Many people struggle with intimacy. And, though the reasons for this vary, the consequences are always the same: relationship failure and a sense of disconnection. But people can learn to be intimate, just as they can learn any other life skill.
Why People Struggle
People struggle with intimacy for all sorts of reasons. Some are just too selfish or immature. Others will claim that they don’t have it in them – that they are by nature shallow and unemotional. Many find intimacy difficult because of bitter personal experiences. Those who felt unloved in childhood, for example, often feel awkward and uncomfortable when love is offered in later life. Indeed, few sights are more heartbreaking than that of a mother who yearns to bond with her child but feels unnatural, even scared, when she tries.
Others struggle due to the legacy of bullying or abuse. People who suffered in this way, who were over-exposed to the darker, nastier side of human nature, understandably grow up wary and mistrustful. Animals are no different. Anyone who adopts a stray or ill-treated dog will find that it takes months, even years, for him to accept a biscuit or a stroke. People need to learn trust before they can learn intimacy. Instead, the abused get into the habit of avoidance. This then becomes their normal state, a pattern of behavior from which they struggle to escape. Only once they recognize that not everyone is spiteful and cruel can they let others in and establish true intimacy.
Of course, such wariness and avoidance is also common among survivors of bitter and unhappy relationships. Then there is simple shame and self-loathing. Many people know how to be intimate but feel unworthy of it. If you believe you are fundamentally unloveable, you will assume that all relationships will end in rejection.
Dropping the Mask
Most people go through life wearing a mask. Indeed, many wear a series of masks over the course of a day. In a sense this is quite natural, even sensible. After all, a man should not behave with his 9-year-old daughter as he would with his buddies in the local bar. The problems begin when people feel more comfortable living through their masks than they do being their real self. And this is more common than most realize. Everyone knows people who seem somehow artificial, fake or unreal, who constantly adjust their personality to suit the people around them. To put it bluntly, you cannot be intimate with a mask.
The reasons people do so vary. Some believe their real self is unlikeable or unacceptable in some way. Others do so because their sense of self is weak and undeveloped. Such people feel overwhelmed by stronger, more intrusive personalities and will use their mask as a kind of defense.
Unfortunately, the habit can be hard to break. For example, a father, fighting to earn money in a cut-throat profession, may find it difficult to lay aside his ruthless work persona and switch to a kind and loving family man. Nurses and police officers also have to become a little callous and detached if they are to cope with the heartbreak and suffering to which their jobs expose them. Again, it can be hard to set this aside when with family and loved ones.
Men are particularly susceptible to the macho mask. Adolescent boys often pretend to have no feelings and to care about no one. This, they assume, is what it means to be a tough, macho man. Most grow out of it of course – but not always. And it can be pitiful to see a 20 or even 30-something who behaves in this way.
The desperate search for perfection can also be an obstacle. Needless to say, such perfection does not exist. Relationships are difficult, messy, and unpredictable. And that is true of most human relationships, not just romantic ones. Relationships are imperfect because human beings are imperfect.
The problem is that the search for perfection takes people away from real life here and now. Instead, they strain and yearn for something in the future. And many never lose this hope, even when they are actually in a relationship. Indeed, relationship counsellors often conclude that one partner, though he or she may deny it, is still waiting for someone better to come along.
To be intimate, you must ditch these models of perfection (in any case, who wants to be in a relationship with someone perfect? Imagine how dull that would be!). No matter what form the relationship takes, whether between lovers, siblings, or even parent and child, you must give yourself to that person, here and now. And that means dropping the foolish idea that a perfect lover, friend, parent, child etc exists, or ever could exist.
If you are to be truly intimate, you must also avoid fantasy and projection. Many people are not in love with the person standing before them but with a fantasy inside their head. Tired of waiting for their ideal partner to show up, they project the traits they long for onto the one they are with instead. People who do this often grow obsessive and irrational as well. True intimacy involves recognizing your partner’s faults and learning to tolerate, even to laugh at, them. Think of couples who’ve been together a long time. Have you ever noticed how much they laugh together and tease one another? They do so because they have long since dropped any illusions and have learnt to accept one another’s faults.
Be careful not to overestimate your communication skills. Just because you talk a lot and make your partner laugh, that does mean you are a good communicator. Indeed, many relationships fail because one partner feels unable to break through and make themselves understood. And when someone feels that they are not getting through, that the other person, though they nod and smile, does not really understand, it can feel terribly lonely. Gradually, the inner bond frays and snaps, and they then drift away, leaving the relationship to die.
First, it must be repeated that communication is not synonymous with talking a lot. On the contrary, it means listening as well. Anyone can read relationship books and then jabber away about “quality time” or “date nights”. But this is futile unless you shut up and really listen to what your partner has to say. And listening does not mean being quiet and letting your partner speak; it means really focussing on every word and trying to understand how the other person feels. Imagine that their thoughts and feelings are like radio waves you must tune into. People communicate with more than just words. You need to read between the lines, to pick up on body language, tone of voice, sarcasm, and so on.
Finally, establishing intimacy takes courage. For some, it comes naturally. For others, it means a leap in the dark. Those who have been hurt must run the risk of being hurt again. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, even a dog, and your heart will certainly be wrung, and possibly broken.” It also means risking rejection: let someone in and they may decide that they do not like what they find, which can obviously hurt a great deal. True intimacy means exposing yourself; it means placing your real, essential self in another’s hands and having faith that they will do nothing to harm you. Above all, it means being authentic. So drop your mask and your dreams of perfection and engage, honestly and openly, with the people in your life here and now.