Monday, November 4, 2013
Friday, November 1, 2013
Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life: Alan Frank, Patricia T. Clough, Steven Seidman: 9780415626903: Amazon.com: Books
Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life: Editors: Alan Frank, Patricia T. Clough, Steven Seidman:
See my chapter, "Intimacy and Ambivalence" reprinted below.
See my chapter, "Intimacy and Ambivalence" reprinted below.
Intimacy and Ambivalence
Daniel Shaw, LCSW
Have you ever watched a grown-up play peek-a-boo with an infant? Wanting to be hidden, and wanting to be seen and found starts early for humans. It seems that we have been designed so that intimacy must always include both.
In my psychoanalytic psychotherapy practice in New York City, it has always been the case that almost all the single men and women I see, and almost all the divorced or considering being divorced men and women I see, are struggling with intimacy: loving and being loved. Many people present with depression stemming from painful feelings of loneliness, and with frustration and discouragement about being able to create and sustain an intimate relationship that feels passionate and alive, and at the same time safe and dependable. According to Aron (1991), their analysts have similar struggles:
“I believe that people who are drawn to analysis as a profession have particularly strong conflicts regarding their desire to be known by another, that is, conflicts regarding intimacy… Why else would people choose a profession in which they spend their lives listening and looking into the lives of others while they themselves remain relatively silent and hidden?” (Aron, p. 43)
Aron is referring in particular to the kind of intimacy that can develop in a therapeutic relationship, but many other sub-categories of intimacy can also be described. In this chapter, I will focus on the intimacy associated with romantic love and partnership. What is true for many analysts, that the longing and need for intimacy conflicts with a wish to hide, is true for people in general. Most of us, whether we know it or not, are ambivalent about wanting intimacy. The desire to be hidden, to avoid vulnerability for fear of emotional pain, is often dissociated. Many people who believe that they desire and are seeking a lasting intimate partnership, but who experience repeated disappointment and loneliness, find their plight incomprehensible. In a therapeutic context, it becomes possible to recognize the dissociated desire to be hidden and to avoid vulnerability – at which point, inhibiting fears can be examined, understood and worked through. What I see as the therapeutic task in the area of intimacy is not leading patients to achieving a particular type or degree of intimate relating – but rather, helping patients sort out and understand what their real desires are – and what their fears and underlying beliefs about intimacy really are.
In this chapter I will present clinical vignettes of people I have worked with in psychoanalytic psychotherapy who have struggled with intimacy. But one of my intentions in quoting Aron is to be clear that I do not presume to speak from a privileged position as an expert on intimacy, or as a therapist whose personal intimate relationships are so ideal that I use myself as an example. I am speaking from a relational psychoanalytic perspective, and I am speaking also as a fellow human, who has struggled and struggles still with the intimacy of loving and being loved.
We seek intimacy because the alternative, loneliness, is for most people very hard, if not impossible, to bear. Intimacy-seeking is in our blood and bones - the human infant is biologically designed to grow and develop optimally when intimate nurture is provided. One way we know this is that we can draw a bright line from failure to thrive, to its cause: failure to provide adequate nurture (Spitz, 1964). A thriving baby is one who seeks nurture and receives it. But humans are very adaptive creatures, and in the absence of optimal nurture, and in many cases in the presence of very poor and inadequate nurture, humans can still develop and function, sometimes very highly. Optimal nurture provides pleasurable experiences of shared intimacy between infant and caregiver – the warmly held, lovingly touched baby is learning the rudiments of tender intimacy in all the daily routines of infant care. Such early intimacy experiences influence, to one degree or another, the development of each person’s particular capacities for and means of expression of intimacy, as the person grows throughout the life cycle.
Of course, parents are not always calm, devoted, soothing and comforting when providing nurture. They can be agitated, anxious, depressed, dissociative, and many other unpleasant things. – either predominantly, or intermittently - and still provide what we would call nurture: basic care that keeps the baby well enough to grow up. So what can we say with any certainty about intimacy? Given the huge discrepancies in how humans are nurtured that we can observe, it would seem that any conceptualizing we do about intimacy must take into account the myriad, each different as a snowflake ways that romantic intimacy is actually experienced and expressed. From a liberal perspective, in which heteronormativity is not considered a priori and otherness is not pathologized, it follows that there is no one right way to be intimate. There is no set of 7 Steps to achieve healthy, socially acceptable, approved-by-The-American-Psychological- Association intimacy. We think of intimacy generally as a kind of deep closeness, but what that means to any particular person varies infinitely.
The truth of the matter is, we are all making it up as we go along.
