“Sometimes our most intimate space is in the distance between us.”
This is a statement that came out of my mouth with clients not too long ago as we were starting to look at some of the inherent complications that arise when couples become too tightly fused to each other in their quest to build security, trust, comfort into their intimate attachment. I still encounter with terrifying frequency–as much inside the counselling office as outside in cultural mores and media messaging–that we require partnerships to somehow “complete” us. That the height of romantic entanglement is a state in which “I don’t know where I end and you begin”.
Personally, I used to love that enmeshment state of New Relationship Energy. If I’m being honest with myself, I still do. However, I now *ALSO* recognize it as the breeding ground for some exceptionally, enormously-unrealistic, and potentially destructive beliefs and entitlements around boundaries… and the inevitable boundary violations that occur when one is unconscious of, or inconsistent in defending, effective boundaries around their emotional and psychological well-being. Coincidentally, this statement came about a scant 24 hours before I started reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” for the first time, a book I’ve been intending to read since it came out in 2006 (her second book, “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile since *IT* debuted a year ago).
When the universe starts handing me these kinds of seemingly-disparate nuggets, it’s because it wants me to connect the dots on something. So as I am getting into the Esther Perel reading, and watching the ever-amazing Jada Pinkett-Smith discuss her marriage to actor Will Smith in a two-part installment of her web series, “Red Table Talks” (part one is here, part two is here), I’m coming to realize we’re on the brink of a potentially large shift about how we view and pursue intimacy.
Murray Bowen, the father of Family Systems Theory, discusses at length the value of healthy differentiation of Self when any individual within a system finds ways to create space and autonomy within the system by changing how they participate around new, more effective boundaries. In discussing his scale for differentiating Self, he writes,
“This scale is an effort to classify all levels of human functioning, from lowest possible levels to the highest potential level, on a single dimension… It has nothing to do with emotional health or illness or pathology. There are people low on the scale who keep their lives in equilibrium without…symptoms, and there are some higher on the scale who develop symptoms under severe stress… The scale has no correlation with intelligence or socioeconomic levels… The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others (undifferentiated ego mass). Fusion in the context of a personal or shared relationship with others and it reaches its greatest intensity in the emotional interdependency of marriage.” Murray Bowen, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” New Jersey, 1978, p. 472 [emphasis mine]
This fusion within a relational system takes many forms; looking through an attachment lens, one of the most common dynamics of fusion is the distancer-pursuer dynamic of an anxious-secure or anxious-anxious attachment pair. There is a sense of anxiety when an individual transfers from one system (such as a family of origin) to an intimate relational system. Even if the originating system is busted and dysfunctional, there is a familiarity in certain types of connections that provide comfort and security a la “the Devil we know”. Unsurprisingly, we’ll try to recreate the same sense of closeness and familiarity in our intimate relationships, sometimes employing the same kinds of bonding mechanisms learned in the family of origin. If our bonding attempts are uncomfortable to our partner, the partner withdraws or tries to set up new boundaries around engagement… setting the anxious partner into a spiral that can only be resolved by trying to clutch harder to the separating partner.
The upshot of this “dance of connection” (as per Harriet Lerner’s term for this dynamic) is that modern love seeks to equate intimacy with fusion, the inseparable, potentially insufferable closeness that allows for absolutely no distance between us. There is nothing allowed to be unknown, because in the unknown lies uncertainty, and that is intolerable. We substitute comfort and safety for passion and excitement, then wonder why our relationships over the long term start to feel as provocative and sexy as a pair of worn and comfortable socks. Where has the excitement gone? Where has the playful eroticism that made the early era of the relationship so delicious, gone? How do we get that back??
This is where the Esther Perel reading comes into play. Her contention through “Mating in Captivity” is that in generating these states of fusion, exchanging uncertainty and insecurity for a state of entitlement and absolute entanglement on every level, we destroy the very environment that passion and eroticism require in which to live and flourish:
“The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. In my own work, I see couples who no longer wait for an invitation into their partner’s interiority, but instead demand admittance, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of their loved ones. Intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness–intimacy with an injunction. […]
“Some couples take this one step further, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance… This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces more thoughtful ans authentically interesting inquiry.
“When the impulse to share become obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and the private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” (Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”, New York 2006, p. 43-4)
“Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet, creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.
“I suggest that our inability to tolerate our separateness–and the fundamental insecurity it engenders–is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves…There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself , rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space–physical, emotional, intellectual–that belongs only to me. […]
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.” (p. 36-7)
It’s interesting to watch couples react to the concept of INCREASING the distance between them at a time when their instincts (for at least ONE of them) are screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOO, WE MUST BE EVEN CLOSER THEN EVER BEFORE TO FIX ALL OUR INTIMACY PROBLEMS! I MUST BE ALL UP IN YOUR BUSINESS AND HAVE YOU SHOW ME YOU WANT TO BE ALL UP IN MINE!!!”
And, of course, this never works.
Whether it’s the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal desire to live inside each other’s heads 24/7, or the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal definition of privacy boundaries (which, BTW, are PERFECTLY NORMAL and HEALTHY things to have in *healthy* relationships), or whether we have different expectations for how this eternal fusion actually looks on a day-to-day basis, or one partner breaks down and flees in the night with a desperate cry of, “JUST GIVE ME SOME FUCKING SPACE, WILL YOU??!?”— I really cannot begin to count all the ways in which the insatiable need for fusion as a substitute for legitimate intimacy fails us at each and every turn.
When we smother ourselves, our relationships, our partners out of a fear of the distance, we lose the distinct entities we were when we ignited the energy initially bringing us together. Perel’s stance is that in pursuing security and comfort, we sacrifice passion and eroticism by deny the space required to maintain a degree of mystery and uncertainty. Anxious attachments cannot settle and become secure without eradicating all uncertainties, without seizing the seams and trying to seal all perceived rifts by force of will… until “secure and comfortable” becomes “stabilized… and boring”.
(And before anyone asks, yes, this happens in poly relationships, too; it’s not a question of how MANY partners you have, but what your own attachment style in any of those relationships typically looks like, or how security/anxiety responses get activated.)
So, consider this: smothering a fire with a blanket puts the flames out. On the one hand, that keeps you safe, but on the other hand, you’ve lost a source of heat and light that might have been serving a valuable purpose to those enjoying it. The question is, did you put out the fire because you were afraid it would consume you and everything you love if you didn’t? Could you learn to tolerate the fear if it meant being able to sustainably (non-destructively) enjoy the heat and light that the fire brings? We can have distance, and space, and air, and fire, and heat, and passion… without burning the house down.
But it takes rethinking how we define and pursue intimacy to do it.