I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want an intimate relationship with someone. A relationship in which we can truly be ourselves and feel close.
So why is it that so many people struggle to find this in life?
This is a complex question. But one strand to it is the fear of either being engulfed by our partner or being abandoned. In other words, we can experience our partner as either too loving/controlling/intrusive/demanding or too absent/uninterested/cold.
Our experience as infants can feed into this drama and prime us to see relationships through a particular lens. For example, an infant may experience their primary caregiver (usually mum) as being “too present” and not providing enough space and freedom for the child to explore. This chid may grow up to experience a fear of being smothered or controlled in adult relationships.
However, an infant experiencing their caregiver as sometimes cold or uninterested may be particularly sensitive to what they experience as rejection or abandonment in adult intimate relationships.
“Engulfment fears generally lead to withdrawal in relationships, while abandonment fears lead to clinging,” says therapist John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.
Each partner may at times feel a fear of engulfment or a fear of abandonment, but often each person gravitates towards a particular stance. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness.
“She’s always trying to get me to do things with her, but hates it when I just want to relax watching some sport on the TV,” he says. Or she may comment, “He seems more interested in his job and his friends than in me – I feel like he doesn’t love me.”
The effect of this is that one partner is often pushing for something more, while the other is trying to pull away – which is known as a push-pull effect.
Partners can be stuck in this dynamic for years, without understanding why they can’t seem to get genuinely close. Or people can change partners and then find the same patterns of push-pull in each new relationship.
Part of the way out of this stuck pattern is understanding how our early experiences may have influenced the way we relate to people as adults. If we can feel empathy and compassion for ourselves as a child, who felt either deprived or dominated by parents, we may be able to see our partner more clearly and take his or her behaviour less personally.
We may also find ourselves, gradually, being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner and to let go of judging them. Which is a good foundation for truer intimacy.