The Universality of Ambivalence About Intimacy
Nevertheless, one thing about intimacy that can be said to be virtually universal is the conflict Aron describes in the passage quoted above, between wanting to be known and wanting to stay hidden. For the many people I have worked with for whom loneliness felt unbearable and intimacy seemed unreachable, this conflict was always dissociated at first - that is, desire and longing for intimacy was felt deeply, but the desire to remain hidden and the fear of being exposed was dissociated, split off from conscious awareness. For someone who has dissociated the side of their conflicted feelings about intimacy that wants to hide, failure to achieve lasting intimacy can seem incomprehensible. Of course, the person who longs for intimacy and is repeatedly disappointed would absolutely deny an unconscious wish to avoid it. But again and again, in my clinical experience with frustrated intimacy seekers, I discover that there is a dissociated part of the psyche which anticipates only failure and disappointment if intimacy is attempted. Without recognizing it, they are repeating earlier, developmentally traumatic experiences of lonely despair. When their behavior is explored more deeply, it turns out that they are consistently making choices that have led to failure in the past, while somehow imagining that those choices will, this time, succeed.
This understanding about dissociated conflict has been developed extensively by Bromberg (1993), who put it this way:
“the individual cannot hold conflicting ways of seeing himself…within a single experiential state long enough to feel the subjective pull of opposing affects and discordant self-perceptions as a valid state of mind that is worth taking as an object of self-reflection. The contents of the mind (affects, wishes, beliefs, and so on) are not readily accessible to the reflective capacity of the observing ego; the individual tends to experience his immediate subjective experience as truth and any response to it that contains the existence of data implying an alternative perspective as disconfirming and thereby unthinkable” (p. 163).
Bromberg’s insight about unconscious conflict stems from his study of trauma and dissociation – in particular, the realization that cumulative, relational trauma leads to dissociative mental organizations (Bromberg, 2011). Relational trauma, also referred to as developmental trauma when specifically describing trauma experienced by developing children due to exposure to problematic aspects of the parents, describes the psychological impact on a person who is or has been in an ongoing relationship with a traumatizing other.
Harold’s story gives a particularly striking example of someone who suffered significant developmental trauma and whose conflicts around intimacy were dissociated. Harold is a single gay man about 35 years old who had referred himself to a 12-Step group for sex addiction, and then contacted me for psychotherapy. Harold was brought up by his paranoid schizophrenic mother, whose intense rages and violent physical and verbal assaults he experienced almost daily. When he left home as a teenager, he came out, and since then, Harold has experienced a few short-lived romantic relationships. Otherwise, his extensive sexual activity was with anonymous partners, though since beginning his 12-Step work, he had chosen to eliminate all such encounters. At a point in our third year of working together, Harold had yet to enter into an intimate romantic relationship, and he was expressing feelings of intense loneliness. He admitted to feeling “euphoric recall” for his anonymous, nighttime encounters in Central Park, and I asked him what he especially remembered about those times. His answer surprised me. He said “I experienced the most tender intimacy I have ever known with those men. We kissed and held each other so intensely, passionately – it felt so deeply loving.” I think Harold was surprised by his answer too. How incredibly ironic, he thought, that the most intimate experiences of love he has ever known were with strangers in the park at night, hiding in the bushes. The problem for Harold with relying on these experiences as a fulfilling source of intimacy was that the tenderness was just one part of the experience. There was also the desperation, the insatiability, the danger and the degradation. Yet when Harold tried to develop a relationship with a man in a more conventional way, he invariably felt overwhelmed, confused, obsessed – and ultimately, he would give up in despair.
It is hard for Harold to imagine how he can be truly close to someone and also feel safe, both at the same time. His mother’s insane rage and violence toward him was internalized as a sense of himself as bad, unlovable, disgusting. For a short while, at night in the park, he could free himself of pain, he could feel completely desirable, and deeply connected. He could feel safe – because he and his sex partner knew nothing of each other, and never would. They only knew their intense, compelling desires, and the urgency they both felt about those desires being fulfilled.
As was the case with Harold, people who repeatedly struggle with seeking and not finding intimate connection often have a powerful part of themselves, again mostly dissociated, which feels hopelessly convinced of not being good enough. That underlying belief can be expressed variously, as in:
“there are no good [men] [women] out there” – this would be an attempt to project out the bad feeling within;
or, “I must be wrong to think that I’m a good person – I must actually be horrible, unlovable, undesirable” – depressive, self-loathing feelings;
or, “I need to learn to play the game, I just have to learn the rules, I need someone to tell me what the rules are” – expressing a sense of being on the outside and feeling helpless; and so on.
These explanations are experienced as facts – but they are actually feelings, examples of the hopelessness of depressive thinking. But for those people who suffer from a pervasive but dissociated sense of badness about themselves, and dissociated fears of intimacy, no explanation makes sense. Believing that the bottom line is that they are unlovable is at least a way of having some kind of explanation for their pain. It is easy to understand how someone like Harold, who suffered extreme, cruel abuse at the hands of his mother throughout his developmental years, would internalize a sense of badness. It has been literally beaten into him. He makes great efforts to free himself from this sense of badness, but it clings to him in ways that are not always obvious.
