from any further psychic harm.

Emotionally, you push them away, even as you’re focusing on forming a secure fantasy bond with them. You conceal your desperate fear that ultimately they could leave you by acting in an aggressive, or passive-aggressive way. Or by, turtle-like, retreating into your shell. Or you attempt to secure the relationship by subordinating your needs to theirs—and thus making yourself invaluable to them. In one way or another, to reduce your keenly felt relational vulnerability, you contrive to make yourself bulletproof, impenetrable, inviolable. For deep inside you, while superficially you may feel connected to them, you can’t help but also view them as constituting a mortal threat to you.

Resolving such a psychological/existential dilemma is no easy task. But my next post, “The Path to Establishing True Intimacy,” will propose a variety of methods to assist you in transforming your relationship into one that can fulfill your heart’s desire beyond what any illusional fantasy bond possibly could.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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