When I was a child, my parents once gave me a book of children’s poems that contained the following lyric:
Mother may I take a swim?
Yes my darling daughter.
Just hang your clothes on a hickory limb
And don’t go near the water!
– From “A Rocket In My Pocket”
To many of us, the struggle for intimacy may seem just as paradoxical. Most of us want to be intimate, to feel emotionally connected with another. At the same time, we want to be independent and self-sufficient. This conflict and tension is at the core of what it means to be human. To emphasize either need too much over the other is to tilt a person into a dehumanizing disequilibrium. If one only seeks a sense of closeness, one loses a sense of oneself as being loveable in one’s own right. If one is totally independent of others, he or she is probably best put behind bars for being a psychopath. I remember a patient who once impregnated the receptionist at the hospital in which I worked and then blew out of town after stealing a friend’s car. He was quite independent.
One of the biggest myths about relationships is that most break-ups occur because partners can’t get close enough or because they can’t communicate. This makes about as much sense as saying that most people die because their brains stop working. The coincidence is accurate, the causality is not. The paradox is that most break-downs in intimacy occur because partners are not sufficiently separate. By “separate’ I do not mean giving each other the cold shoulder or ignoring each other. I am referring to keeping one’s identity separate, valid, valuable, and whole without requiring the other partner to provide the missing pieces. If you feel unlovable and are too ashamed to admit it even to yourself, then you are likely to claw at your partner to restore your sense of worth. You will probably try to obligate your partner as if he or she were a parent, at the same time trying to change that parent. “If you loved me…” is a classic guilting maneuver in this fashion. Such intrusiveness, arising from enmeshed personal identities, is far more responsible for break-ups than mere communication problems. In fact, most communication problems in intimacy derive from enmeshment.
While enmeshment is the most serious threat to intimacy, a total emphasis on independence is stunting. For example, you cannot have a good sexual relationship without losing your boundaries and merging with the other. The French have an expression for orgasm: “la petite morte” which translates as “the little death.” Without the death of ego or self-awareness, sex is much less fulfilling. Also, if there are no occasions when you can lean on the other person, you will miss a lot of the good stuff: the back rubs at night, the shared sorrow that helps reassure that you’re “OK”, and other affirming reminders that you really are worth being cared for by another. Yes, it is important to learn to do it yourself. But it’s also important to be able to choose when to let another do it for you. The key word here is “choice”. Without choice, you will lose the balancing skills required to maintain a healthy intimate relationship.
Balancing is a good metaphor for relationships. Paradoxically, each of us wants to move in opposing directions at the same time. We want to be independent yet we want to merge. We want to rely on ourselves yet we want to be nurtured and affirmed by others. This balancing act needs a lot of skill. Just as the high acrobat must keep his mass in motion to approximate balance, we also must stay in motion by constantly choosing our priorities among opposing needs. If we freeze into rigid roles, our intimacy is lost to the nets below. If we ignore either our need for separateness or our need for dependence, we lurch into dis-equilibrium. And so, we must keep on choosing, never quite settled, never permanently satisfied with the status of things. We can never finally resolve our paradox. But if we accept it and dare to keep choosing, we probably can negotiate the tightrope of intimacy.