All the harder then, for someone who believes that their upbringing was relatively normal, to understand how or why they carry within them some kind of hidden sense of badness, one that does not conform to their more conscious self-image. The sense of badness about the self, which is experienced as shame, is universal to one degree or another. In depressives, it is blatantly obvious; in others, it is less apparent, and not particularly significant, because it plays a relatively insignificant role in the psyche. But for many, the sense of badness (shame, unlovability) is present but heavily defended against – a situation of dissociated conflict which sets up an internal tension. Especially for people who prefer to think of their upbringing as “normal,” recognizing this sense of badness of the self involves recognizing some of the ways their caregivers may have instilled that sense in them. I’ve never actually met anyone whose family was “normal,” unless normal is meant to describe the average expectable neuroticism in families generally. Families are complicated, and even the most loving parents can inadvertently influence their children to carry feelings of guilt and unworthiness. For people in this situation, it may seem safer to go on defending against this feeling of badness than to confront it directly – for one thing, it allows the sense that everything was fine and normal to remain unchallenged. But working to deny an internalized sense of badness almost always signals that bad aspects of the parents and the family as a whole are also being denied. This leads to a very unstable internal situation, sitting atop a foundation of dissociation. Facing the truth, while painful, can lead to an internal shift that opens the way for therapeutic work that can strengthen and stabilize self-esteem.
Harold’s story opens many questions for me about the nature of intimacy. His experiences in the park at night afforded him a kind of intimacy that may have been the most he could tolerate, the most he felt capable of, the most he believed he could get – perhaps all of the above. The intensity of the sexual excitement was amplified by the dangerous and transgressive nature of the encounters. But coming down from these highs, Harold would feel intense shame, helplessly at the mercy of his addiction. The problem for Harold was not that the intimacy he experienced in these encounters was not real. It was intensely, passionately real for him. The problem was that the intimacy was limited, constricted, without the possibility of developing, deepening, and becoming an integral part of his whole life. After many years of thrilling nights in the park, Harold had exhausted his ability to compensate at night for what was missing by day. Harold’s loneliness grew more acutely painful, not less, as he came to rely more and more on the availability of strangers.
Which feels less safe: loneliness, or intimacy? The answer is, of course, it depends. For the human infant, too much loneliness can actually be fatal. Even a small amount of loneliness can feel unbearable for an infant, something that I probably knew from my own infancy, but had to learn all over again, the hard way, when trying to put my first child to bed or down for a nap. Like many first time parents, we were reluctant to let our baby cry it out when being put down to sleep, so we stayed and stayed and stayed until he fell asleep, hoping he would not not wake up and start screaming the instant we left the room. We learned our lesson three years later with our second child – we let her cry it out for two nights, making brief reassuring visits every 10 or 15 minutes until she was finally able to sleep, and then my daughter never had trouble going right to sleep again. My son is now a teenager, and far from complaining when we aren’t staying with him, he is happy to spend as much time away from our home as he can; and while in our home, he usually prefers to be in his room with the door shut. He has many secrets now, and almost never wants to be touched, let alone cuddle with either my wife or myself. He’s had all the intimacy with his parents he needs for a while, and of course that is as it should be, more or less.
My point is that given the way human development goes, we are generally people for whom too much loneliness is painful, and for whom too much intimacy is often undesirable. We want closeness, and we want distance; we want connectedness, and we want solitude; we want to be taken care of, and we want autonomy. We are a bundle of contradictions when it comes to intimacy. I contend that we attempt to regulate our experience of intimacy based largely on how safe or unsafe we are feeling.
Interpersonal safety has to do with emotional and narcissistic vulnerabilities – how we feel about ourselves. We generally attempt to feel, or hope to or expect, to feel good about ourselves. We bolster ourselves in various ways – accomplishments, possessions, cosmetic enhancement, fashion sense, moral and religious values, community affiliations - these are just a few examples of ways that we elevate and maintain our self-esteem. Good self-esteem – that is, feeling good about oneself - provides a feeling of safety, a sense of security that allows for confident engagement with the social world.
We also defend ourselves in various ways from lowered self-esteem. Defenses against feeling badly about ourselves, against injuries to our narcissism, or self-love, can get very complicated. The counter-dependent defense is a common one. It can be heard in the casual indifference of the lover who says, “You can come over and spend the night if you want,” indicating that she is not the one who needs or wants anything, but she understands that you do. The counter-dependent person arranges for others to do all the desiring in the relationship, while she never seems to need or want anything. This is because the vulnerability involved in intimacy leads us to seek ways of defending, or protecting ourselves from anticipated pain. A counter-dependent stance is one of the ways of defending against vulnerability. For married people, another kind of defense would be having affairs. In a secret affair, a married person can enjoy exciting sexual intimacy that is completely isolated from all the dull, routine aspects of his domestic life, and he can completely avoid the exposure of and the arguments about all his weaknesses, flaws, bad habits and so on – all the minutae that is on display in his marital relationship. The affair is a defense against the bursting of the fantasy bubble that says that intimacy can be easy and uncomplicated, that you are and will always be desirable and potent, and that every fuck can be what novelist Erica Jong (1974) famously called a “zipless fuck” – a kind of hot, earth-shaking sex where there is no mundane tedium about the details of reality, before or after.
