The Problem with Intimacy

We Crave Connection. That Seriously Freaks Us Out. Here’s How to Handle It.

“We’re not close.” That was the elegantly simple way a distressed mother tearfully described her relationships with her grown children. Although she had an active social life outside her family, she was quite lonely and in a lot of pain about the degree of distance between herself and her children and their families.

She was aware of one part of the equation, but oblivious to the other:

A painful awareness of her need for meaningful connection with her children.
A persistent inability to recognize the alienating effect of her need to judge, control, and manipulate them.

In other words, this lonely mother was not well-equipped to handle the emotional risk involved in reaching out. Her tactics weren’t only designed to try to control her children. Judging, manipulating, and dominating were handy ways to keep herself feeling safe and strong and avoid acknowledging and feeling her own vulnerability and need.

The results were profoundly counterproductive. Her children had learned how to cope by keeping her at a distance, both geographically and emotionally. They had quite effectively figured out how to have an “appropriate” relationship with their mother, including her in family functions on a superficial and short-term basis. They weren’t the least bit interested in getting any closer, and they had simply written her off emotionally.

The story did not have a happy ending — she died without creating the closeness she craved.

No Vulnerability? No Intimacy.

The universal law of relationships is simple and ruthlessly reliable: No vulnerability? No intimacy.

So what kept this lonely mother from pushing a relationship reset button, offering more openness and acceptance, and getting the closeness she craved in return?

“Being deprived of meaningful connections with other people puts our health at higher risk than obesity or alcohol consumption.”— Dr. Jan Anderson

The same thing that keeps us fossilized in old patterns until our relationships go extinct: a) We crave emotional connection, b) that seriously freaks us out, and c) we don’t know how to handle it.

Recently I heard someone chiding themselves for “needing” this connection with others — as if we have a choice in the matter.

Research indicates otherwise. The reality is that we’re more wired for relationships than isolated existences. We thrive with other people. Being deprived of meaningful connections with other people puts our health at higher risk than obesity or alcohol consumption.

As a species, we human beings benefit from and like being together. We’re more like herd animals. That sounds more than slightly pejorative, doesn’t it? A “herd mentality” connotes people who are susceptible to bolting en masse or weak-minded individuals who can’t think for themselves and are easily misled. “Herded like sheep… to the slaughter.”

Cognitive Distortions are Thinking Errors

Our cultural tendency to overemphasize perfectly good character traits like independence and self-sufficiency can create a “cognitive distortion” that we should all be able to take care of ourselves and not need anything from anybody. Too much of a good thing can then devolve into the “thinking error” that instead of herd animals, we’re wired as a species to operate like lone wolves— powerful, enigmatic, surviving only by our wits as we bootstrap our way to success and security.

Cognitive distortions are dangerous little buggers because they’re unhinged just enough from reality that it puts you at risk. In this case, it renders you unable to distinguish the difference between “needing others” and being “needy.” The truth is too much “lone wolf” mentality makes us as vulnerable as herd animals, only in a different way.

Being “needy” is something you can (and probably should) do something about.
“Needing others” is a reality of the human condition. You can’t escape it and you can’t get rid of it. The only way to win in the reality series of needing others? Learn to party with it.

So the solution is… Got Vulnerability? Got Intimacy. Right?

Wrong. I’m afraid it’s a little trickier than that…. There’s actually a place for the lone wolf mentality in the equation. So keep reading.

The human condition has dealt us two powerful and equally opposing forces:

We are driven to feed our “hungry hearts.”
We must put ourselves at some emotional risk to get “fed.”

Somehow we must figure out how to serve two masters — at the same time, in the same moment: How to guard our hearts and how to open our hearts.

The Universal Law of Relationships

So the universal law of relationships appears to work something more like this: Got vulnerability? Got strength? Good chance of intimacy.

So why did the lonely mother keep ramping up the same timeworn tactics and push them even harder? When we’re stuck in relationship quicksand, it’s easy to panic, start struggling, and fall into the trap of an automatic default reaction.

Even though she kept getting the same results. Crazy, right?

Except that it wasn’t crazy at first. The lonely mother’s tactics of judgment, control, and manipulation actually worked… in the beginning. Behavior that gets rewarded gets reinforced. That’s not crazy or stupid. That’s an intelligent adaptation to life circumstances.

“Needing others is a reality of the human condition. You can’t escape it and you can’t get rid of it. The only way to win in the reality series of needing others? Learn to party with it.”— Dr. Jan Anderson

Neuroscience has shown us that our brains are exquisitely programmed to constantly look for patterns in our experiences – so we can process, store, and recall the information as quickly as possible. Our brains are so smart that once a neural pattern is established, just like learning to ride a bike, it moves into our unconscious and now runs on automatic. Voilà – we don’t have to think about it anymore. We can relax, enjoy the ride, and focus on other stuff.

The good news: The pattern gets set quickly and now operates efficiently and automatically, without our having to rethink it every time.

The bad news: The pattern is now operating unconsciously… which means you are no longer in control.

That’s why we compulsively keep coming back to the same tactics until at some point you wake up and realize this isn’t working.

During my too-brief love affair with golf, I was fortunate to have a great golf pro. During one of our private lessons, he commented that there seemed to be three types of golfers: “Some people want their game to get better, but they don’t take lessons. They just keep playing badly and complain about it a lot. Other people take a lesson once a year, wonder why their game doesn’t improve, keep playing badly, and complain about it a lot. Some people take lessons because they really want to play better.”

Plays Well With Others

Learning to “play well with others” really isn’t much different from improving your golf swing, your tennis serve, or a yoga pose. I think of it as an opportunity to disrupt an outdated skill memory with conscious awareness, so it can be modified and stored again in new and empowering ways.

Increasing your emotional intelligence involves the very same processes as other forms of skill memory:

1. Repetitive recall and reactivation of old thinking and behaving.

2. Update the new thought structure/skill memory in new and empowering ways:

Change the perspective
Revise the cognitive distortion
Update the narrative

3. Reinforce the new thought structure/skill memory with deliberate practice in a variety of contexts.

My job is offer an alternative that is attractive, attainable, and appealing:

“What if I could show you a way to be with someone… without losing yourself in the process?”

“What if I could show you a way to confide your needs and air your dissatisfactions without fear of losing your partner’s affection?”

Your job? Decide if you really want to play better.