I have been thinking about the generally accepted truth that we all crave intimacy, and that many of us fail to find or maintain it. What is it - this thing that shows up as central in loving relationships, that drives so much of human activity, yet presents so many pitfalls ? And what has any of this to do with therapeutic relationships ?
Core to the experience of intimacy is being seen as my ‘full self’. ‘Known’ as a complete person - ‘warts and all’ as they say. The idea is that this experience of being totally open to another is most common in romantic/sexual relationships - ‘pillow talk’ comprises the sort of things that I only say to my lover or partner - somehow we are more able to be honest with people that we are naked with - both literally and metaphorically - less of us is hidden, so to speak. Yet paradoxically these are also the places where we can suffer the most. When ‘the other’ person becomes important to us, we reveal more of ourselves, and are more vulnerable as a result. Somehow our ‘ok-ness’ starts to increasingly depend upon that other person’s love and acceptance.
And this is where psychological thinking can help. Our primary caregiver – let’s call her ‘mother’ (although of course it can be many different people) - is the first experience we have of being entirely dependent and, ideally, entirely known and loved. Our sense of self as a separate entity is just forming and the response we get from ‘mother’ is critical, setting up internal templates that can last a lifetime. If she is inconsistent, needy, critical or smothering we learn to expect that in relationships and respond in accord with that. Narcissistic or abusive parents enact their own particular demands upon us that can seriously distort our development. But given a more or less ‘good enough’ mothering we gradually achieve a sense of healthy separateness and therefore feel safe enough to reveal ourselves to others.
However, for most of us, intimacy still brings great challenge as, even the best upbringing contains what therapists call ‘conditions of worth’ - the qualities that are valued in us by our significant others. The traits that we notice are approved of, we strengthen, and the parts of our self that are deemed unwelcome or unacceptable get split off into ‘shadow’. The longing to be known by the other simultaneously produces a great fear of being judged. If the other really knew ALL of me would they find me unloveable ? Are parts of me disgusting even ? And the risk in that, is the risk of being pushed away, back out of the intimate connection. So most of us try to conceal aspects of our selves that we suspect are less than attractive. That’s very common with friends and even family - we show our ‘nice’ bits - but when it happens in our closest relationship then we set up a double bind…
It goes like this - I want you to love me completely - but I’m afraid that parts of me are unloveable - so I‘ll hide those parts to avoid losing your love - and then I end up feeling that you love a false version of myself, an unreal me ! A terrible dilemma therefore arises, the thing I long for the most, I render off-limits for fear of losing it. But it gets worse - the only way to reconcile the strain of hiding these parts of myself from others, is to hide them from myself ! That’s why it’s called shadow - the dark parts of myself that I cannot bear to recognise as me, split off into my unconscious. And I begin to function, and feel, as only a part-Self, not completely alive.
This is an aspect of being human - we all contain unbearable bits that we split off - it leaves us incomplete but few of us achieve total completion in one lifetime. And few of us feel so safe with another person that we let them see all of us. So far this is fairly recognisable but if those are the terrible risks of intimacy it begs the question, what are the rewards ?
This is harder to answer yet why would it be a universally expressed human need if it is not healthy or productive ? I suggest that it is the very risk taking that confers the reward. By risking the showing of our self to another we participate in an act of trust. At best the other accepts and loves us for it. We feel emboldened to be more of ourself and this is the growth that occurs in deeply loving relationships. Complete acceptance from our partner (which incidentally doesn't mean that they like every aspect of us, just that they accept us unconditionally) is a rare and beautiful experience, upon which most of the classic love stories are based. It promises a return to our full Self !
However there is no guarantee of the acceptance that we want - our partners are people with their own needs and wounds. They are not responsible for helping us heal. So it can be that the other rejects us somehow and in such situations our vulnerable parts are often put away again. If that is repeated often we end up shrinking rather than growing and living as lesser versions of ourselves in such long-term relationships. The failure of total acceptance, beyond the initial infatuation, is much more common than its realisation. The frequency of marital breakdown, secret lives and affairs are all testimony to the fact that we cannot always express ourselves fully with another.
In therapy we have a different opportunity. Good therapists do not get their own intimate needs met through the relationship with us and so don’t require us to act in ways that are suitable for them. The intimacy is safer precisely because the romantic and sexual needs of both parties are not acted out. The therapist offers the chance to express - and, crucially, therefore to experience - as much of ourselves as we wish. By staying in a close accepting, non-judgemental relationship with us they act as the mirror to our self allowing us to see the distortions that have crept in. Wherever our mothers have failed to accept us unconditionally, shows up in what therapists call the ‘transference’ and the opportunity for reparative experiences occurs. We are able to gradually feel how it is being more of our whole authentic self than ever before. And that feeling is powerfully compelling.
In genuinely non-judgmental therapy we are able to have the repeated experience of being accepted as our whole Self. And that experience begins to go with us out of the therapy room into life where we become more available to, sometimes even demanding of, authentic interaction and relationships with others. Our mothers, fathers, lovers, children, colleagues and friends often benefit from a renewed sincerity and openess.
It isn't easy changing and often produces turbulence with those who have experienced us one way for years and now feel our moving into riskier and more vulnerable ways of being. The notion of stepping into a fuller relationship first with our self and then with the world is undoubtedly daunting. But the rewards of living in this more whole-hearted manner are boundless, and the alternatives really not worth considering…