How each of us understands what interpersonal safety means to us at any given point of time, how defended or vulnerable we choose to be, will influence the extent to which we are willing or not to be intimate, and will also determine the kind of intimacy we seek. The last posthumously published book by Stephen Mitchell (2003), a seminal thinker in the development of what is now known as relational psychoanalysis, was a deeply thoughtful exploration of intimate romantic relationships. Mitchell noted that loving intimately exposed our vulnerability and dependency, and as such was fraught with emotional danger – the fear of loss, the shame and hurt of rejection. He reasoned that marriage was a way of trying to make love safer, a way of being a winner in the mating game, and not a loser; and a way to insure against loneliness. And then he noted the paradox:
“The great irony inherent in our efforts to make love safer is that those efforts always make it more dangerous. One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling” (p. )
Mitchell’s point, that depending on one partner is never as safe as we would like to believe, has been demonstrated to me again and again in my work with couples. There is dangerous vulnerability in trusting and depending on one, till-death-do-us-part, intimate other – the more we care, the more devastating unexpected loss or betrayal would be.
The following vignettes describe people I have worked with, disguised for the sake of confidentiality, who longed for intimate partnership, and had experienced profound frustration and disappointment in their search. I offer these vignettes to illustrate some of the different ways people become confused and discouraged when safety needs are in conflict with the need for intimacy.
I have seen Laura for about four years, from the beginning of her relationship with Jimi. They are still together, but there has almost never been a session where Laura hasn’t talked about her agonizing dread of learning that Jimi is cheating on her. Laura is 45 years old, very intelligent and intense. Her 17 year old son from a previous bad marriage lives with her and Jimi, who often has with him his two young sons from his previous bad marriage (there was one previous to that as well). Laura and I worked hard together to try to understand why she was so anxious, almost constantly preoccupied with the possibility that Jimi could cheat on her. We combed through her childhood history - a cold rejecting mother, and an angry, distant father; we looked at her previous marriage in great detail. We talked about Jimi extensively, and though he had not been honest in his relationships in the past, he was older now, he had suffered a great deal through his second divorce, and what was odd was that the way Laura described him, it didn’t sound to me like Jimi was cheating, or that he wanted to. And, when she was more calm and less agitated, it didn’t sound to Laura like he was cheating either. So why couldn’t Laura stop being suspicious? I observed that she had an extraordinary ability to interpret the motivation of others, and it seemed that she continually assumed that Jimi was motivated by a desire to be with other women. And yet in her heart of hearts, she believed that he was faithful; when she told me what Jimi would say to her, she conveyed an impression of him as deeply committed, very intelligent, perceptive and sensitive. Those qualities stood in contrast to her description of his intermittent selfishness and thoughtlessness; but Laura confirmed my sense that both aspects of his personality were true.
In time, Laura also became more honest with me about the fights she had with Jimi. It became clear that Laura was often intensely provocative and accusatory, and could fly out of control into violent rages that stopped just short of getting phsyical. Eventually, I had to wonder if Laura’s unrelenting suspicions and fears of being betrayed might be less about Jimi, and more about her own dissociated conflicts around intimacy. Laura had grown up with extremely emotionally volatile parents, and though she felt adored by her father, he could be terrifying when he raged, mostly at her mother, but sometimes at her. She learned to be constantly vigilant for the next outburst, the next attack. Laura had also been molested as a child by the husband of her older sister. She did not tell me about this until well into three years of work together. I wondered if Laura was so traumatized while growing up by witnessing the impact of rage, cruelty and betrayal in her adult role models, that she had come to feel that it would be impossible to be loved without being devastatingly hurt. Laura was very insightful in many ways about her vulnerabilities. But it just seemed impossible for Laura to feel safe in an intimate relationship. The very experience of feeling safe elicited feelings of panic: the terror that the safety might suddenly, unexpectedly be lost.
Once her loneliness and longing for intimacy had led her to find Jimi, the underlying conviction that betrayal was inevitable seems to have driven her to behave in undermining ways. She returned repeatedly to her suspicions and accusations, almost as if to convince him to leave her. The Patsy Cline song with the refrain “hurt me now, get it over” has a pithy way, typical of the Country Western song genre, of getting at this kind of self-fulfilling prophesying. I challenged Laura’s certainty that betrayal was going to be coming from outside of her. I asked her to consider the possibility that her anticipation of future traumatization was actually a return of her dissociated memories of traumatizations - traumatizations that had already happened, long ago (Winnicott, 1974). This is the case with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by flashbacks, seemingly arising for no particular reason, of prior traumas. Also characteristic of this disorder is a constant state of agitated hypervigilance, as though the trauma might reoccur at any minute and could possibly be sidestepped with enough advance anticipation (Herman, 1992).
