This is part four of my series on relationship skills for people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma. You can find the rest of this series on my blog.
Samantha and Paul loved each other but managed to argued constantly. They attended sessions regularly to learn new communication skills. They wanted to find new and constructive ways of relating to each other. Yet, in every session, they fought like cats and dogs, snarling and arguing about anything and everything. And nothing.
Each week we would talk and they would eventually get to a place where they were communicating. As soon as they hit that point of intimacy, either Paul or Samantha would bring up some old insignificant issue that would trigger an argument. They were off and running again.
This is common. People do that. They regularly defeat the intimacy they fiercely want. Sometimes this is the result of intimacy pain.
Intimacy is the connectedness of two people who are separate individuals. Intimacy between two people who love each other is a wondrous and exhilarating event. Intimacy is one way of being fully alive. When we connect with other people, we are completely ourselves in the present moment.
If I was physically in front of you, I’d hold my hands out with them parallel to one another. Close but not touching. That’s intimacy. Too far apart, that’s distance and no intimacy. Too far apart, there is nothing happening between the people involved. Too close together, and that’s known as being enmeshed. People become intertwined, entangled with each other and lose their identities.
The goal with intimacy is just close enough to make contact and connection but still hold on to your identity. When you reach that, conversations become satisfying and fulfilling. The relationship will grow. When you cannot, your relationships are stunted and unsatisfying.
At the same time, feeling alive in this way also means you are more fully in touch with yourself. You feel your feelings. You feel love, sometimes ecstasy. But you also feel all your other feelings too Unfortunately, you get the beauty with the unpleasant. The bliss and the agony.
Some, maybe many people carry pain inside themselves. Possibly there was a destructive relationship early in life. Perhaps there was abuse. Some parents have addictions and create all manner of chaotic problems for their children. Then there is bullying. Other people experienced dramatic events that hurt them in their core. I can create a long list for us, but that’s not the purpose of this writing. Not all the horrid things that happen to people are abuse. Some are tragedies. Awful life events happen. Sometimes they happen when we are too young to make sense out of them.
People then grow up with a raw wound in the center of their being. Such that when you connect with another person, one feeling you feel is that hurt place in your core. In this case, intimacy hurts.
Remember when you were a kid and skinned your knee? This is one current metaphor for the pain we carry inside as a result of our personal histories. It exists. It is not our fault. The effect intimacy has upon the pain people carry is similar to the act of putting on your blue jeans over that recently skinned knee. As a kid, you wanted to go out and play anyway, so you got dressed again. And you put up with that icky pain the jeans created in your knee. That icky pain is similar to what I label `intimacy pain’.
Destructive Coping Strategies
Many people confuse these difficulties with abuse. They feel pain and think their partner is deliberately doing something to them. Maybe. Sometimes that does happen. But maybe not. Sometimes just being close to another person hurts and requires some growing. Other people confuse their reactions with flashbacks, a return of their history into the present. Instead, they are unmet needs you have in the present that resulted from your past. A flashback is a reliving of a prior trauma…it is not based in your current life.
Lana thought all her pain was her husband, Ernest, was the cause of all her problems. Every time they were together, she found herself hurting inside. Her solution was to become very abusive herself, attempting to control his every word and action. I was unable to convince her that he wasn’t doing ‘it’ to her. They eventually divorced. Lana tried to become enmeshed with her husband, insisting that he feel and think like she did. That was her solution to intimacy pain.
Samantha and Paul mentioned above created distance for themselves by fighting all the time. That was their solution to pain.
Some people just give up on relationships. They say, simply, It hurts too much! One unconscious coping strategy is to wall yourself off a little. You become difficult to connect with, and your partner often doesn’t understand what is going on with you. You, on the other hand, have no clue as to why he or she is hurt or angry with you!
There are countless creative defenses people use to avoid their own pain. Really, there are as many of these as there are people in the world. These are all avoidance techniques, and avoidance is rarely positive. People start arguments, become distant and unavailable, seek out unavailable partners, lie, cheat and have affairs, take drugs, become workaholics, gamble, focus on their homes, cars, looks, diets, and so on and so on and so on.
The answer to this dilemma is to name it and claim it. The issues of personal responsibility have become fighting words for some people, but this is important here. The pain you carry is your own and it can run your life or not. This is one area of your life, however much it hurts, that requires you to be responsible for your own pain. You cannot achieve intimacy if you don’t.
You are not at fault for this difficulty. But you are responsible for how you deal with it. If you assume that the pain you feel is yours and not the other person’s fault, you can examine it. It’s safe to do this. If you examine your own feelings, you can see the other person more clearly. Then if they are in actuality harming you, it will be much easier for you to see. And you won’t be like Lana, pushing her husband away or controlling all the events and people in her life. Nor will you be like Paul, arguing about anything and nothing.
Here are some things you can do for yourself. They all take time, self-discipline and effort. Look inside yourself and ask yourself questions. Use a journal and write them out or mentally self-examine. You will cry and that will be good for you. Healing cries dissolve the pain.
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing this?
- How is this related to my issues, as I know them?
If loving relationships are important to you, you will have to know that you carry some inner pain that does not belong to your partner. Then you can work on this pain so it doesn’t cause you to defeat the intimacy you seek.
For more information or if you’d like to make an appointment.
Telephone: (615) 464-3791
©2016 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons