It’s potent—and it draws its source from a magical experience in time.
Just as great rivers have their sources, so too does intimacy. To sense intimacy’s power and its field, turn your attention to life’s original intimate relationship in early childhood. This is where many answers to the pleasure and the anguish of love can be found.
Adult Love & Infant Love: Love, as adults, is the love of adults—and the love of an infant for his or her mother is just that. However, our early memories are influential. When we fall in love, we dip back into our early memories in order to use them as a vehicle for adult experience. This is important, because each of us has a personal history of being loved (or not) and held (or not); of being cuddled (or not) and supported (or not). Trust, intimacy, vulnerability and all that goes into adult love has its roots in these first moments of parent-child love. We cannot escape our past. Nor should we really want to.
Do you withdraw too easily? Do you anger without warning or put walls up? Do you fear losing? Having a lover means that vulnerability is re-awakened—hopefully for the good.
Does your lover, husband or wife have trouble with closeness, sex or rage? Do they worry too much? Do certain words and situations trigger intense hurt or anger?
Yes, the past is being triggered by the present.
Intimacy is past, present and future all rolled into one experience. So, the pains and pleasures of the past affect those of the present and future. Here, the work of Margaret Mahler can help us. Mahler’s work was the study of our first collective love affair; and by extension, she gave us insight about love in the adult species.
Have you ever really noticed that love and hate are emotions—but you feel them in your body as well?
The felt sensation of love and hate dip into our preverbal memories: All human beings are filled with memories, with most of the important ones lying beneath verbal memory or language, or even imagery. They are memories that are tactile, olfactory and kinesthetic rather than verbal or visual. Feelings of infancy (and intimacy) are emotional, but they are also physical.
Imagine yourself as an infant.
You are tired and someone comes in to settle you down. You are wet and someone changes you; and you feel relief. You are hungry and someone feeds you until you are satiated. Her breast is soft and warm and her milk is delicious. Here we have a positive complex of memories—warm breast/satisfying milk/and available when needed.
You feel full, warm, held and safe.
Now imagine yourself as an infant, troubled and alone.
Imagine a situation with no consistent reassuring breast.
Irritation, anger, withdrawal—fear: these are some of the feelings you may have. And this is what you remember in your deepest memories: a warm breast that’s unavailable/and delicious milk that’s withheld. It’s a negative jumble of memories. You feel alone, worried, hungry and unsafe.
Early memories of safety or non-safety, of being tended to or being abandoned, are deep inside all of us.
Falling in love evokes the trust you originally experienced when young: This is why abandonment theory is so important for all relationships and not just for infants and toddlers. For some, no matter how much you love, abandonment haunts you, because—down in the soul of the self—you may have had an early trauma of abandonment that’s not easily undone.
Here’s the rub and the opportunity: We can get re-traumatized in this field of intimacy, or we can be healed. It is through our later life experiences, whether with lovers, parenting our own children - or through good therapy - that we can dip into those early experiences and actually heal them anew.
This field of intimacy—where past informs the present—empowers intimate relationships with the power for psychic change. It’s nature’s opportunity for healing.
Margaret Mahler described a child’s first nine to eighteen months as a symbiotic period: This is when the child has a porous boundary with her mother.
Note that the newborn’s eyes are fixated at 18 inches, exactly the length between a child nursing on the breast and the eyes of her adoring mother. That forever dwelling of mother’s eyes into child’s eyes, soul to soul, is as special as anything in this world. It’s a complete absorption of the mother in the child.
But imagine the child. She is tiny. The mother is enormous. She is helpless. The mother is providing. She is vulnerable. The mother is all powerful. This is oneness and it’s just delightful. She swims in her mother’s aura, in her mother’s field of intimacy. This symbiosis lives inside us. And, when we fall in love, we have a taste of it. It’s paradise.