In her desperation to have a love that could feel safe, Laura was unwittingly generating a continual state of being in danger in her relationship. Her conflict – between a deep longing for intimacy, and an underlying conviction that love and trust must always lead to catastrophic betrayal – was clear. She could even notice that when things were going well between her and Jimi, she would often find a way to start a fight. If Laura truly wished to choose partnership as her primary source of intimacy, she would have to find a way to take the risk of feeling safe and intimate at the same time. How she could construct that experience for herself became the focus of our work.
Raul and Carole
While Laura and Jimi seemed to be unable to resist mutual destructiveness, many couples drift further and further apart by “playing it safe,” avoiding confrontation and conflict. I’ve heard many people say that they just don’t feel attracted to their partner any more. After deeper exploration, it becomes clear that their supposed “indifference” is actually the tip of a colossal iceberg, one made up of deeply suppressed rage, frustration and resentment. Intimacy, it turns out, cannot be sustained if differences, anger and conflicts are persistently avoided. This was brought home to me very dramatically by a couple, Raul and Carole, whom I saw only once.
Raul and Carole’s respective individual therapists both knew me and referred them as a couple to me. I was warned that things were very bad between them; that Raul had decided he was gay, and Carole didn’t believe him. Both still in their 20s, Raul was Cuban-born and an associate in a large New York law firm; Carole had grown up in New York City, in a WASP family that had fallen apart, exposing her to divorce and alcoholism at an early age. After being together four years, and married for two of them, Raul was unable to go on hiding from himself the fact that he was gay, and as much as he loved Carole, he could not go on lying. He was terrified of how his family would react – they were Cuban immigrants whose fervent religious and cultural traditions were extremely antithetical to homosexuality. But most of all he was miserably guilty for hurting Carole. Though he had yet to have a sexual experience with a man, he had no doubt that he was gay, and that his life and Carole’s life would only be further traumatized if he did not face up to it. He wanted Carole to let him go.
Carole had been completely blindsided by Raul, she claimed, and she refused to believe that he was really gay. I found it hard to believe that she had never suspected that Raul might be confused about his sexual orientation; she told me that the sexual passion they shared had removed any uncertainty about that for her. She was enraged, and deeply hurt, but she wanted Raul to either realize he wasn’t gay, or go and have a gay affair, get over it, and come back to her. The thought of losing him was unbearable, and at one point in our session, sensing that she was going to have to give up the fight, she threatened to kill herself. Raul immediately counter-threatened that the moment he heard that she had killed herself, he would kill himself too.
“Alright, now nobody is going to kill themselves, OK?” I shouted over their hysterics. “That’s enough of that nonsense.” They quieted down, somewhat abashed. I continued, somewhat abashed at my outburst myself:
“I am truly sorry. I think what you are going through is tragic. But you each have a chance to come through this – if you can find the courage to end the marriage. Raul, that would mean that you will have to begin life as an out gay man; you only risk hurting yourself and others further by not fully coming to terms with your sexual orientation. You will have to find a way to forgive yourself for hurting Carole. And Carole, you will have to grieve your loss, and eventually be ready to meet another man, and start over. You are both young, and you both have every reason to believe that you can find happiness, but only after you have accepted reality and dealt with it. Which is what you will do, what you must do, because any other alternative is simply ridiculous,” I finished.
The session came to an end. They were my last patients that night, and when I left my office and walked out into the street, there they were, in a tender embrace, a fine light rain falling, holding each other, looking into each other’s eyes with tenderness and deep sorrow.
I heard nothing more of them, until more than a year later when I ran into Carole’s therapist. She told me that Carole and Raul had divorced, amicably; that Carole was happily remarried, and had given birth to a baby boy. Raul had come out, left the law firm and moved to Chicago, where he was pursuing his dream of owning an art gallery and representing new artists. They remained friends, but they were also both focusing on their new relationships, and both were doing well. I was greatly relieved. Raul and Carole had loved each other intimately; but each in their way had chosen safety over reality. For Raul, being heterosexual and married seemed a much safer choice than being who he was, that is, a gay man. Carole imagined that she was safer to ignore any suspicions about Raul’s sexual orientation, and just cling to him as tightly as she could. In the end, their love was best expressed by granting each other the freedom to pursue the enduring romantic intimacy in a partnership that they both wanted – and could not fully realize with each other.
