In honor of Valentine’s Day!
As I believe I’ve mentioned, intimacy was a bit thin on the ground in my family of origin. If you want to know more about codependency or depression, I’m your girl, but intimacy? Not so much. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my parents and my family and how we orbited around each other; lonely planets who talked but didn’t connect, shared time together but didn’t share ourselves. This taught me that it was easier to just withdraw and develop my inner life, and have superficial relationships, and yet that left me feeling as a little insubstantial; as if I wasn’t truly being seen. It was a pretty lonely existence, and not one that prepared me for true intimacy with my loved ones, which cost me one marriage and one serious relationship.
I realized that doing what I had always done – though familiar – might cost me more relationships, plus I was just tired of it. Articulating this desire for something different was the first step, and so the exploration of intimacy began. I decided that if I was going to seek greater intimacy then perhaps I should find out more about what intimacy actually was. As is my way, I turned to a book to help me to learn more. According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, who wrote The Dance of Intimacy, it begins with work on yourself. (Damn!) In her book, Dr. Lerner says that, “Real closeness occurs most reliably not when it is pursued or demanded in a relationship, but when both individuals work consistently on their own selves.”
So, it has to start with oneself. It does seem reasonable that you can’t really understand another person, if you don’t understand yourself; what you want and what you need, your own strengths and weaknesses, and your patterns and pathologies. Using what I had learned from the book, I realized that, though I had learned a great deal about myself in my therapeutic process, and made some good adjustments to myself that had laid a good foundation for greater connection, there were definitely more changes I could make. Which leads me to Dr. Lerner’s next concept: “An intimate relationship is one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way.”
This is where working more on myself comes in, in part because I was so trained by my family to monitor, caretake, fix, help – to essentially sacrifice myself for – those I was close to; it was the only way I knew how to give and receive love. Dr. Lerner gave me another great term for this tendency; overfunctioning vs. underfunctioning. (This takes the place of the word, “codependency,” which can be confusing and hard to understand and explain.) When you overfunction in a relationship you’re essentially implying that the other person is not capable of managing – or functioning – and that you’re better at whatever is going on, and you’ll take care of everything. It’s exhausting, it shuts the other person down (leading them to underfunction), and locks you into a superior, caregiving role. Guess how much experience I have with this!
How can you have intimacy with someone if you’re in charge of both sides of the relationship, or if you’re saying that they are less of a person than you are? How can partners be equal if one is sacrificing themselves to the other? There’s going to be a lot of anger and resentment on both sides, in that case, leading, of course, to a lack of trust, and then to non-intimacy. Everyone is a mix of strengths and weaknesses, problems and solutions, positives and negatives; acknowledging this to ourselves and letting our loved ones in on this secret while trusting it is still going to be okay is the goal. And I guess that’s what it really boils down to – building the ability to trust yourself as well as the people with whom you want to be intimate.
I have to learn how to trust that others are capable and can take care of themselves and their own feelings (and that I don’t have to), and that I am still worthy of being loved without sacrificing myself. (Guess how tough that’s going to be for me to do.) I have to take a risk and trust that those people will hold me safely and not betray me, and I have to commit to holding them safely, too; vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and all. It was a lot easier for me to not risk anything and just have superficial relationships; like putting on an old pair of pants, however, doing that just didn’t fit me any longer. Yes, it is possible to have one’s trust betrayed, or to be disappointed when another doesn’t seem to want the same depth of relationship, or doesn’t respond to your efforts. This has happened to me before, and will, no doubt, happen again. However, you can’t control what others do, and you can’t change anyone else’s behavior – only your own.
I’ve also realized that you have to choose the right people – people who want intimacy, too, and are willing to work to have it. As I looked at the people in my life, I realized that they might be those people, and that they might want the same thing I did; might, in fact, have been waiting until I realized it myself. Would it be possible to develop new levels in relationships I already had? I decided to start with the main person in my life – my husband. His family wasn’t versed in intimacy, either, so our relationship was a case of the blond leading the blind. Fortunately, my husband has reached a place where he wants greater connection, too, and he’s willing to do the work. We both want the same thing, I think: to trust each other and to be together in the best possible way without compromising ourselves.
I have committed to working on my relationship with my husband by continuing to poke and prod at myself, and by being more outspoken about what I think, feel, and want – by being more vulnerable and not doing what I’ve done in the past. I’ve also been forging stronger, more intimate, relationships with other people I’ve had in my life but didn’t fully trust. (Again with the trust!) I have a lovely, and growing, community of women who meet me where I am and who want the connection that I want.
I’m not saying this is the only way to go, either. If you have other ideas or beliefs about how to achieve intimacy, go with that; one book with one strategy isn’t necessarily going to fit everyone. And maybe you don’t want greater intimacy, and that’s okay, too; there’s no right or wrong way to live. If you do want it, though, or any other changes in your life, starting with yourself – annoying as that is – seems to be a good way to begin. It has been for me. I am a self-confident individual, but this new trust and connection makes me feel as if I am becoming more substantial, as if more pieces of me (which is where it all began) have been put into place. I am working to believe that I don’t need to overfunction, that I can be vulnerable and caring, and that I really can have greater closeness. By looking more deeply into myself, what I was doing, and what I could do differently, and allowing new pieces of myself to manifest and then be seen – by sharing myself honestly, warts and all – I am gaining more of the life that I really wanted. Who knew that intimacy between two people needed to start with one!
*With apologies to HBO’s Sex and the City!