Imagine the sexual moment in which both adult partners have a blessed satisfaction. There is more here than just pleasure. They have been unified. And then, afterward, holding each other, spooning, they feel one with each other, almost as if in infancy - but now, in an adult state. It’s this symbiosis that people yearn for and about which they write poetry
So they lov'd as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distinct, divisions none...
The child stands up.
Vertical locomotion is a wondrous experience in the maturation of a toddler: She is no longer dependent on the earth; on her knees and hands. She is no longer destined to see the bottom of doors and drawers and refrigerators. She can now stand up and open the refrigerator, open doors and maneuver through the world with delight.
Her hands are free up to explore – and she’s into everything!
Observe a child who has just learned to walk - between twelve months and eighteen months; she’s exploring the world in what Margaret Mahler calls practicing. The world truly is her oyster and its pure enjoyment.
Even when she falls, ouch! She picks herself up and keeps going. She’s a ball of energy. She doesn’t even cry. Adult life has this parallel experience because of the field of intimacy. Time collapses. When we fall in love, we experience (and re-experience) practicing. It’s as if we’re seeing the world fresh once again.
We run around New York, LA, Dallas, Tokyo, London or the countryside as young people just completely in the pleasure of our power. It’s intoxicating. We experience the pleasure of symbiosis and we also experience the adult pleasure of exploring the world. Movies look different. Nature looks different. Food looks and taste different, all in the presence of our beloved.
Lovers even talk baby language to each other. What an intoxicating mix!
Who wouldn’t want to play and explore? Love makes you feel vulnerable, safe and alive.
Then, Mahler tells us, she matures a bit more and something changes. She realizes that she’s not omnipotent. She may begin to worry—and she needs to “check in.”
Healthy love means healthy worry: When the toddler goes for a walk, she often walks away from her mother. Indeed, Mahler noted in her study, that the first steps that a child takes are usually walking away from mother. If you are a good observer, you’ll notice that for many children, once she reaches a certain point—she gets visibly anxious.
In that glorious developmental moment, the previously omnipotent toddler becomes the frightened toddler; she turns to look for her mother, shows a momentary sign of worry and then….
She runs back to mommy only to be scooped up and hugged.
Now, does she stay there? No.
After checking in, she quickly refuels and leaves.
This scene is repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in the life of a two year old. “Is mommy still going to be there?” is wired inside of us as well. This also is the field of intimacy.
How often do lovers call each other?
“I just want to hear your voice. I need to talk to you.”
The child and the adult draw from the same source. I just want to refuel, are you still there? Do you still love me? Do you still exist? Ah, yes! Of course you do. I remember - and it feels so good.
Development leads forward and we internalize it but, just as “checking in” is part of childhood, “checking in” operates in the parallel universe of adulthood. It is part of the love experience; of the field of intimacy.
If you have a lover who has difficulty with intimacy or you have had an experience in life where you have been abandoned, you may check in too much and drive him crazy.
Or you may check out because you would rather reject him before he rejects you.
These are the risks of love.
The field of intimacy—its opportunities and its dangers: As grownups, we no longer feel so dependent, vulnerable or scared. But if a threatening trigger comes along, good feelings can abruptly turn bad. If you are triggered with a worry about abandonment, you can feel terror and fear. If there’s too much discomfort in the field of intimacy, she may feel compelled to push away by picking a fight—or he may simply withdraw.
And yet, there is nothing like love, despite past hurts, to set you free.
The poet asks a great question: “Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Ninety five percent of my patients say yes—and without hesitation.
The field of intimacy is real. When you fall in love, you are drinking from the waters of early life; of bonding with a parent, of being held—and of hurt and disappointment. All this mixes in with your love of a man or woman.
For those who had a stable and available mother (or father) in the early years, intimacy will pose less danger. You understand it in your gut. You will not be easily triggered by a moment of anger, disappointment or hurt. On the other hand, for those of us who were hurt in early life; challenges will inevitably arise.
The question: Will you get re-traumatized or will you make love work this time?
The field of intimacy is powerful—it pulls people together. And for some—it pushes them apart.
What’s your story?