Have you ever wondered why people seek intimacy in relationships? What is it about emotional intimacy, anyway? Why is feeling connected with a deeply loved partner so much better than just about anything? As a marriage counselor, I know that partners in an intimate, committed, long-term relationship yearn to know and to be known by each other, and yet for so many couples, such intimacy is elusive. Why is cultivating this kind of connection so hard? Because as much as you want to be connected and close to your partner, intimacy is also profoundly frightening. To understand why, we need to consider our need for intimacy first.
We crave intimacy at all stages of life because our closest relationships can fulfill our deepest developmental needs. Whereas psychologists such as Freud and Erickson once posited that a child’s development occurs via successful resolution of internal forces within the mind, current research in attachment strongly suggests that a child’s development happens—or doesn’t happen (more on that in a moment)—within the child-caregiver relationship. When caregivers provide attuned responses to the child’s emotions and needs, good things happen: The child develops a positive, unified sense of self, healthy self-esteem, and a sense of agency.
The good news is that we all have an inner longing for this development that “pushes” us to seek out intimate partners who we think will help us grow in these ways. Adult couples are drawn together out of a longing to develop in ways that they did not as children because their needs were not met in their child-caregiver relationships. As Solomon and Tatkin (2011) write in Love and War in Intimate Relationships, “People tend to select mates with some similarity to past attachment figures [i.e., parents] in hopes of filling important emotional needs” (p. 8). So, in a new intimate relationship, each partner holds the same unconscious conviction, “Aha, at last! With this person, I hope that I will be able to grow in ways that I haven’t been able to yet.”
Here’s the rub. Even while each partner is holding this hope about the other person, he or she is also fearful of being hurt in old, familiar ways when these needs are not met: “With this person, I am afraid that old emotional wounds—the very same pain I am trying to overcome in this relationship—will happen again.” Each one dreads being hurt in the same ways they were in their child-caregiver relationship and that their deepest longings will once again be thwarted. To make this more concrete, this is precisely why you may be absolutely terrified to do, for example, the following:
- Remain physically present with your spouse while he is extremely angry with you
- Be completely honest with your spouse about that secret you’ve been holding onto
- Initiate sex
- Be open with your partner about your true desires and wishes instead of telling her what you think she would like to hear
- Give a card to your partner or a loved one for a special occasion instead of giving a gift because money’s tight
Conflict about these deep needs and fears in intimate relationships is inevitable because partners unintentionally step on each other’s toes in hurtful ways as they seek to realize their deepest longings. Indeed, the need for this developmental growth can often be tricky business because it hinges upon one partner’s response. When partners consistently “miss” each other and respond in ways that don’t recognize each other’s needs, they will instead act in fear when those old emotional wounds are reopened, and that’s when the conflict ramps up and couples get stuck. Couples counseling can help partners discover the fears and needs that have been long buried under layers of self-protective defenses and help each one finally find the intimacy that they crave.