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Why Can't Some People Maintain Intimate Relationships?
Copyright 2009 by Richard A. Grossman, Ph.D.    All Rights reserved    E-Mail: ragrossman@voicelessness.com
As I have described in other essays on this site, often the child's unconscious adaptation to a dysfunctional family interferes with his or her adult relationships.  This is certainly true for children who retreat.  Because the real self is safely tucked away, the adult must "invent" a different one that will appear as normal as possible and be able to negotiate the day to day interactions of adult life.  Invented selves, however, have no interest in true intimacy.  Instead, they exist as a kind of interface between the true self and the outside world, carefully monitoring and controlling what is allowed in and out.  As a result, passion and empathy have to be manufactured--while the person may take the time in the early/romantic phase of a relationship to "act" this out, many soon tire of the effort.  Often partners notice the "wooden" nature of their response or their obliviousness.  (A client once told me that her spouse [a software engineer] had sat in another couple's living room reading a book while the hosts were having a rip-roaring fight. She thought he was reading so as not to embarrass the couple. But when she asked him what he thought of the fight, he replied: "What fight?")

It is not unusual for these people to be particularly accomplished. They channel all of their energy toward a particular pursuit, and away from everything else that is happening around them. Computer related jobs are often ideal for these people, as are other tasks that require solitary focus and tremendous dedication to the exclusion of other life needs and demands.  Workaholics often fit this category.

Can people like this be helped?  Yes, but often long-term therapy is required.  People who have built such walls jump at intellectual explanations of their problems, but this, by itself, does not help much.  The relationship with the therapist is critical.  Initially, the therapist is as much an outsider as anyone else and the client unconsciously tries to keep it that way.  The therapist, using all his or her knowledge and skill, must chip away at the client's protective walls and gradually enter the client's hidden world in an empathic, benevolent way.  This is hard work, for the walls are thick and whatever openings the therapist finds are quickly "patched."  Ultimately, however, the therapist proves he or she is non-toxic and allowed inside.   When this happens, the client discovers a shared world with potential for personal growth and intimacy.


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