Partners who desperately want intimacy often push it away. It’s easy to lose direction with them. They demand more openness from their partners but then deflect, attack or give double messages when their partners are more open.
Let’s look at how you might work with a couple named Sue and Joe. Sue expresses ongoing frustration about Joe being shut down and distant. She desperately wants him to be more intimate with her.
They come to see you after a particularly nasty fight. Joe reports how he risked telling Sue about his insecurity at work and his fear that he might be laid off.
Joe: I feel anxious about work. Things aren’t too good with my boss. I am anxious about what might be coming.
He goes on to talk more about feeling insecure and as he begins to be more open and to speak about his experience at work, Sue escalates quickly.
Sue: Work is all you ever think about. When will you ever think of me?
Joe: Why should I bother? You won’t listen to what’s troubling me.
Sue: I’m sick and tired of your whining. Why can’t you pay attention to me instead of being so bloody focused on your work?
Suddenly her needs are front and center. Her issue is more intense than his and she takes over and ignores what he just said. She doesn’t recognize that he is moving towards her emotionally and instead she moves to her past experience and is not present to what is happening now.
You recognize the risk Joe took. You know he doesn’t easily talk about his insecurity. That’s the part he is struggling with – revealing himself when he fears not being enough for her.
You know it is important to:
- Support his brief movement into initiating intimate dialogue.
- Resist the temptation to go faster than the couple can go.
- Confront her process and see if she can recognize how her anxiety gets in the way of her having the intimacy she desires.
You do not want to get caught in the content of their fight!
You can do all of the above without losing direction. You might say:
“Sue, I see how distressed you are. In fact, I think you are so distressed that you missed Joe’s attempt to move towards you. He is being more open with you when he tells you his fears.
When he lets you into his struggles with his boss, he is actually treating you like a trustworthy confidante by telling you some things that are really important to him.
You think he’s talking about work, rather than revealing himself to you. You immediately remember all those times his work took him away from you. Suddenly you are in the past rather than recognizing that right here in the room he is present, he is participating, and he is telling you what matters to him in order to be closer to you.
There seems to be a part of you that wants a more open, loving and intimate relationship with him, and another part that keeps you safe. That part is scared to let him in for many reasons. For those of us who want intimacy, sometimes we have to welcome it first even if it is not in the form we’d like it to be.”
Now you can structure the session to:
- Help Joe come forward to express even more.
- Help Sue be quiet enough to hear him.
- Work more at illuminating the side of her that is keeping him away right now.
Working with Sue’s distancing gives you a way to help her be accountable for the part of her that deflects the intimacy she desires.
Together you can create a language that allows Sue to accept without shame how she protects herself. So when she pushes Joe away again in future sessions you can ask, “Which part of you do you want to bring into the room today… the part of you that wants to stay safe or the part that wants to take risks and allow Joe to move closer to you?”
Then you can encourage Joe to continue taking risks to reveal himself more.
It is very, very easy to lose direction with partners who fear intimacy. These partners are unaware of the internal conflict that leads them to push away the intimacy they desire. Understanding this dynamic more clearly will enable you to steadily maintain your direction!
- Please comment by sharing ways that you have encouraged couples to overcome their tendency to distance themselves from the intimacy they desire.
- You can learn a lot more about intimacy anxiety in The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy training program. One of the hidden treasures of the program is the large collection of recorded calls. In fact, if this topic grabs your attention, you can listen to an archived call titled, “Recognizing Developmental Progress: Inches and Openings” within moments of registering. Sign Up Now and listen to any recordings immediately.
This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.