By Dr. Carol Drury
There’s one sad truth in life I’ve found
While journeying east and west -
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know;
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow,
To those who love us best.
This little poem isn’t very witty when we reflect just how true it can be when we’re talking about our intimate relationships. Many of us treat those we barely know better than those we supposedly love. Why is it that even though we say we want love in our lives, we often inadvertently push it away shortly after it shows up in our lives? The simple answer is that on an unconscious level, many of us fear intimacy to some degree.
Although there is not a tremendous amount of research on the subject, there have been some definitive studies. One thing most of us can agree on is that there is no such thing as a perfect childhood. There can’t be. Even the best parent can’t respond to every need of a child. No matter how intense the parents’ intentions, they will frustrate their children, disappoint them, and cause them pain, not to mention that parents are human beings with their own limitations imposed by their parents. They can be immature, self-loathing, depressed, distracted, over-worked, addicted, irritable, angry, suspicious, overly praising, or overly critical. Unfortunately, these limitations impact on their parenting style and from these less than perfect experiences, children grow up with less than perfect images of themselves. As a result, we become adults psychologically equipped to survive in the type of emotional environment we have come from. However, it’s a completely different world we find ourselves in. That’s why when someone falls in love with us, the experience seems so foreign. Our new love is seeing us in a completely new way than we were seen as children and as we were “taught” to see ourselves. Our lover’s positive feelings toward us are alien and unfamiliar.
Firestone & Catlett in Fear of Intimacy explain this phenomenon further, “The average person is unaware that he or she is living out a negative destiny according to his or her past programming, preserving his or her familiar identity, and, in the process, pushing love away. On an unconscious level, many people sense that if they did not push love away, the whole world, as they have experienced it, would be shattered and they would not know who they were.
Although the storybooks tell us we will live happily ever after, the moment we arrive at that point in the relationship, we find ourselves facing one of the most arduous psychological challenges we will ever face, separating our past from our present. Unfortunately, many of us never manage to accomplish this most important mission. In order to have our happy ending, we have to disassemble the very defenses that allowed us to cope, and in many cases survive, our childhood, so that we can now respond appropriately to this new and loving situation. We must now go against our forebodings, misgivings, apprehensions, and anxieties about someone who is nice to us, or resist being critical of someone who loves us. We have to stop ourselves from brushing off their compliments and dismissing their loving words.
It becomes necessary to scrutinize your childhood and, specifically, how you were treated by and the role you played in your family. Ask yourself if these have become part of your identity today? How did you cope when you felt sad or hurt? Are these still ways in which you defend yourself against vulnerability today?
According to Dr. Dan Siegel, neuropsychologist and author of Mindsight, “Adult attachment research shows that it is not what happened to you as a child that matters; it’s how you make sense of what happened to you. If you focus your attention on your own history and in a methodical way, go through your memory systems, your
narrative systems, you actually can liberate yourself from prisons of the past”.
Understanding how your defenses were formed can start the process of challenging them in your current relationship.
After reading the above paragraphs, you will no longer be surprised to learn that the real resistance to intimacy doesn’t necessarily come from the acts of your partner, but may, in fact, come from a lurking enemy within you. In the film As Good As It Gets, Melvin, a 50-something reclusive romance novelist with a bitter and hateful view of the world falls for a waitress named Carol, a cynical, yet spirited single-mother. When Melvin fumbles his first romantic encounter with Carol, the following scene ensues.
(Melvin sits alone, nursing a drink. He’s been talking to the bartender.)
MELVIN: So then, the next thing I know, she’s sitting right next to me, and then, well, it’s not right to go into the details, but I screwed up. I got nervous. I said the wrong thing and if I hadn’t, I could be in bed now with a woman who if you could make her smile you got a life. Instead, I’m here with you, no offense, a moron pushing the last legal drug.
(He sits there, just another Joe on a bar stool with his heart breaking.) In the movie, both main characters (in Academy Award-winning performances from Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt) are defended and self-protective. This true-to-life enactment of two people sabotaging their chances to have a relationship comically exemplifies the all-too unconscious tendency many of us have to resist intimacy. As one moves closer, the other pushes away. As one reaches out, the other strikes back. At different times, each drops their guard, only to put it back up immediately. Over and over again, each character systematically destroys any opportunities to be close.
I’ve just given you the explanation for this irrational behavior. Why we consistently get in our own way of experiencing a fulfilling and significant aspect of our life. If asked, many of us may recognize our own apprehensions and distrust of love; we will usually identify these fears as concern over rejection or the pain of the relationship ending. How many of us, however, acknowledge that our deepest fears arise from just the opposite: being loved by someone we care for, actually maintaining an intimate relationship, or truly experiencing another person’s loving feelings. As a reminder, the positive way a lover sees us often conflicts with the negative ways we view ourselves. We hold on to these negative self-attitudes and are sadly resistant to being seen differently, not allowing the genuineness of being loved by another to affect our, often unconscious, negative image of ourselves.
