By Michael Farnworth
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: The Family Forum: The Nature of Intimacy
Intimacy is sharing the inner landscape of our souls and the energies of our emotions with another person: from warm, positive feelings such as affection and acceptance to cold, negative feelings such as anger and fear. Unfortunately, many of us cannot be intimate in our relationships because we have never experienced intimacy within ourselves. Our inability to foster intimacy leads us to unconsciously sabotage our love relationships, and we find ourselves trapped in a recurring cycle of hope and disappointment. Intimacy is not something one “falls into,” it is a difficult ordeal fraught with blind corners and hidden traps. But the reward is well worth the effort.
Just to be clear, when I talk about intimacy I am not talking about sexual intimacy. Two people can come together in sexual activity and not share one iota of their inner selves with the other. I am also not talking about simply sharing whatever one is feeling—good or bad—with another person. Intimacy means first establishing a relationship with yourself in order to discover your own soul; only then can you establish a lasting intimate relationship with another person. If we do not first connect with ourselves, we won’t have an inner reality to share with another and will fall into a kind of relationship role-play where we act out what we think we should be doing, our actions being grounded in the expectations of another rather than our own inner reality.
We are all blessed with a psychological feedback system. It is much like our physical feedback system: if we touch a hot stove it will register pain, causing us to snatch our hand back. The feedback system has been successful if we are thereafter wary of touching hot stoves. Similarly, our psychological feedback system perceives when our behavior elicits reactions from our environment. But instead of getting our attention with physical pain, it teaches us with fright, joy, anger, pleasure, and sadness.
Our psychological feedback system is constantly on high alert during our younger years, ever receptive to the feedback we receive from our parents and siblings about what kind of behaviors are appropriate. If an older person shames and punishes us when we express an inner energy, we learn to suppress it, fearing that we will otherwise lose that person’s affection and protection. If a particular kind of energy consistently draws negative attention from others, we will suppress it and eventually lose touch with that part of ourselves and the ability to be honest about ourselves with others. Our sense of self becomes fragmented, we develop many blind spots, and we begin to flirt with failure in our important relationships, especially when we try to share who we are. We have confused our emotions and inner energies with the demands of other people. A parent’s job is to help their child recognize, label, and process these energies, but too often the parent instead forces the child to repress these energies and then replace them with the parent’s own.
If our parents were not comfortable dealing with their own inner energies, then we likely learned to hide those same energies and maintain a psychologically defensive stance. For example, if a boy grows up in a home that shames the feelings that lead to the expression of tender affections, he will learn to regard them as signs of weakness and turn his back on them. Not understanding these energies or their origins, as a father he will have a hard time expressing his love to his children though he won’t know why. And, over time, his children will absorb the energy of his discomfort and fall into the same cycle.
Being so small and dependant, children are often more than willing to give up punished energies in order to gain acceptance from the adults in their lives. It’s a survival strategy. And this is exactly what happened to many of us. The role-play we engaged in to attract the approval of our parents deprived us of our inner connection and self-awareness. This lack of self-awareness prevents us from achieving self -intimacy and consequently intimacy with others. The greatest spiritual damage a parent can do to children is to make them play a role in which they can no longer recognize their true selves.
I remember as a nine-year-old child getting into trouble for not wanting something. I was merely expressing a personal preference but my father flipped my head and told me to keep my preferences to myself. I remember being upset and thinking, “What difference does it make to you if I want or don’t want something?” Without knowing it, I was developing a strong dislike for some of my inner attributes and characteristics. I was learning how to role-play so I could please others and stay out of trouble. This process eventually matured into self-contempt and self-loathing.
People naturally generalize the feedback they receive. If our parents—the people who should love us most in the world—can’t love us when we express a particular energy, then we are prone to also believe that no one else will be able to love us either. We unconsciously fear that we will suffer the same kind of rejection if we allow anyone else to know who we really are and how we really feel. We may have been stupid enough to express ourselves the first time, but not a second.
Intimacy With Others
Love at first sight is real. It is only destroyed by seeing the beloved again and again and again.
When we first glimpse a person, we can project upon him or her anything we want to. We can fall head over heels into an infatuation with a person based solely on their physical appearance. And as long as we don’t come to actually know them, or them us, our fantasy is safe. But we will never achieve intimacy.
When starting a romantic relationship, it is common to put our best foot forward. We tend to hide the qualities about us that we dislike. The person we are developing a relationship with tends to do the same thing. Why? Because we have a hope that this person will “complete” us, much as the almost-circular protagonist in Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece hoped to be completed. LDS culture adds its own spin to the myth of finding “the right one” with a Saturday’s Warrior mentality, which presents the idea that we commit to the right person in the pre-mortal life and won’t be complete during mortal life until we find them again. This leads us into seeking out “other-created intimacy,” putting the responsibility on another person to make us happy.