Carole and Raul loved each other very much, it seemed to me, and there was no question that the intimacy between them was intense and real. But their mutual dissociation of Raul’s homosexuality made it impossible for their intimacy to deepen and grow in the context of their marriage.
Lorraine is an example of someone who clung to an unfulfilling, deadened marriage for decades, for the sake of “safety,” unable to mobilize herself in spite of how dangerously destructive the marriage had become. Almost 50, Lorraine and Karl had raised their two boys together, both of whom were doing very well, one in college and the other soon to follow. Lorraine contacted me shortly after Karl announced that he wanted a divorce.
Karl was the man Lorraine fell in love with in college, the first man she had sexual relations with, and a man who never lost his sexual attraction for her, even after the divorce. The problem was that Alan was controlling and demanding, intimidating and belittling. Though Alan was dismissive, belittling and resentful of Lorraine’s career aspirations, she nevertheless went on to become an accomplished author and professor during the years she was married to Alan and raising their two children.
Lorraine grew up in a fairly conservative family, in which her younger and older brothers had been free to join their father in his authoritarian ways, while Lorraine was raised in the old-fashioned way - to be a good assistant homemaker to her mother, and to stand by her man, no matter what. Lorraine’s world turned upside down when not long after the birth of their second child, Lorraine discovered Alan was having an affair – because she discovered she had gotten a sexually transmitted disease from him. Alan confessed, he was contrite, they went to counseling, and eventually Lorraine believed that she had forgiven him. What she only came to realize much later was that from the point of her husband’s affair on, she finally felt she had something she could hold over him. This realization came to Lorraine months after the divorce, but it marked a point for Lorraine where her identification as simply a victim of Alan’s domination became more complex.
Originally living out west, they came east when Alan got a promotion that required him to relocate. Lorraine left her tenured professorship, and the house they had built, to move with her family. It was a huge upheaval, but they managed, the adjustments were made. After two years on the east coast, with their oldest son in college and their younger almost through with High School, Alan made his move, and announced that he wanted a divorce. As devastated as she was, Lorraine was also relieved not to have to go on feeling so unseen by Alan, so careful to try not to anger him, so pressured to submit to him. By the time the divorce was final, almost two years later, she had sold the old house, bought a new one at a good price in an excellent location with a mother-in-law apartment she could rent out, found excellent, helpful contractors for the needed repairs who were willing to work in her price range, had gotten a contract for a second book, had been offered a tenured position at her new job, and was well into some adventurous dating.
Lorraine was someone who tended to forget how capable, strong and intelligent she actually was. Lorraine often missed Alan, often returned in her mind to the possibility that maybe she should have just given in to Alan, maybe it was all her fault. After all, she had been, she realized, passive aggressive in many ways. Maybe her mother was right, she would sometimes think - she should have focused on keeping Alan happy and kept her troubles to herself. She spent months convinced that she couldn’t possibly, at her age, meet anyone who would love her. Her aloneness terrified and paralyzed her. She didn’t want to get out of bed; she dragged herself along, doing what she had to do, but it was all hopeless, all over for her.
In spite of Lorraine’s certainty for some time after the divorce that she would never find someone else, she eventually found Tom, and they began to negotiate the terms of what for both of them was the first important relationship since their respective divorces. Tom was especially appreciative and admiring of Lorraine, which she found deeply gratifying. But as for conflict and disagreement, Lorraine had never in her life managed either satisfactorily. If she wasn’t submitting, either willingly or begrudgingly, clamming up and getting passive aggressive, and/or dissociating to the point of not knowing what she felt, she’d end up feeling out of control and blurting out explosive things she felt horrible for saying. As it turned out, Tom had a stubborn streak, and he sounded, to my ears, rigid and unyielding in many ways. Lorraine was starting to feel déjà vu, the sinking feeling that she was with someone like her ex, to whom she would end up submitting resentfully.
So on several occasions, we play-acted conversations in which she acted the part of Tom, and I played her. She showed me what it was that Tom did or said that made her shut down, we explored why (in short, he could react with disapproval just like her intimidating, judgmental father), and I acted out how I would be if I were Lorraine - or a version of Lorraine that didn’t freeze like a deer in the headlights when she got scared about the possibility of the whole relationship going up in flames.
In time, Lorraine was able to have different kinds of conversations with Tom, even including expressing different forms of anger (irritation, annoyance, resentment, hurt), that began to seem more constructive. Reluctantly, Tom made some changes. But while Tom was more loving in some ways than any man Lorraine had ever been with, she eventually could not ignore the extent to which Tom was still dictating the terms of their relationship, and the extent to which she was going along with him whether she liked it or not. Stubborn, rigid habits of his that she had tried to overlook became more pronounced, and more and more she felt unheard and dismissed by him. She also noticed how she positioned herself to feel that she mattered less than Tom, while another part of her became preoccupied with the things about him that made her feel superior to him. For the first time in her life, she realized how much her family of origin, and her relationship to her ex-husband existed on the binary seesaw (Aron, 2006; Benjamin, 1999) of complementarity, the relational matrix where only two positions are possible – superior, or inferior; up, or down. She realized that from an unconscious conviction of her inferiority and lesser status as a woman, she tried to be what Tom wanted – she tried to be a woman that Tom would want, whether that was actually who she was or not. She noticed at these times that she was far more concerned with what Tom wanted than what she wanted. She saw herself slip into the role of Tom’s object, and lose the sense of herself as subject.
