CREATING INTIMACY (A Marathon)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2013 (edited 2018)
Intimacy requires more than attraction. Intimacy is the crowning reward to dedicated attention to the person we love.
We grow, moving through development stages, eventually breaking free of the tethers tying us to parents. We discover ourselves and seek adult connections. As mature adults, we can discover a new type of intimacy—connections of openness. We can be known (and accepted) in concert with knowing and accepting our partner. Not a one-sided nurturing-nurtured relationship but an equality of two loving adults given and receiving. The connection provides healthy interdependence—intimacy. As partners accept the individual natures of their partners, working through differences with compassion and acceptance, they create security.
The lonely child that grows into the fearful adult often employs protective mechanisms to shield their delicate ego. These ploys of the mind interfere with the connections they desperately need to heal. In the security of deeper connections, we discover the safety for curious explorations into the self. But when afraid, we retreat, we bury feelings and inhibit openness, shunning the vulnerabilities that intimacy creates.
Intimacy is more than openness. We don’t create bonds from uninhibited blabbering. Sharing emotions must be done with care; we don’t recklessly expose a new partner to the whole brunt of our powerful emotions, shooting out the barbs of our hurt without the slightest attention to the receiver. We can’t ask someone to bare our pain while remaining aloof to their emotional response. Knowing another person takes time; connections must develop while maintaining and respecting individuality. We share in small portions, watching and learning. Am I safe? Does this person respect my sensitivities, responding to my openness with compassion; or do they ruthlessly use my vulnerabilities to manipulate? A relationship grows in health or illness. Two people slowly create bonds of intimacy or codependence. Closeness is not forced. Noxious sweet declarations of love, no matter how often recited, do not replace the consistency of openness and respect.
If we have a goal to run a marathon, we can’t run the twenty-six and two tenths of a mile on the first day. The marathon is the final goal; but the path to the finish line requires much more than pounding through the twenty-six-mile course. By running the entire distance without proper preparation, we’ll suffer injury and fail. Intimacy is similar.
The sufficient emotional development to experience intimacy is achieved in stages, progressing through personal and shared experiences of feeling. Our childhoods significantly support or diminish from this learning process. Some emerge into adulthood possessing great emotional skills, processing and understanding felt emotions, and utilizing the emotions to effectively guide. Others struggle, quick to emotionally flood, exploding and shutting down with the slightest unplanned changes. If we bombard a partner with more emotion than they can process, they will disengage or defensively retaliate. Unaccustomed to emotion, their heart rate easily elevates, and blood pressure rises, overwhelming their brains and shutting down any intelligent processing. The rush of emotion, changes the body, demanding alertness, and sparking fear. Too much emotion and we seek escape.
We get so lost in emotional expression, spewing out the feelings of our lives that we neglect to check in on how these powerful emotions are being received. Many studies have found correlation between strong marriages and a moderate dose of suppression. Saying what you want, how you want and when you want does not bode well for the longevity of healthy connection.
An emotionally immature partner will fail to compassionately respond. The soothing connection we desire will be met with defensiveness and contempt, turning the tables, demanding us to soothe them. The dramatic response, taking advantage of vulnerability, leaves a mark. The relationship suffers an emotional blow, diminishing trust and limiting future openness. We will feel isolated, lacking support in times of need. When a partner beckons for emotional support and is rejected the relationship suffers. These are the “sliding door” moments of a relationship that establish trust or deepens insecurities (The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples; John Gottman). The emotionally immature tend to find each other. The horror of aloneness exceeds self-respect. The two bond in fear, shooting shards of hurtful remarks, demeaning each other, but refusing to change. These are not bad people. They faithfully carry the torches of their childhood, lacking the emotional knowledge to escape.
"The dramatic response, taking advantage of vulnerability, leaves a mark. The relationship suffers an emotional blow, diminishing trust and limiting future openness."
