The real question is: How do we keep love at arm's length, and what can we do to change that? Addressing this two-part question is perhaps the most direct path to greater happiness.
The Harvard Grant Study provides an extraordinary vantage point from which to explore these issues. This study is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies of human development ever undertaken. Although limited in its participant pool (all of its subjects are male Harvard graduates), its findings are stunning in their clarity and simplicity. George Vaillant, director of the study, sums up the results of 75 years of research in two sentences: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
The findings of the Harvard Grant Study continue to guide us on our journey. The study describes the personality characteristic that is most important for finding this happiness. It is “a mature coping style that does not push love away.”
I think it’s safe to assume that we all need some help with that one.
Whether we’re single or coupled, it’s natural to flee the very love we wish to embrace. As I explain in my book, Deeper Dating, all of us have a fear of intimacy. What we do with that fear determines who we become in the world. Fear of intimacy is no more a “flaw” than fear of dying is a flaw. Love is the most valuable thing in the world; hence, the fear of losing it or being hurt by it is completely rational.
Clearly, some of us experience more debilitating fears of intimacy than others. Yet, by pathologizing this universal trait, we avoid the deeper work of intimacy confronting each of us. In the old binary model, either we have “intimacy issues,” or we’re essentially just fine.
It is much more useful to assume that we all have significant gaps in our ability to love. Once we accept this, we can move on to the real work—acknowledging which parts of love scare us most, and exploring the patterns we’ve created to avoid that love. This is the place to start, the core curriculum for any serious “student of intimacy."
How we keep intimacy at arm's length
We can’t correct all the ways we flee intimacy—it would take until the end of time. However, if we find one prime way in which we push love away—and if we then tackle that particular defensive pattern, the chances are great that we will see the love in our life increase and deepen. That choice is a small act of personal greatness—and it is within all of our reaches.
Most of us, if we are really honest with ourselves, have some idea of how we keep deeper love at bay. Here are just a few examples:
- I keep focusing on relationships with people who can’t meet my needs. I often find myself in the position of having to teach friends and girlfriends how to behave appropriately in a relationship.
- I have a few people in my life who are very precious to me, but I never seem to find the opportunity to spend much quality time with them. My life is just too busy.
- I love my daughter—and she’ll be leaving for college next year. But when we have time together, I keep getting annoyed at her for little things. Then, when she goes into her room to talk to her friends, I kick myself for losing another chance for us to get closer.
- I really want a relationship, but when I get home from work, I just make myself dinner and watch TV—and then, as the evening goes on, I spend a few hours watching pornography. I know that’s not going to get me anywhere, but it’s hard to stop.
- I know my drinking gets in the way of my life. I keep trying to stop, but after a few weeks or months, I’m back out with my drinking friends.
Take a moment to reflect on your own patterns. What rings most true for you as a way that you consciously or unconsciously orchestrate a degree of distance in your life?
Not sure? Try this: Think of one or two people who are close to you and are both kind and highly perceptive—and ask them what patterns they see in you. Most friends will be able to tell you instantly and accurately. If you’re in an intimate relationship, your husband, wife, or partner is also sure to have some thoughts on the subject.
One other point: If you have an active addiction, compulsive behavior, or untreated and significant mental health condition, be sure to start right there—as hard as it might be. Without addressing such underlying issues, it will be almost impossible to succeed in deepening intimacy in your life.
When you have found the pattern you want to focus on and commit to addressing it, you’ve earned the right to congratulate yourself. Most people never get that far. Now, let’s briefly explore what to do when you’ve identified your pattern.
The best antidote to fear of intimacy
The single greatest antidote to fear of intimacy is intimacy itself. Through our relationships with people who we value and who are consistently authentic and caring toward us, we can learn the skills to navigate the personal minefields we all have.
Positive self-talk is great, and so are affirmations, but when it comes to changing entrenched intimacy-sabotaging patterns, relationships are where the real work takes place.
In his inspiring book Change or Die, Alan Deutschman identifies three research-backed keys to lasting change. Each relies upon the power of relationships.
1. Relate: You form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope.
2. Repeat: The new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills you need.
3. Reframe: The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life.
Which relationships in your life feel like antidotes to your fear of intimacy? These are the people to lean on and with whom you should schedule as much quality time as possible. You can enlist their help and support in changing the patterns you use to keep love at a distance. You may also choose to get help through a 12-step program, or psychotherapy, or any of a number of other supports.
Lil and Joe, an extraordinary couple I've known for decades, can shed light on how we can move past the fear of intimacy. I’ve always been impressed by how good Lil and Joe are as a couple. As a teenager, Joe was in an accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. Lil went on a date with him a few years later, and they both felt a strong sense of connection. They started as friends, and over the course of a few years, fell in love.
When Joe found a good job, he screwed his courage up and asked Lil to marry him. Lil said yes—and they’ve been together for almost 60 years. Recently, I asked them how they managed to get past the fears they must have confronted in their decision to build a life together. Their answer was transcendent in its simplicity:
“We just kept spending time together because we wanted to. We didn’t think of marriage at first. That would have been way too scary. We just let the closeness build. And at a certain point, we realized that our love had simply become bigger than our fear. After that, it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.”
We do not have to rid ourselves of our fear of intimacy before we can have deeper love. It’s the practice of intimacy that gets us past our fear of intimacy. As Ray Bradbury said, "If we listened to our intellect, we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship… You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down."
© Ken Page, LCSW 2015