When an apprentice called me to tell me his wife was thinking about leaving him, he was mystified about what more she could want from him. He worked hard, supported her so she could be a stay-at-home Mom, he mowed the lawn, and kept the oil changed in the car. He was always busy with tasks and duties to support his family. He was feeling unappreciated, and helpless to get it right for her.
In other writings, I have shared my definition of intimacy as “our willingness to be open and present and share ourselves with others.” I have also described how we lost our connection with our feelings during our childhood domestication, when we were made wrong and punished for them. As adults, to be open and share ourselves with others carries the same fear that it did when we were young. We cannot afford to be present and known as ourselves because of the danger of being rejected, cast out, abandoned, punished, or worse.
So the intimacy we crave is, at the same time, our biggest fear. It is not surprising that many of us have created strategies, mostly during childhood, to protect us from being seen and being known. I offer you here five of the ways people in our culture have learned to avoid intimacy.
When I listened to the story of my apprentice, I noticed that he had many judgments about his wife. He complained about her lack of attention to him because she was always rushing off to help friends, strangers, and causes in need. He told me he wasn't really attracted to her because she wasn't taking care of herself and her body the way she used to. My apprentice had many justifications for being distant from the woman that he was afraid of losing.
In our conversation, my apprentice illustrated two major strategies anyone can use to avoid intimacy with their beloved.
#1: Stay very busy. Always make sure you don't have time to sit, be present, and share with your beloved. She might find out that you are not who you pretend to be. Projects are more important than people. Focus on getting a lot of things done and done well. If you can sacrifice yourself in the process, you can make the other person feel guilty for complaining about your lack of presence.
#2: Judge the other person. Whether it is out loud or silently to yourself, make sure you find and illuminate their faults. This will justify your not wanting to be present with them. It also serves to validate your superiority. When you rise above them, you don't need to be intimate.
It turned out that my apprentice's wife was also illustrating a couple of good strategies for us. She was constantly overwhelmed by taking care of her husband, children, and home, the aging family dog, and her many social and ecological causes. In her rush to get everything done and take care of everyone else, she was not taking good care of herself and her own needs—she said she wanted to, but couldn't find the time. She gives us…
#3: Be a caretaker of others. Caretake to hide. You really want to be intimate, but you are needed elsewhere. When the chores are done, the kids are in bed, all your needy friends have been heard and consoled, the old dog is spoon-fed, and the whales are saved, then you will have time to go for a walk, take a weekend off together, or sit and talk.
#4: Become unattractive. If your partner finds you unattractive, he might not want to relate deeply. Gain some weight, stop using makeup, wear baggy clothes. If you are a man, gain some weight, shave irregularly, and belch regularly.
#5: Anything else you can think of! Do whatever it takes to avoid being seen and known. Drink a bit too much wine at dinner and fall asleep on the couch. Be addicted to TV sports. Work late. Make sure all conversations are intellectual, scientific, or political-- not personal. Remember you need to call a friend, check your e-mail, or finish your novel when your beloved has that "I want to talk" look. Read to the kids and fall asleep on their bed. Be angry, depressed, or stay in La La Land. Tell jokes, gossip, teach or preach-- anything but be real.
There is no need to practice. For many people, these great strategies for avoiding intimacy come naturally. They were learned long ago, and have been mastered through years of practice.
How do you avoid the dangers of intimacy?