It’s not easy to form intimate bonds in today’s world—but it is possible.
The graduate students I teach had been studying the dynamics of forming intimate relationships when someone raised the inevitable question: We understand how to recognize healthy, close friendships and why we need them. But what do we do when no one stays in one place long enough to build them?"
The question had a familiar ring. Just that morning a counselee who was about to be transferred to another state by his company expressed his frustration at once more pulling up roots. Neither he nor his wife was sure they would make the effort to put down new ones.
As a psychotherapist and graduate school professor I have become keenly aware of the many individuals in the very prime of life who are missing out on the richness of meaningful relationships. This resistance to forming close bonds with others is perhaps the most emotionally painful struggle of life today.
Why is intimacy so difficult for so many? Our society puts up a number of roadblocks to the kind of deep relationships for which we were created—transience is just one barrier. What can we do to resolve these obstacles to commitment and to experience the benefits of deep relationships?
While exciting in one sense, the increasing mobility of North Americans has contributed to our feelings of loneliness and even isolation. Change means separation from family and friends and the warm feelings of acceptance, predictability, and protection they give us. The losses we experience in times of separation produce anxiety, which in turn evokes anger, guilt, and insecurity.
What more convenient way to protect ourselves from the hurt than to avoid quite as deep and meaningful relationships in new situations? However, the price we and others pay in forgoing intimacy is enormous. Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Are we willing to allow ourselves and others to grow through change, even if it means the pain of another separation?"
Transitions, when we handle them in healthy ways, actually maximize our potential for growth. We cannot escape the fact, however, that growth does invoke the pain of loss. In order to gain new understanding we must give up someone or something.
Yet when we say goodbye to someone, we never fully lose them and all they represent. Rather, they become an integral part of who we are.
What does this mean? Forming an emotional bond with someone means that we "absorb" some of their characteristics—whether feelings, thought patterns, or behaviors. We don't become carbon copies of them; yet being with them changes us. Since this is a mutual process, no two people who bond are ever again quite the same.
Mary began her career as a salesperson in a part of the country where people were very competitive and vocally expressive. Her city friends helped her overcome the shyness she had developed as a child in a rural community. In this competitive environment, though, she became somewhat more aggressive than assertive.
Then Mary was assigned to a midwestern suburb, and she became an intimate part of a small group of friends in the suburban area. She found that she liked their gentler, non-intimidating—but just as effective—way of handling differences. Mary adapted this pattern of relating, too, in a way that suited her personality.
Much of what we incorporate from others is in the more intangible areas of attitudes, values, and affects. As a result we become deeper, more versatile, richer individuals mutually contributing to one another’s growth. Consequently we not only do not truly lose one another, since aspects of our friends stay with us, but we also find that our lives become intertwined in unpredictable ways.
I saw a beautiful example of this when a friend told me about the excitement of the fiftieth anniversary reunion of his 1939 college graduating class. His group of lifelong friends from that class included a college president, a mission executive, an accomplished musician, and a government chaplain.
During their college years they interacted with each other, cared for each other, and committed to each other. Then they went on to new commitments.
Some of their lives, however, had crisscrossed over the fifty years. Whenever they met, the sharing of accomplishments, struggles, joys, and sorrows continued. Often the interchange was vicarious as they responded to news from or about the others. None were the same because of that original three to four years together.
What if they had resisted knowing each other? "After all, it’s such a short time." Or, what if they had insisted on clinging to one another in a common geographical area? How much each would have missed out on and how dull would have been the reunion! Rather, fifty years after graduation, they had much for which to thank each other as well as offer to each other.
A second potential hindrance to intimacy lies in the demands of today’s world. The culprit is busyness. Every productive person knows how self-perpetuating it becomes. As we get involved in new projects, we tend to develop even more interests. The escalation becomes insidious because so much of what we do is not only legitimate but helps others.
We must each ask ourselves, "Am I free to balance my life in order to function healthily in relationships as my Lord decreed? If not, what is binding me? Drive for prestige? Money? Power? Love? Escape?" The answer is not always easy to find since our motivations are complex, the good and bad intricately intertwined.
To control busyness we must decide what our priorities are, then set up boundaries that limit our scope of activity. This is not easy. Well-intentioned friends will coax, cajole, and beseech us to continue on with what we do so well. Putting our intentions in writing and then talking to the Lord about them helps immensely. We need to solidify our determination to have time for family and friends.
Another block to meaningful connections with others is the misconceptions that are propagated today about intimacy.
More than sex. Some equate intimacy with sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The sexual relationship is a vital factor in marriage. However, if we define healthy intimacy as a close, comfortable bond in which each member gives to and receives from the other authentic, in depth sharing without fear of being rejected or misunderstood, we must agree that it also transcends the sexual act and is available to and necessary for both singles and marrieds.
Clinebell, a pastoral counselor, enumerates twelve kinds of intimacy. In addition to sexual intimacy, he lists
Although these aspects become inextricably entwined, every one is not adequately represented in every intimate relationship. The consensus is that if sixty percent of them are met in a relationship, it is indeed a fulfilling one.
Two is not enough. Herein lies another misconception: that two individuals by themselves can meet all of each other’s needs. This fallacy leads to impossible expectations for and demands on a commitment. It becomes stifling and suffocating.
Certainly we need some friends who are more meaningful than others. But in every relationship we also need the freedom to reach out to other people.
No easy intimacy. A further fallacy is that intimate relationships evolve spontaneously and naturally with no special effort on anyone’s part. In reality, relationships take time and hard work. True, we am often attracted to certain people. But even given the right chemistry, we need to periodically examine and evaluate the quality of our kinship. Are we being honest with one another? Are we giving each other freedom that precludes possessiveness and exclusiveness? Are we checking out our perceptions about each other?
These questions can be answered more honestly if we are aware of the ways intimacy was characterized in our families as we grew up. A big barrier to healthy intimacy is the unresolved issues from our past. These issues generally lead to unconscious dynamics that may hinder or mar the experience of closeness with others.
Look for clues that something is blocking or spoiling closeness for you: Do you find yourself repeatedly sabotaging close relationships? Do you find ways to avoid intimacy? Do you run from those who seem to want to share deeply? Do you demand too much from another? Do you give too little of yourself to a significant other? Is your life in constant flux? Do you find yourself inordinately anxious when faced with the possibility of intimacy?
Should you recognize or even suspect problems in the area of intimacy, consider seeing a counselor. He or she could help you remedy an obstacle to intimacy and them by enrich your whole life.
A final roadblock to intimacy could be your own stereotyped ideas of whom you'd want for a friend. The Lord often allows people who do not initially appeal to us to enter our lives. Yet, as we become better acquainted we discover attributes that reinforce or complement us. Sometimes unusual circumstances push us together and we discover the richness of another personality. We need to keep our options open with an accepting attitude, or we may miss out on some of those hidden riches.
Building intimacy in today’s world presents unique challenges. But our Lord has designed us—and people of every age—for the joys and struggles of deep, committed friendships. We may not fully grasp all the ways in which intimate relationships have enabled and enriched us until we am together with Him. How thankful we will be then to have overcome the obstacles to the kind of growth such closeness provides!