Why Can’t Some People Maintain Intimate Relationships?
It is always striking when a bright, attractive and otherwise accomplished person cannot maintain an intimate relationship. I have seen many people like this in my practice, and one of the first tasks is to figure out why. Most of the time the person appears in my office as the bewildered half of a distressed couple. Their spouse’s/partner’s complaints are legion: the offending partner doesn’t listen, they’re in their own world, they have little or no interest in sex, they prefer to be alone, they are unable to intuit or understand emotion, etc. The spouse complains that the marriage consists of two people sharing the same living space, splitting chores.
The person’s childhood often provides clues to the problem. Sometimes, people tell terrible stories of abuse and neglect: in these cases one can easily understand why intimacy is avoided. But other times people depict a non-eventful childhood, devoid of conflict or even moments of common unhappiness. When pressed they remember few specific details positive or negative–and this is the rub. When their full story is revealed, it becomes clear the person dulled the abrasive experience of day-to-day family life by paying little attention. In doing so, they successfully pushed people away and retreated to the safety of their own inner world and preoccupations. This unconscious strategy reduced conflict and guaranteed their emotional survival.
Very often, such a person’s parents never entered their world, except in a negative, critical, controlling, or otherwise un-empathic way. Many parents were narcissistic: they were so intent upon maintaining their “voice,” they completely overwhelmed their children’s. As a result, the child retreated to a smaller, safer place where they could maintain agency and find some private satisfaction. Sheltered in this mini-world, the person experienced little shared pleasure and little disappointment.
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.
For a thorough, detailed and thoughtful view of the therapeutic process experienced from the patient side of the room by one of my ex-patients see: The Mathematician and the Teddy Bear—My epic struggle to let someone in by Sara Field.