25 Sep 2018

Intimacy -- do we need close connections?

Even if people realize that intimacy is missing in their life, they blame it on people being selfish, disregarding the fact that the fault lies with them -- an interview with psychologist Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska. 

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Intimacy -- do we need  close connections? - NewsMavens
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The following fragments of Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in January 2018. 

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Can you define closeness?

Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska: It’s a long-lasting, mutual emotional commitment with a positive affectivity. 

AJ: Can we be close only with someone we’ve known for years?

We do experience brief revelations of closeness: we can spend a whole evening, weekend, or even two weeks with someone, getting on like a house on fire. But we wake up the following morning, come back from a business trip or holiday, and realize there’s no room for this relationship in our everyday life. Real closeness -- comprised of care and openness -- hasn’t emerged yet.

Apart from being a pleasant experience, closeness is also highly beneficial; latest studies suggest that deep relationships contribute to our well-being and extend our life expectancy.

AJ: Why, despite all these advantages, are some of us afraid of closeness?

The fear is often unconscious. Some people might avoid closeness because, due to negative memories, they associate every relationship with pain or danger. It’s a common phenomenon among children who experienced psychological or physical abuse from someone seemingly close and trusted. But the fear could also be the result of loss.

AJ: Like a parent’s death?

For example. Children who have endured the death of close family, without any help, support or consolation from others, often associate closeness with abandonment and the loss of safety. In other words: “If I stay away from people, I won’t lose anyone”.

Children can also experience a different kind of emotional neglect, when they’re left to fend for themselves and no one reacts to their fear, shame or humiliation. It doesn’t have to involve a traumatic incident or happen in a pathological environment. The lack of a parents’ warmth and attention is enough for a child to recognize their potentially close connection as empty and artificial.

According to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, people who experienced safety and intimacy in their early years are more likely to build deep and healthy relationships in the future. Positive memories taught them that people close to us are predictable and reliable; they won’t reject them or suddenly disappear. Such confidence allows people to engage in new relationships almost without hesitation. For those who didn’t experience the safety attachment during their childhood, closeness and fear have become entangled, nearly inseparable. They live according to “the closer, the more dangerous” rule. 

AJ: Some people claim to suffocate in relationships.

Such people associate closeness with absorption. They’re afraid that the relationship will deprive them of their freedom. Usually this happens when one of the parents has created a symbiotic relationship with their child, failing to notice the child’s needs, or to accept his or her life perspective.

Closeness, especially in its adult, mature form, respects boundaries between the partners. 

AJ: What happens when a person scared of intimacy enters adult life?

They’re not aware of their fear so they carry on avoiding intimacy unconsciously. Even if at some point they realize that closeness is missing in their life, they blame it on the world being hostile or on people being selfish, and disregard the fact that the fault could be theirs.

Ronald Fairbairn, a psychoanalyst, came up with a new model of psychic structure and created a figure called the “anti-libidinal ego”, the part of our personality responsible for the repression of libidinal desires -- in this case libido doesn’t refer to a sexual lust, but to our longing for human relations and other positive interactions with the outside world. This inner voice, built on our early experiences, activates as soon as we start feeling even the weakest urge to participate in any kind of social engagement, and tells us: “It will never work out”, “You’ll regret this”, “Don’t bother, it’s not worth it”.

AJ: Surely not everyone has this type of ego?

Actually, we all do. Although, it’s a matter of degree. Among people highly afraid of intimacy, the anti-libidinal ego is powerful and it switches on very early, depriving them of every opportunity to create a deep and meaningful connection with others.  

AJ: There’s a common belief that women afraid of closeness tend to get into relationships with married men.

It’s an excessively used interpretation which has turned into a popular psychological trope. But women who choose wedded men are frequently driven not by the fear of intimacy but by their need for rivalry with other females. 

AJ: Can two people scared of intimacy ever build a relationship?

It happens. They can dwell in this type of strange arrangement for years -- they build a house together, have successful careers, sometimes children appear as well. But there’s no closeness between them.  

AJ: Do they enjoy it?

Sometimes they come to me and say: “Something is missing in my relationship”. They feel lonely and empty, but rarely identify the lack of intimacy as a source of their problem. After all, they watch movies together and even enjoy the same genres. They chat from time to time. Yet, somehow it feels incomplete.

AJ: Some people say: “We’re so close we don’t even need to talk anymore”, “I read her like a book”, “I look at him once and I know exactly what he feels”.

If the connection and understanding between the couple is so profound that they don’t need words to correctly recognize and address each other’s needs -- great! But as pessimistic as it may sound, most often such words don’t indicate true closeness and intimacy, but rather boredom and monotony after 20 years of marriage. 

AJ: Let’s say that a person avoiding intimacy knows what their problem is and they want to change.

If they’re aware of their condition and determined to fix it, then it’s a straight shot. If the patient tells me: “I want to be closer to people. I’m not entirely sure how and I know that so far I’ve been doing everything to make it even more difficult for myself and for others, but I want to change”, then they’ve already taken first steps to change.

Intimacy can be learned as long as a person takes full responsibility for their problem.

First of all, the person needs to look around and see if there’s anyone he or she feels like getting close to. They should also identify their preferences, dislikes, fears and a general idea of what their relationship should look like. 

AJ: Can a person with a fear of intimacy count on their partner’s help?

A partner should never take on the role of a psychotherapist. We can’t just show up and say: “Husband! I’ve realized that I’m afraid of getting too intimate with people and I finally understand why. Perhaps you could patiently tolerate my detachment, bitterness and indifference, and also try and work this problem out for me? Please?”. Life is not that easy. Our problem -- our burden -- our responsibility.


Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska -- psychologist, psychotherapist, supervisor at the Polish Psychological Association, and co-founder and director of the Psychoeducational Laboratory in Warsaw.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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