Taking Down the Walls to Intimacy
Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
Sometime during the first episode of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, I fell in love with Mr. Darcy. So much so that my husband began to suffer in comparison. And why not? Darcy is handsome, rich, and unobtainable, not to mention the British accent and dark brooding eyes. But it was his radical transformation from an arrogant snob to a thoughtful, considerate gentleman who fiercely protects his beloved sister that sealed the deal. I was smitten.
It’s easy to idealize the other when we fall in love, and it can feel like now, everything will be perfect. In The Symposium, Socrates explains that “Zeus resolved to cut [people] in half to humble them. He declared that they shall walk upright on two legs, but each forever desiring his other half. . . . Each of us when separated is always looking for his other half.” This metaphor describes the compelling nature of romance, where we see—and fall in love with—unacknowledged or unconscious parts of ourselves in another. By reflecting back to us our ideal selves (generous, sensual, strong) lovers seem to complete us. We all contain seeds of our potential selves within, but it’s hard to develop them fully on our own, without that loving reflection.
People spend lifetimes searching for this lost self, even if the longing is barely conscious.
When relationships are new, we’re intoxicated by the experience of being admired and desired. It’s enlivening, surprising, and immensely gratifying when another person helps you discover unexpected or forgotten qualities: confidence, spontaneity, sexiness, and fun.
But should you expect the same thrill if you’ve been married for 10, 20, or 30 years? As George Bernard Shaw wrote in the play Getting Married, “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”
Romances convey a warped view of love because they show only the highlights, from the infatuation to the happy ending. We’re not seeing the in-between—the reality of loss, hurt, and work. As Le Guin writes, love has to be made and remade all the time. The happy ending is only the beginning. No matter how romantic or meant-to-be a relationship seems, couples must endure lots of challenges to stay together in a maturing relationship.
Being someone’s other half—being responsible for them to feel complete—is a lot for a relationship to hold. We find a person who makes a good screen for our projections and feel profound connectedness, hope, enlivened energy, and a feeling of coming home. But these projections are based on ideals, not reality. Real people who are living together on a daily basis are bound to disappoint the fantasy’s huge expectations. The loss can feel catastrophic if you’re not emotionally pretty healthy. But at the same time, a good marriage is a path to wholeness if we respond well. When we withdraw our projections and stop seeking unrealistic fantasy partners, we begin to see ourselves.
Recapturing the initial breathless excitement of romance is a fantasy too. It’s a little bit sad—but a long-term relationship does not have to be stale. Like bread, relationships will rise and fall, but by working at it, we will continue to nurture ourselves as individuals and as a couple. Committed relationships may not offer intoxication, but they do provide deeper satisfactions. But we have to take those opportunities when they arise.
I recall the poignancy with which a 50-year-old client—recently separated from her husband—told me that she regretted not continuing dance lessons when her husband asked. At the time she quit dancing, she felt old, unattractive, and preoccupied with things that seemed in hindsight, unimportant. She longed to go back in time and rekindle the fun and creativity she had ignored for too long.
The Importance of Vulnerability
In any long-term marriage, successful interactions over time build a sense of trust and allow for safety and dependency. Just as infants mold their bodies to their mothers, couples surrender to each other’s embrace, allowing them to be vulnerable, supported, and cared for. With many repeated experiences, these habits of trust and intimacy become ingrained.
But in committed relationships, we must acknowledge the reality of imperfection. Some interactions fail—the longed-for empathy and understanding is absent, and we get hurt. Failed interactions that get repeated become habitual. These failures of attachment can take all sorts of shapes: repeated criticisms, loss of sexual intimacy, years of feeling blamed or judged, or difficulty working with conflict. And over time, defenses are erected to protect our soft parts. We become distant, angry, and disengaged. When couples eventually seek therapy, the wall separating them is usually very high and very strong.
There is often a moment in therapy when couples realize, if only barely, that they want to save their relationship. They can acknowledge what they bring to the table and how each has a role to play in constructing their particular wall. In that moment of vulnerability, they ask, ”How do we take down a wall that has been standing for so many years?”
A wrecking ball is not the answer. And it can’t be solved by some simplistic listicle of “10 things to build back intimacy.” It has to be done brick by brick. Almost all of us are naturally oriented toward growth, with healthy needs and desires, but it’s hard to see our own defenses. After years of reinforcing rigidity, it takes an empathic and skilled therapist to help foster a new sense of agency and reprocess experiences to make new meanings. Success lies in compartmentalizing those aspects of the relationship that involve empathic failures while savoring and tending those habits of intimacy that allow for deep experiences of trust and safety.
Knowing the Ruts that Comfort and Confine
Thinking of a relationship in terms of intimacy rather than passionate romance can be helpful. Knowing a partner thoroughly and being known ourselves can be deeply joyful.
When we lower walls that were raised over years of earning a living and raising a family, we gain receptivity to surprise. We become more engaged in living in a way that allows for discovery and growth and brings excitement back into our relationship. We don’t blame our partner for our boredom. We open up to their creativity as well as our own. Relying on our partner to be the source of our excitement when we are unable to generate our own is unfair.
While some of the realities of long-term relationships are painful to face, giving up the fantasy of having something better with a new person is fiction. In contrast, knowing that you can capture and remake some of what drew you together, and hold onto your shared history (good or difficult) will bring depth and intimacy. Facing problems and challenges honestly, realistically, and together, even if there is no immediate or easy fix, is more sustaining than fantasy, just as bread is more sustaining—and to grownups, tastes better—than cotton candy.
- Psychotherapy in the Virtual Space: How teletherapy has changed the way we give and get care - April 26, 2021
- (home video area – couples counseling) - November 23, 2011
- (home video area – mindfulness) - November 23, 2011
This is a beautiful article Susan and very meaningful to me. I intend to share it with a 27 year old friend who is getting married this summer. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write it.
Dr. Susan O'Grady says
Thank you, Thelma. In thinking about upcoming Valentine’s Day, I felt I needed to write this as a reminder of the ups and downs, and the value of sticking with it.
I loved your description of the journey of relationships and the succinct summation of the final sentence!
Dr. Susan O'Grady says
Sarah, Relationship is a journey, thank you for your comments.
Ursula K. Le Guin? I didn’t know you read sci-fi. Great post.
Dr. Susan O'Grady says
Yes, Michael. I love some sci-fi, and lots of her other work.