As we now know, these negative elemental beliefs are based on entrenched feelings learned in childhood of being fundamentally bad, unlovable, or flawed. While these attitudes may be distressing or objectionable, on a deeper level they are familiar, and we are used to them loitering in our subconscious. As adults, we mistakenly assume that these beliefs are fundamental and therefore impossible to correct.
In the majority of situations, we don’t intentionally reject love to preserve a familiar identity. Instead, during times of closeness and intimacy, we create tension in the relationship and push our loved one away. It’s as though we sense that if we accept the love that is offered to us and the positive identity that comes with it, our conception of reality would be shattered, and we would no longer recognize ourselves and the person we identify as “I” would no longer exist.
Although this occurs in the darkness of our subconscious, we become all too aware of the recurring cycles in our relationships. They start out well, but at some point, we seem to do something that starts the downward cycle, and if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually see we are the instigators. It’s not surprising then that while we often react indifferently or adversely to positive approval, recognition and love, we latch on to anything that supports our negative identity. It is easy to believe criticism but it’s difficult to accept praise. We only see what we want to see.
Challenging our negative self-image is anxiety provoking, as it debunks an identity in which we’ve grown comfortable. The source of this fear is hard to pinpoint, as we don’t tend to feel the full anxiety directly. Rather, when someone we love and admire sees us in a positive light, we tend to be distrustful and react with suspicion and paranoia.
(In the final scene of the film :)
CAROL: I’m sorry, Melvin — but whatever this is — is not going to work.
(Melvin takes this hard. It forces him to half-whisper something he hasn’t at all said to himself. Given his history, this is an extraordinary intimacy.)
MELVIN: I’m feeling . . . . I’ve been feeling better.
CAROL: Melvin, even though it may seem that way now, you don’t know me all that well . . . . I’m not the answer for you.
(She starts to turn. He tugs at her arm. She turns back to him.)
MELVIN: Hey, I’ve got a great compliment for you.
CAROL: You know what? I . . .
MELVIN: Just let me talk. (gathers himself with uncertainty) I’m the only one on the face of the earth who realizes that you’re the greatest woman on earth. I’m the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing you do — in every single thought you have . . . in how you are with Spencer (he has reached her) . . . in how you say what you mean and how you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good . . . .
(Carol stands on the precipice of being transported away from the logic, which has been her lifeline.)
MELVIN: I think most people miss that about you and I watch wondering how they can watch you bring them food and clear their dishes and never get that they have just met the greatest woman alive . . . And the fact that I get it makes me feel great . . . about me!
(A real question filled with concern for her:) You got a real good reason to walk out on that?
CAROL: No! It’s certainly not. No — I don’t think so. No.
It is possible to challenge our fundamental forbearance to love. We can confront our negative self-image and face the fear it will arouse. If we persist, we will eventually accept the positive view of ourselves. In the process, we will grow and increase our tolerance for a loving relationship, take a chance on love, and not punish those who care for us. Perhaps the most loving act of all, however, is we will come to accept the love that is directed toward us and which we deserved all along!
Pullout for page one: Why is it that even though we say we want love in our lives, we often inadvertently push it away shortly after it shows up in our lives?
Pull out for page two: As one moves closer, the other pushes away. As one reaches out, the other strikes back. At different times, each drops their guard, only to put it back up immediately.
Dr. Carol Drury graduated from George Washington University with a doctoral degree in Clinical Counseling, and is a Nationally Certified Clinical Counselor. Before opening her private practice in 2005, Dr. Drury worked for the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services for 27 years, first as a Rehabilitation Counselor and then as a Supervisor in the Tri County area. She was in the first class of trained Divorce and Family Mediators in St. Mary’s County. Dr. Drury has been Adjunct Faculty at George Washington University, Bowie State University, and the College of Southern Maryland. In her work as a relationship and sex therapist, Dr. Drury’s goal is to increase her clients ability to experience both satisfying and fulfilling intimate relationships, while maintaining their ability to express their full sexuality throughout the lifespan. She uses the Imago Theory of Relationships, as well as addressing intimacy and sexuality concerns. Although Dr. Drury has been providing life coaching services conjointly with her counseling services, she has recently become a credentialed Nationally Certified Life-Coach. Although she will be providing coaching on a cross-section of personal and professional issues, her primary area of interest is in guiding individuals towards an exciting and rewarding post-work life. Dr. Drury says, “My life has never been more exciting or rewarding then it is today at age 69, and my mission is that everyone over 55 has the opportunity to plan for and create a life they may have only dreamed of. All that’s necessary is the desire for something spectacular and brilliant for themselves and a belief that they deserve it. I’m the one who can help them make it happen. It’s my job to help them create that belief, and then guide and inspire them to their destination.”