9 minute read
There’s a quotation about love from that renowned philosopher and sage Dr. Seuss. ‘You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.’ Who wouldn’t want that? The problem is that creating and sustaining deep relationships requires more than a wish and a prayer. For many of us, our blocks to deep connection can stop us from experiencing the intimacy that we crave.
Why do we struggle to get out of our own way in this regard? For insight, I turn to Divine Charura, psychotherapist and co-author of the anthology Love And Therapy: In Relationship (Taylor & Francis, £24.99). ‘For thousands of years, playwrights, musicians, actors, poets, religious leaders and others have been trying to get to the bottom of what love is and how romantic relationships work. The trouble is, there is no all-encompassing definition for either. All we can do is give a snippet of what the components are in the here and now.’
We know that true love – the feeling we long for – is intimacy, but what is that? How does Charura define it? ‘I’d say it is about deep connection and openness. It’s about having knowledge of the other person and emotional awareness around their feelings. It’s about having the trust to share things about yourself with your partner that other people may not know. It’s about having a closeness and concern for your partner and their wellbeing.’
When we speak of a ‘healthy’ relationship, what does that look like? ‘When we talk about “healthy”, we refer to a spectrum,’ says Charura. At times, you may be communicating openly, feeling that you’re deeply in love and having good sexual contact. Then, at other times, depending on your life and work circumstances and commitments, such as family, children, work and study, you may realise you’re moving towards the other end of the relationship spectrum. If you find yourself drifting away from intimacy, it’s important to know that it’s not a static end point – you can change where you are. There’s a misconception that once partners have lost intimacy, the relationship is dead and gone. That’s not necessarily true.’
With that in mind, here are the three most common fears that stop us from establishing and maintaining meaningful connections, according to top experts in the field of love and relationships.
1. Fear of being hurt
If we have a problematic relationship history, or there are scars from our childhood, our fear of repeating past pain can cause us to avoid intimate connection, possibly without ever realising what we are doing. ‘Psychoanalysis has an idea called the internal working model – the prototype within us that we get from our primary caregiver and family of origin,’ says Charura. ‘What we learn about relationships comes directly from that, but we’re not stuck with that model – just because the last relationship you had, or even the last 15 relationships, didn’t work out doesn’t mean a new one can’t.’
Watch out for what Charura calls the ‘repetition compulsion’. ‘We all have certain patterns; presenting patterns. So, particularly if you’re single, be aware of your patterns and the frequency of repetition. Yours might be ‘I get bored easily’ or ‘I have a tendency to date unavailable people’. ‘The theory is that we are chasing a pattern that we know in our bones from childhood. Somewhere in our psyche, unconsciously, we have the belief that this time “I will change the outcome and make everything OK”. A person who had a parent who did not give them attention might do this by pursuing a married partner, or people who are unavailable because they are addicted to something – drugs, alcohol, pornography or even work. They do it because they’re hoping, finally, to rectify a painful past.’
Psychosexual therapist Cate Mackenzie explains more about this block to intimacy. ‘Many of us had caregivers who were preoccupied, depressed or withheld affection. Even if you had a great family model, parents disappoint. The still face experiment revealed what happened when a mother didn’t interact with her infant for three minutes and kept her expression blank. The child soon got distressed. For a young person, three minutes is forever.’
Exercise: Revisit your relationship history
Nancy Levin, author of Permission To Put Yourself First (Hay House, £12.99), suggests that in order to change your patterns, you should take a relationship inventory. Make a timeline of every romantic relationship you’ve had since your teens. Identify the particular qualities of each and the specifics of the type of partners you chose.
‘If someone had an impact on you, include them. For each relationship, write about what happened. You may find it cathartic to write freely about it for several minutes but make sure to include each of the following: how you felt in the relationship; how you were treated; the main issues the two of you faced; and how the relationship ended. When you’ve finished, go back and review each entry. Place a star beside the most significant ones. Then ask yourself:
- What choices did I make in this relationship?
- Did I tolerate something that was less than loving to myself?
- Did I sabotage myself or the relationship?
- Did I ask for what I wanted, or did I hide my true feelings?
- Did I give more than I received?
- Did I take more than I gave?
- Did I withhold love or intimacy?
‘If we’re willing to acknowledge the past, it becomes an opportunity for healing and growth. Look at the red flags you ignored. Ask yourself what are you no longer willing to do, tolerate or accept. Creating a brighter romantic future starts with you.’
