Do you have a client who pushes away good companions for no real reason? Just when they were getting close, they pull back to the beginning of the relationship refusing to go any deeper. If your client’s behavior is challenged, they react with intense resistance and denial, claiming they are just not in a good enough place yet for a relationship.
Interestingly enough, a person who struggles with intimacy can be married, single, divorced, widowed, have children, have friends, be involved in a church or their community. They can look like the most involved active fun person to be around but in reality it is all a front to keep you at arms’ length.
Erik Erikson’s sixth psychosocial stage of development is Intimacy vs. Isolation which occurs during the ages of eighteen to mid-thirties. During this time period a person usually explores the idea of being intimate with another person but marriage is not necessarily an indicator if they have learned true intimacy.
The Psychology. All of the psychosocial stages naturally build on each other just like steps on a staircase as each positive trait that is reached helps to support the positive outcome of the next. But in the case of this stage, it is strangely essential that all of the other stages have positive outcomes for a person to reach true intimacy.
Some people do not want a positive outcome, preferring to mistrust another person over trusting them. They instead are more satisfied with isolation instead of intimacy. The cost of intimacy in this example would mean they have to trust another person and this cost is too high of a price to pay. So they pull back in any relationship that requires them to trust another person.
True Intimacy. Intimacy and sex are not the same thing. Intimacy is when you can be completely transparent before another person in your thoughts, actions, emotions and beliefs. Even though you may have a fear of rejection, abandonment, shame, guilt, doubt, or insecurity, you are still willing to set the fear aside because intimacy is more valuable than the fear.
Contrary to many beliefs, the ability to give intimacy is not dependent on the other person’s response or character; rather it is dependent on the heart of the person giving it. Sex is designed to be a reflection of that intimacy, a special act that you reserve only for your most intimate partner.
True Isolation. In contrast, isolation is the choice to separate, segregate or seclude oneself from others. Usually this decision is born out of fear from a traumatic experience either they personally encountered or one that they witnessed. The likely result is that the traumatic experience also created a negative result from the corresponding psychosocial stage thus reinforcing the belief that isolation is preferable to intimacy.
For instance a child who is molested during the psychosocial stage of Initiative vs. Guilt feels guilty for the molestation even though they are not responsible for the act. This guilt as an adult tells them they are not worthy of intimate relationships and therefore should prefer isolation because it is the safer option. A person can still get married and have children even when they have chosen isolation over intimacy but the closeness or attachment is never developed.
The Cure. So how can a person who has chosen isolation learn to be intimate? They must want it enough to process whatever trauma they experienced or witnessed and be willing to heal from the past. They cannot do this for another person; rather it must be a choice they make for themselves because they value intimacy over isolation.
Any healthy relationship can serve as a useful model in learning to be intimate with others. Ask your client to interview the healthy couple to discover the benefits of opening up to someone else. The more transparent the couple is willing to be with your client, the better the outcome.
Once the foundation of intimacy has been laid, the healing process can begin and intimacy can be learned. It is quite a relief to live your life with someone for whom you do not have to pretend to be anything but what you. Again, your willingness to be intimate is not dependent on their response, but rather it is a gift that you freely give.