Dear Neil: I grew up believing I had to be strong. I had a difficult childhood and grew up really fast. I never received the nurturance I needed, but I often took care of other family members. I believed I was very strong, but now I realize I am very guarded. I survived my childhood and have an adult life I am very grateful for. I have a good education, have traveled the world with my job and I have amazing friends. I no longer need to be guarded to protect myself from abusive parents and a rough neighborhood. I was able to succeed in so many areas of my life, but I continue to remain very guarded, and as a result, I cannot have an intimate relationship. I used to think that this was because there were no good men around, but I am now realizing that it is not them, it’s me. It’s not that there are no men who want to date me, I just don’t let my guard down. I want to change this, but I don’t know how.
Can’t let my guard down in New Jersey
Dear New Jersey: “Distant intimacy” is about being in a relationship with a guarded heart. It allows you to keep your emotional armor in place so you don’t get hurt if things don’t work out. You want this much safety because you’re afraid of being rejected, betrayed, abused, controlled or of losing yourself in a relationship—and you’re afraid of repeating your childhood if you aren’t “strong.” Another way of saying that is that being emotionally aloof makes you feel less vulnerable, and therefore stronger. So you aren’t permitting yourself a deep personal investment with men, which gives you the feeling of safety, but not closeness or connection.
The problem is that “intimacy from a distance” isn’t very satisfying, because there is so much less emotion, intensity, passion, engagement and heart. And there is truth to that old adage that says “nothing risked, nothing gained.” A passionate and engaged intimate relationship requires of us that we risk our hearts, thereby giving someone else the power to hurt, betray or reject us.
So what can you do? Plenty, if you’re willing to take the risk. You could, for instance, look at:
How you avoid emotional contact with men. Do you put off contact, withdraw yourself from connection, keep yourself extremely busy so you don’t have time for someone else, not bother with trying to look attractive and appealing, or do you keep yourself socially insulated so you don’t meet other people? It’s very useful to pay close attention to how you avoid contact with men, so if you want to make some changes you’ll know where to begin.
What would allow you to feel comfortable with giving love? Comfortable with receiving it? With giving and receiving affection? This is a bigger question than you may suspect. It deserves your full in-depth attention.
What would a man that you were romantically interested in need to do in order for you to feel safe enough to express your tender emotions and reveal your vulnerabilities?
How would you make time for an intimate relationship? Where would a man fit into your life and your schedule? How could you free up more time in order to be together with someone?
How skilled are you in dealing with conflicts, disagreements and requests? How well do you handle constructive criticism or critical comments? How defensive are you? How reactive do you get? How respectful are you in a disagreement? What could you do in order to improve in this realm?
In a relationship, how well do you speak up about your wants and needs? What would assist you in being assertive about these without being aggressive or disrespectful?
Look at your abandonment issues: the fears you have about being left, betrayed, rejected or being found not good enough.
Examine your feelings about not feeling worthy of a close love relationship, and your fears that if a man really gets to know you, he won’t want you and will eventually reject you. If deep down you don’t feel you deserve to be loved and spoiled, you are far more likely to choose a man who you think is unworthy of you—and you won’t let yourself get very close to him. Or you will choose a man who can’t or won’t love you. Either choice is serious brain damage.
Where could you go and what could you do to make yourself available to new people socially? And if you do make yourself socially available, don’t be passive. Don’t wait for a man to extend a hand—reach out yourself.
Ask yourself this question: If I were going to make my next relationship work, what would I have to do differently? What would I have to stop doing? How could I take more responsibility for meeting men, and for making a relationship closer, more connected and more intimate?