I asked Lorraine if she could become more aware and self-reflective about when and how she was focused on what Tom wanted or on what she wanted. She became a keen observer of her state shifts and the interplay of her different self-orientations – now object, now subject - and struggled to center herself less on Tom’s needs and more on her own thoughts, needs, feelings, wishes. More fully connected to herself, she realized that Tom’s unacknowledged ambivalence about intimacy, and his disavowed need to keep their relationship completely on his terms, was more depriving and required more submission than she could now tolerate at this point in her life, after all she’d been through.
The more Lorraine could allow herself her subjectivity without invalidating herself, the more she was able to bring her feelings out in the open and try to work things out with Tom. At first, this seemed hopeful to Lorraine. Maybe they could be more honest with each other, and negotiate ways of dealing with their conflicts that did not require her submission. But the more connected to herself Lorraine became, the more rigid and shut down Tom became. In the end, she had to ask herself what frightened her so terribly about letting him go? She began to recognize more fully a subjectivity that belonged to her, one that offered freedom that was unattainable as long as she remained subjugated, orientated to herself as the object of others, her subjectivity vacated.
Lorraine tried valiantly, but it became clear that Tom was not willing to be with her if her needs were going to be considered as important as his own. As she described their conversations to me, she certainly sounded like she had been loving, and hopeful that they could resolve their differences. But Tom would have none of it. And so Lorraine was ready to move on. She realized that she had probably stayed with Tom twice as long as she would have, if she had not been so terrified of loneliness. I told her that it seemed like when she was focused on being what Tom would want, she made herself his object. Without being centered in her own subjectivity, being without Tom seemed to mean being unbearably alone, or being “nothing.” Her stronger, more connected sense of herself now as subject seemed to make the prospect of being alone far less terrifying. She even seemed to look forward to having some time to herself, and began to take care of herself and stand up for herself in other areas that she had been neglecting. It no longer seemed safer to Lorraine to submit, to accommodate, to mold herself to what she thought the other would require of her. She had done that throughout her marriage, or tried to, and it hadn’t made her happy, and it hadn’t made her marriage work.
I told Lorraine that I believed that her shift out of the object position to a sense of herself as subject seemed to give her a much better chance of being able to meet someone and build an intimate relationship – because she, the whole Lorraine, would not be afraid to be more fully present.
I have shared these various stories of people I have worked with to illustrate the myriad ways that it is possible to be ambivalent about intimacy. Comedians have long joked about playing hide and go seek when they were a child with their parents, the punch line being that the child hid, and the parent never found. What is true in this old joke is that yes, we want to hide, but we also very much want to be found, we want to be sought. Similarly, we want to be safe, but we want excitement and at least a little danger. Intimacy isn’t easy – not for those who find it readily but are then challenged to sustain it over many years; and not for those who find it exasperatingly impossible to ever get it off the ground.
The point I have wanted to make here is that we humans are naturally ambivalent about intimacy, often in ways that are not conscious. Awareness of this ambivalence, and understanding the sources from which it arises, is an important first step for people who are trying to understand why they feel trapped in repetitive situations, in which their efforts to form a lasting romantic relationship with an intimate other are thwarted. Recognizing the inevitable ambivalence we feel about intimacy is important in sustaining intimacy over time, because we will need to be prepared for the oscillation of closeness and distance that naturally occur in any intimate relationship. We will not be as surprised by ruptures in the relationship, because we will understand that ruptures in intimate relationships are inevitable, and that it is possible to feel lonely with someone you think of as an intimate. People who are good at sustaining long-term intimacy haven’t eliminated fighting, or clung to each other allowing no distance between them. Rather, they are people who have learned how to repair ruptures well; and how to reinitiate closeness when distance has gone on too long.
Recognizing our ambivalence about intimacy is equally important for those whose longings for it go repeatedly unrequited. Such people can use their consciousness of their ambivalence to make choices that differ from those they’ve made previously that have not worked out; they can take risks they might not otherwise take. They can learn to be more present and engaged by centering themselves as subject, rather than throwing themselves away to try to be the right kind of object.
