Intimate love — 09 May 2004
Why is intimacy so desired and so feared?

Most people yearn for a deep connection of love and acceptance with another person. Those who achieve it are very happy and feel uniquely blessed. Those who have not attained it keep searching and preparing, struggling and attempting to achieve intimacy in their lives. Why then, would such a desirable emotional connection also be associated with great fear and caution?

Intimacy, the experience of full trust, openness and self -disclosure is also the state of great vulnerability and risk. Being able to open up to another person about our innermost insecurities, weaknesses and imperfections requires the highest level of trust imaginable. During that process we are risking disapproval, judgments, criticism and loss of esteem. Psychologically, these risks are tantamount to emotional annihilation.

In intimacy we give up our power and become vulnerable to the trusted person’s capacity to protect us and care for us with tenderness. Since we are so ill equipped to do this for ourselves at that moment, we are extremely sensitive to the ways in which our frailties are handled. One less than ideal response, gesture or reaction may cause us to feel deeply violated.

Trust building in relationships is always evolving. People, like clams in the ocean, open up slowly and gradually after finding the waters to be safe from harm. If the environment appears to have any hazards, the clam closes up his hard shell and waits a long time before opening up again for nourishment. People practice the same cautious method to protect their own soft and vulnerable inner selves.

The harm for the clam may be immediate, the potential of harm to people’s betrayed trust – is a lifetime risk. Having confided in a partner and divulged personal issues, may become unsafe in the future, if the circumstances of the relationship change. Since this is unpredictable, the fear of potential harm at a future time is very strong.

Being liked and respected assures one a better life. Being viewed unfavorably by anyone is most uncomfortable, but being unapproved of by our significant others may be intolerable. Our partners’ opinions of us are crucial to our ongoing self-esteem and well being. “Everyone tells you how wonderful you are”, he said. “But I mostly care about what you think of me and need to hear it from you”, she responded.

Because we look to our partners to provide many of our needs, to make us feel loved, secure and valuable, their perceptions of us matter the most. Wanting to be appreciated on an on-going basis creates doubts and fears. “Do you still love me even though I am sick, tired, unavailable, grouchy or angry?” “Will you still love me when I am old and gray?” “How much have I really mattered to you since the children came along?”

These and many other questions arise in many people’s minds about their desirability and appeal as life together goes on. Since part of our self-esteem is dependent upon our mate’s affirmations, fear creeps in about the stability of their partners’ love and admiration. Any time that our well being is even partially dependent upon another person, insecurities and fears are inevitable.

Familiarity may not breed contempt, but we fear that it may. Your intimate partner knows all your strengths, but is also privy to seeing your less endearing traits. Will he/she be able to accept me as I am and continue to love me steadfastly? The fear is that the more evident your downside is, the more tenuous your relationship may become.

The statistical stability of marriages, being only 50% over one’s lifetime, adds to the fears associated with full and long term trust in intimacy.

To protect ourselves from the pain associated with intimacy lost, most people develop a resistance to this highly desired connection and pleasure. We may defensively tell ourselves that we are not that dependent upon our partners’ approval and love. We may also unintentionally create disharmony to avoid intimacy in order to feel more “autonomous”. We may use sex as a method of reward or punishment. We may withdraw or withhold our love in a power struggle with our mates. We may criticize, argue, control and manipulate our loved ones, all of which sabotage intimacy. That, which seems to protect us from fear, actually disrupts our love.

Here are ways to increase intimacy and reduce some of the associated fears and games.

* Being truly intimate is the highest form of emotional and sexual connection and is so enriching that it regenerates itself.
* Though the fears of potential loss and betrayal may be real, abiding by them only deprives us of true bliss.
* All we have is the present, cherish your precious connection, and give it your all. Real intimacy is an exquisite state well worth our efforts and risks.
* View your partner’s less than positive traits with kindness. Model acceptance. It is more likely to be reciprocated.
* Treat your partner tenderly when he or she is vulnerable.
* Abstain from behaviors that predictably will interfere with intimacy such as criticizing, being sarcastic or minimizing your partner’s pain.
* Hold sacred all the confidences of your partner now and forever. It is a testament to your decent character and loving nature.

May 9, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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