2. Fear of engulfment
Whether you are in a relationship or have just started dating again, the fear of losing oneself, while understandable, can be a block to authentic connection. Recently, a friend started seeing someone new. It soon became clear that her new beau expected a much deeper level of communication than she was used to. ‘When we met up, he wanted to share how he was feeling about pretty much everything in his life. No matter how I responded during these conversations, I got the distinct feeling that I was somehow not giving enough.’ In the end, my friend took the leap of talking things through with her sister. ‘I was flabbergasted when she observed that he may not want a conversation in return – he might simply want a smile or a hug,’ she told me.
Charura has seen fear of engulfment in his couples practice many times. ‘If someone is avoiding intimacy, when a moment to share emotional connection arises, that person might block it by giving an intellectualised response. A classic example of this arose in couples therapy when one partner finally broke the deadlock and admitted: “I love you so much.” The other person merely nodded and said: “Wow, that’s deeply profound.” What they could have done is throw their arms around the person!’ says Charura.
At the same time, we are all different in terms of how much space and time we need on our own, and with another person. Mackenzie stresses the importance of understanding your own needs in this regard, without judging them in comparison with those of your partner or other people.
Then, she says, the next step is setting your boundaries. ‘This is about knowing yourself and also knowing how to stand your ground,’ she says. ‘The number one reason that we don’t set boundaries is that we simply don’t know what to say. I do a lot of work with clients creating scripts for different scenarios. I get them to put the words into a file on their phone, so they can quickly refer to it if necessary. It really helps because it gives them the language to express themselves.’
And she stresses the paramountcy of taking time for yourself every day. ‘If you’re not doing that, then anyone making demands on you – no matter how much you are longing for them – is going to feel threatening because you haven’t met your own needs. If you’re filled up in terms of your own requirements, you can handle a lot more and you’re more able to say yes or no from a strong foundation. What can feel scary is if you’re giving another person too much power over your wellbeing.’
Exercise: Sex and the five gears of connection
‘Rushing things sexually is actually another way of avoiding intimacy, and it can be the reason why some people opt for one-night stands,’ says Mackenzie. ‘But, for others, they feel disconnected if they go straight to sexual intercourse.’
She recommends American psychologist Barry McCarthy’s five-step model of physical communication. ‘This model raises your awareness that there are stages that you build up to. Go through each of the stages in turn the next time you have a night together. It’s about slowing down and feeling fully met at each stage. Explain the stages to your partner beforehand.’
- First gear: Affection, for example: ‘Hi! How was your day? Mine was rubbish. How are you feeling?’
- Second gear: Sensuality. Cuddling, foot rubs and so on.
- Third gear: Playful touch, bathing and games.
- Fourth gear: Erotic touch.
- Fifth gear: Intercourse.
3. Fear of conflict
‘Time and again, I see people labouring under the mistaken belief that the key to relationship happiness is harmony. If we are trying to keep the peace at any cost, that comes at a high price,’ says Levin, ‘and it’s not true intimacy. Intimacy is a container where my truth and your truth are both welcome. They may have differences but both are welcome. If we’re in a place of desperately trying to avoid conflict, it’s not intimacy, it’s an arrangement. It’s not real and deep.’
So, why is it that many of us fear speaking out in our partnerships? ‘I believe it stems from feeling unworthy of love,’ says Levin. ‘We spend so much energy trying to get love from outside of ourselves. If we are unreconciled with the relationship we have with ourselves, no amount of love is going to make us feel better. We end up giving love in a transactional arrangement where we’re giving in order to get, in a sense to buy love, but it could also be financial security, stability or social status.’
The remedy, she says, is to: ‘Practise connecting to your own wants, needs and desires first instead of looking to anyone else in terms of decision-making or opinions. Start expressing what you want and need; it’s the only way out of the deferring and acquiescing habit. We have an idea that being assertive about what we want is confrontational. All we are saying is: ‘Let me make myself known to you. Here’s what I would like…’
Exercise: Drop the superhero garb
Next time you go out with your partner – or if you are single, with a friend – experiment with simply showing up as yourself, expressing yourself fully, suggests Levin. ‘For many, it is an unnerving prospect, but the energy you will release when you stop pretending will be worth it. Stop wearing the mask and the superhero cape and you will find an extraordinary change.’