Each of the people I have depicted, Harold, Laura, Raul and Carole, and Lorraine, sought to experience intimacy with a romantic partner. The crisis for each of them that brought them into therapy was that they recognized that the ways they were creating intimacy were not fulfilling. Their intimacy was not growing, and they themselves were not growing. They felt that they were stuck - not growing wiser, happier, more trusting, more free to give and take. They hoped that with an intimate partner they would feel safe, and not lonely. What they came to realize is that they also wanted to feel alive and to feel that they were growing, fulfilling their potentials, moving toward a life that in the end they would feel had been worth living. They, like so many of us, hoped that they could achieve this by securing for themselves an intimate partnership, a home base, from which they could go out to the wider world feeling supported and fulfilled, and to which they could return, to rest, to refuel, to find support and comfort. Each discovered that they had put themselves in positions where those desires could not be realized.
Harold easily found intimacy with strangers, but over time he felt his days were lonely and empty, and that he was not growing. His mother’s hatred had become internalized as self-loathing, and his sexual encounters, which had at first dispelled self-loathing, eventually added to his self-loathing to an unbearable extent.
Laura too had internalized the disapproval and anger of her parents. Her internalized lack of faith in herself took the form of lacking faith in those from whom she sought love. Constantly on the lookout for betrayal, her anxiety and suspicion put Jimi constantly on the defensive, threatening and destabilizing the relationship. Their intimacy could not deepen and grow while they remained in a constant state of upheaval.
Raul thought he could be safe from his shame and fear and the rejection of his family by denying his homosexual desires. Carole thought she could find a safe haven in Raul’s love for her, so she denied all the indications that he might be gay. Their intimacy was real, but it could not support their growth in the context of their marriage.
Lorraine stayed in her unhappy marriage out of fear of the unknown, and was devastated when her husband ended it. Lorraine had been taught that the only way to be safe is to be married. To stay married, you made sure your husband was happy, no matter what you really felt. Divorce gave Lorraine a chance to believe in herself, to free herself from objectification and to understand that intimacy cannot grow between two people when one of them is subjugated.
There are myriad, perfectly valid ways of experiencing intimacy, and the psychoanalyst’s job has nothing to do with determining what particular form of intimacy should be preferred, or which forms are “right” and which are “wrong.” Rather, the analyst’s job, as I see it, is to carefully attend to those repetitive patterns and situations for the patient which have led to frustration, hopelessness, and despair. Many of those I have worked with for whom loneliness felt nearly unbearable were people who had come to know the acute suffering of loneliness throughout a traumatic childhood. For the developing child and adolescent, loneliness becomes traumatic when intimacy is not made safe, or when intimacy is not provided to the point of deprivation.
The potential of psychoanalytic therapy to help those for whom intimacy has become painful is this: by listening carefully, both for what is said, and what is left out of the patient’s narrative, the analyst can eventually help bring into awareness the dissociated conflicts and ambivalence about intimacy that the patient has not recognized. The analyst can help the patient discover and become grounded in her own center of subjectivity, so that the patient may become free of unconscious self-objectification. For this to happen, the analyst too has had to grow, to have become able to understand and negotiate the safety needs of the patient, while at the same time finding ways to keep things opening up and moving forward. This kind of psychological growth - which happens not just for the patient, but for the analyst in each therapeutic relationship - signals that the analytic relationship itself has become safe and intimate at the same time, that healing and greater self-knowledge have resulted. At that point, it has become safe enough to be more fully oneself, which means that it is possible for intimacy - with friends, siblings, parents, children and lovers – to be more fully realized, and more deeply fulfilling.
Aron, L. (1991). The patient’s experience of the analyst’s subjectivity. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 1:29-51.
------------ (2006). A Meeting of Minds: Mutuality in Psychoanalysis. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Benjamin, J. (1999). Afterword. In S. Mitchell & L. Aron (Eds.), Relational psychoanalysis (pp. 201-210). Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Bromberg, P.M. (1993). Shadow and Substance: A Relational Perspective on Clinical Process. Psychoanal. Psychol., 10:147-168.
------------------- (2011). The Shadow of the Tsunami: And the Growth of the Relational Mind. New York: Routledge.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.
Jong, E. (1974). Fear of Flying. New York: Secker and Warburg.
Mitchell, S. (2003). Can Love Last?: The Fate of Romance Over Time. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Spitz, R.A. (1964). The Derailment of Dialogue—Stimulus Overload, Action Cycles, and the completion gradient. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 12:752-775.
Winnicott, D.W. (1974). Fear of Breakdown. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 1:103-107.
Traumatic Narcissism: Systems of Subjugation, in NYC at NIP on January 26, 2014.
Click on the link above for details of this presentation. Daniel Shaw will discuss his recently published book, Truamtic Narcissism, exploring the complex and often difficult to recognize dynamics of relationships in which one person is subjugated, and led to self-subjugate, by the other.
Click on the link above for details of this presentation. Daniel Shaw will discuss his recently published book, Truamtic Narcissism, exploring the complex and often difficult to recognize dynamics of relationships in which one person is subjugated, and led to self-subjugate, by the other.