Other-created intimacy is when two people come together and mirror each other’s affection. A typical exchange in such a situation may go something like: “I love you.” “I love you too.” “I think you are amazing.” “Ditto.” “I can’t live without you.” “I can’t imagine spending another day without you.” “I think you are beautiful.” “And you’re so handsome.” The two people are attempting to psychologically fuse together in order to gain a relationship that allows trust, acceptance, empathy, and disclosure. At the beginning, this kind of exchange enhances the sharing of positive energy. But the problem is, we are each unique people, and we will eventually stop mirroring each other. Once that happens, the relationship is derailed and our defenses spring into action.
The members of a derailed couple will first attempt manipulative techniques to create the response they desire from the other. But it is only a matter of time before disappointment, hurt, anger, and offense builds to a critical mass, and they withdraw from the relationship entirely, wishing, “If only he/she would love me as I need to be loved.”
Buying into the notion of other-created intimacy puts a huge burden on any person we try to have a relationship with. If we are under the impression that the “right person” will make us happy for the rest of our lives, we will inevitably be disappointed. When the relationship breaks down, we’ll tend to blame the other person in the relationship as well as ourselves. Neither of us measured up. We’ll become frightened. We’ll become defensive. We’ll fight. Withdraw. The defensive patterns we learned during our childhood will be triggered and we will fall into a destructive cycle, repeating our own family history over and over again.
Other-created intimacy is a particular problem in Mormon culture where courtships often last for only a few months. Other-created intimacy can stay intact during such a short time, but will likely start unraveling after the first few months of marriage. When this unraveling occurs, the couple’s fantasy about what it is like to be in a close, loving relationship where they feel valued, admired, and protected disintegrates, leaving them in the frightening position of having made their inner selves vulnerable to a person they suddenly don’t know. Making ourselves vulnerable to another person means that the energies we learned to suppress as children have become exposed. At the first sign of threat, the “old–brain” neurological survival strategies we developed in early childhood resurface. The sense of not being good enough for our parents’ affections bubbles up and contaminates the marriage relationship we are trying to build. As the relationship goes sour, we blame ourselves for being so gullible as to think that someone could truly love us while simultaneously blaming the other for our marital problems.
It’s amazing how powerful the family system can be, whipping us into an overwhelming need to protect the system by retreating behind our defenses, even if doing so comes at the cost of our marriage relationship. The decision we are faced with is: do we stay behind our defenses, or do we invest in a relationship that makes us feel terrifyingly vulnerable to loss and rejection?
Most of us don’t choose one or the other. Instead, we try to straddle the fence by steering the relationship into the innocuous area of pretense and routine—we act as if we are in the marriage relationship but eschew true intimacy. This approach is what psychologist Robert Firestone called a “fantasy bond”: a relationship in which we role-play how we think we should behave. If we find that we have “fallen out of love” with our spouse early in the marriage, the fantasy bond can help keep up the appearance that everything is normal.
Fantasy bonds are not completely bad; indeed, all of us have elements of a fantasy bond in our present relationships. They can keep a marriage relationship stable and give its members the time they need to find their way to true intimacy. They can be relational training wheels. However, the more a marriage relationship is grounded in a fantasy bond, the more difficult it is to take steps into true intimacy. Like the family system, the marital fantasy bond will exert its power when it feels threatened.
We can begin to change the fantasy bond of marriage as we become conscious of its existence and then pay attention to the energies and response patterns that rise when we try to challenge it. We need to take time to understand how our family system affected us during childhood, and realize that it is not the only template for conducting relationships. Eventually, we’ll need to not only feel but also embrace the childhood energies we have suppressed for so long.
During this process. it helps tremendously if we have someone to talk with about the fears we are encountering as we try to break away from the fantasy bond. As we change, hopefully our marital relationship will start moving toward equality and interdependence. But sometimes our partner won’t be currently willing or able to undertake this journey. We should always be willing to accept what they can offer while still inviting them to begin their own awakening process whenever they are ready to do so.
The fantasy bond of the marriage relationship must eventually die if real intimacy is to be born. And after its birth, we must work to maintain it.
To disrupt the fantasy bond, we need to go through the kind of second-order change we discussed in the previous issue and embrace our inner self with love and compassion. That kind of second-order change is challenging. We need to take many journeys into ourselves to encounter the energies we suppressed as children. We need to reintegrate the fragmented parts of our original personality we abandoned early in life. We need to invite the dragons of shame and self-contempt to leave the caves they’ve built inside us. We need to rehabilitate our psychological feedback system so that it can lead us in beneficial directions instead of back into the destructive cycles we’ve nurtured for so long. We need to start sharing our stories with other enlightened witnesses who accept them with respect. We need to learn to re-parent ourselves, inviting our hostile, mean-spirited inner voices to retire, replacing them with the voices of acceptance and compassion. We need to surrender our obsession with perfection: the foundation of the self-contempt that forced us to abandon our inner kingdom so long ago. We need to understand that intimacy in a relationship with another person (and the self) demands symmetry, balance, and equality. We need to remember that maintaining our own self-knowledge and inner integrity is an essential part of the marital relationship’s health.
The next column will explore how to maintain intimacy with ourselves and with our significant others.