Do you find your spouse controlling, but not intimate? Is she too easily angered after sex or avoids it altogether? Does he hold back while devoting all his warmth to the kids? Are you living like room mates, without the sweet softness of devoted lovers?
Welcome to the field of intimacy and its disorders.
While there are many reasons for relationship problems, from chronic depression to chemical dependency, it’s not uncommon for intimacy trouble to have its origins in your personal story. Here’s a three step solution that may be appropriate for someone that you know. I hope so.
One: Understand that injuries of early life can affect intimacy
So, what happens when symbiosis, an essential experience of infant-mother bonding, is missing?
How can this early loss of love affect intimacy later in our adult life?
Nature is adaptive and so are people. When someone is injured, that person will be seeking balance, and they will often make choices to protect themselves from future injury. If you are married or close to someone who holds back, read on.
Two: Understand your individual story (your partner has a story too)
Here is a composite example about a marriage that's undermined by a need to control. Take a look at the protagonist’s psychological injury. Watch how control is really her form of protection. And see that in a strange way, the protagonist actually tries to repair her past along the way.
Jenn is married to Harry. There relationship is stable, but Jenn constantly criticizes Harry. Everything about him seems to set her off. From his hair to his clothes to his mannerisms, nothing seems to please Jenn. Even though Harry is a reliable and nice guy, and the couple has two healthy nine year old twins, Jenn’s simply not content.
Their sex life is almost non existent and everything’s always on Jenn’s terms. Harry never asks much of Jenn, and he takes all the criticism in stride. Obviously Harry has his own issues with passivity, but when he thinks about it, Harry can’t seem to get over how lucky he is to have married someone so beautiful, motivated, and bright.
They both remain in a less than intimate marriage year after year.
The Back Story: As an infant, Jenn’s dad, Jack, walked out on Jenn’s mom. Jenn’s mother spiraled into a depression so severe that Jenn was sent to her paternal grandparents for years. There, she heard stories of Jack from his parents, and her childhood was punctuated with infrequent visits from him. Her grandparents thought the world of their son, and painted a rosy picture of him - charming, bright, and talented.
Jenn’s father and grandfather were both very competitive and prone to boasting, so she was often caught in the middle of their bragging wars, and knew little of her father outside of his narcissitic charm and his parents endearing stories. This left a strong impression on Jenn as a child. Her father seemed godlike - he was free from any mortal flaws, and seemed incredibly capable compared to Jenn’s mother, who was almost unable to take care of herself - let alone Jenn.
In Jenn’s teen years, Jack became a bigger part of her life. Since Jenn thought of her father as the image of perfection, she was more than happy to see him. She had earned the attention of someone who had chosen to leave her mother and her - so if he chose to be in Jenn’s life, it was all the more meaningful. Jenn viewed this as an accomplishment.
Yet Jack still had abandoned her, and this left its mark on Jenn. She did not bond with him or her mother as an infant. Viscerally, she never felt safe and cared for. Her mother was unstable and her father was not there. Among other factors, a damaged symbiotic period had affected Jenn’s ability to achieve intimacy over time. She simply lacked basic trust; and would not allow herself to be too vulnerable.
Jenn had a slew of boyfriends in college but never got close. Sex came naturally; but staying stable and connected over time while having regular sex was more challenging. This is what tended to happen; Jenn kept herself at a protective distance, and called all of the shots. She hooked up with guys who considered Jenn “out of their league.” They were in awe of her in the way she was in awe of her father.
Understandably, when Jenn decided to get married and have children, she chose Harry, someone who she could control. She was in the position to leave, and not be left. With Harry, Jenn had concocted a situation that had little vulnerability.
From the couch
Jenn is living without true adult intimacy. She wants loyalty and control, but not mutual dependency and tender closeness. Jenn was deeply affected by both her mother and father’s behavior, and now she wants to keep things stable. She may not be able to trust, but she can at least control.
Here we see Jenn identifying with her distant and “wonderful” father while projecting her contempt onto Harry, who gets attacked fueled by ancient anger at her mom (and unconsciously, at her dad).
Now, Jenn has the opposite of her life as a child; a family with both parents around, attentive and able to take care of the children. In a way, Jenn is insuring that her children will not experience her own trauma; plus she vicariously repairs the damage done to her, through them. This happens all the time and is one of the perks of parenting.
Yet, Jenn does long for some intimacy — it's such an essential part of the human experience. Motherhood means a lot to many, including Jenn; she holds all the power and it's safe to be close. At this time, intimacy with kids is the best this wounded heroine can do. What she never achieved with her parents, or her romantic partners, Jenn’s able to experience by bonding deeply with her twins.
Three: Don’t let the past dictate the present:
Symbiosis is a gift which helps secure a foundation of trust inside of us. When you experience it well as a child, intimacy comes more naturally. When you have been injured, the field of intimacy can be threatening. Sex can trigger old wounds resulting in anger or withdrawal.
Jenn is thrilled to bond with her two children. They are warm, needy, appreciative and they are not about to leave her.
But here we have a problem.
When these children hit adolescence and start to individuate, Jenn will probably be triggered. She may become overly preoccupied with them, or easily angered. She may unconsciously want them to hang around, because abandonment fears will inevitably spring up.
In my experience, an adolescent may be brought into therapy at this stage. Often, I will end up treating the mother or father; because individuating teens regularly stir up old wounds.
After you become aware that you or your spouse may be affected by early life; and after you have a better understanding that your story is hurting your relationships now, it is time to get objective help.
Sometimes it happens when you realize that you want more out of life. Sometimes it happens when he threatens to leave because the relationship lacks intimacy - and sometimes it happens when the kids leave you anyway, and an old anxieties return.
Jenn is not hopeless, and neither are you or your partner. Look up Harville Hendrix’s Imago therapy, see Jim Hollis’s website and books, or look at Mary Jo Barrett or John Gottman’s work. Help is out there. It can work for Jenn. It can work for you.
The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter (here) and radio show (Divorce Source Radio) is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.