Emotionally mature partners experience a different connection. Love feels different. They respect bids for support, willing to share the tough emotions and provide welcomed warmth when the world is cold. They possess the capability to function during emotional disturbances. Those with emotional maturity create security. Some children possess natural emotional intelligence. Possibly a mix of parental involvement and predispositions. Most of us develop with age, slowly working through emotional stages of growth, abandoning life delaying styles of adaptations for more mature versions.
Relationships can irk deep feelings that lay hidden. The emotional communications give life to hidden demons, often arriving unannounced, and charged with feeling. We must work through these pivotal moments. Emotions aren’t turned down with a simple adjustment of the dial. Our emotions are programmed. Patterns of reaction are deeply entrenched. Changing how we respond is not a simple task, requiring intimate knowledge of our emotional patterns, and implementation of effective practices that soften emotions before they overwhelm. But to succeed in love--the love that develops into intimacy—we must combat our defensive responses to a partner’s emotional bids for support. We feel what we feel; but sometimes what we feel is not conducive to a growing relationship.
After living with a critical partner, simple comments immediately ignite strong emotions. A constant barrage of manipulating comments designed to invoke shame creates sensitivities. These injuries don’t end with the relationship. When a new partner shares hurt feelings, old patterns return—first shame, then defensive anger. The past interferes with the present. Discomfort permeates the soul, demanding resolution through escape or attack. These emotional responses, perhaps protective in the previous relationship, now thwart connections in the present. The instinctual response of fight, flight or freeze doesn’t provide the security our partner seeks; they seek understanding and acceptance.
We have several choices at these critical junctures. Some responses are healthy and others debilitating. If we defensively attack by shifting blame, we curtail future openness. If we shut down, we express unwillingness to support. These tools protect against emotional vulnerabilities but limit and destroy intimacy.
If limiting vulnerability is the primary goal, then protection reigns, inhibiting intimacy. If we have manipulating and demeaning partners, then protective responses may be more important than openness and vulnerabilities. Our approach may leave the human need for connection unfulfilled but provide emotional safety in a hazardous environment.
For intimacy to improve, we first must soothe our emotions, recognizing our emotions that are disrupting, without chaotically blaming our partners for our own instabilities. Intimacy mandates vulnerability—the courage to share sensitivities. Together with a loving partner, we begin to grow, discovering new areas of safety. The inner-security accepts the self, knowing a loyal partner will soothe. The new freedoms invite open exploring of feelings. The assurance of acceptance provides the foundation for continued sharing.
When a partner flippantly belittles the precious openness, we must retreat to a shelter. The partner’s unpredictable reaction destroys intimacy but in dignity we can survive. Our willingness to test vulnerability exposes the darkness of our partner’s character. We sadly must accept that limited safety resides in the relationship with this partner; future openness is curtailed, and intimacy denied.
Knowing our own emotions isn’t enough. We also must possess communication skills, learning artful and delicate presentation of feelings, measuring a partner’s sensitivities, keeping emotional sharing within the boundaries of a partner’s processing capabilities. We must carefully share emotions in a non-threatening manner to prevent the message from being lost. An emotional message must be carefully measured against the responsive emotions of the receiver. A partner needs to know they are safe. When a relationship’s complaints historically spiral into vicious attacks then the slightest insinuation of imperfection summons defenses, leading to another hurtful barrage of words. Outside professional help might be required.
We can dodge the complexity of connection if we wish, excusing our contribution to the destructive interactions. We can smugly believe we are appropriate and our partners selfish; but where does this get us? We soothe our self-image by sacrificing intimacy. We minimize our frailties while magnifying our evil partners. Denial and avoidance provide a protective shield; but at the heavy cost of limiting intimacy. Failing to accept responsibility in the disconnection invites the same stupid relationship blunders that repeatedly muck up our chance for connection. With underdeveloped emotional and relationship skills, we never achieve our goal, collapsing long before the finish line, the ribbon is never broken, and intimacy never enjoyed.