What’s blocking Intimacy in your relationship?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Welcome to our four-part series on intimacy! In this series, we will explore four main obstacles we have seen that impede the deeper connections we all want with our life partners.  They are shame, giving up self, projection and introjects. Sounds complicated, but if you look closely, you may see your own relationship patterns here.

Most couples, in our experience, claim that they want an intimate relationship with their partner.  These same couples also report having at least some level of intimacy at the beginning of their relationship. Yet too often, that intimacy does not grow or develop. Even worse – many relationships transition into a polite, distant, functional partnership that is devoid of deep connection.

If all starts well, and both partners have good intentions about building a full and close relationship with one another, what goes wrong? Certainly distance and politeness were not the goal at the beginning of the relationship. In fact, most couples assume that their relationships will continue to grow and become more intimate with time. In our experience working with couples, however, we consistently observe a number of blocks to the intimacy they say they desire.

Here are four primary blocks to that intimacy:

Shame. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is connected to feeling badly about things we believe we have done wrong, which can be healthy for a relationship. Shame on the other hand, is the powerful belief that at the core of our being we are defective… worthless… unloveable. The deepest fear then, is that if anyone (including our partners) really knew us and saw all of us, they would not love and accept us. Therefore, shame causes us to stay hidden to protect us from the pain of that rejection. It keeps us working to create a mask that we believe, and hope others will believe, is acceptable and lovable. Likewise, it keeps us working to hide the rest that we believe has no intrinsic worth or value.

Keeping parts of ourselves hidden means we are hiding from everyone, but most importantly, from our partners. Our fear of being seen for all of who we are keeps us from being vulnerable and sharing our deepest selves. Clearly then, shame makes intimacy in our relationships impossible.

Giving up Self. Too often in relationships, one partner gives up too much of themselves for the other, becoming an “overfunctioner” who takes on more responsibility in the relationship to help their “underfunctioning” partner. At first this is not a problem, and may even be seen as an expression of a loving relationship. In fact, this style of relating may be very natural for the overfunctioner as they were most likely validated in their family for this behavior. Over time, however, the overfunctioner begins to “give up self” to support their partner and perhaps ironically, they gain a stronger sense of self-worth from being a caretaker. Unfortunately though, overfunctioners are so focused on stabilizing their underfunctioning partner that they usually do not even clearly understand their own needs. If they express their needs at all, it is often translated into further overfunctioning, “I would be happy if only you were more present, reliable, had a better job, etc.”

Naturally, as the overfunctioner gives up more of themselves and their needs, the level of intimacy in their relationship decreases. On the surface the relationship is polite, but the politeness masks the reality that there is no real intimacy. Too often, those who overfunction do so out of a belief that their only true value is in caring for others. At the core of overfunctioning is actually intense shame!

The problem of projection. Projection is a part of everyday life that begins in our earliest hours here on Earth. Our parents have dreams about who we could be and needs for who we should be. How often has a parent been heard saying: “she is the good child”, “he will never amount to anything”, “she is the athletic one…”, “he is really smart or stupid, or…”. These projections slowly become part of how we see ourselves.

In addition to others’ projections on us, we also project all kinds of things on others (including our partner and our kids, for starters). If we don’t catch or challenge these projections, they begin to create significant blocks to intimacy. These projections may stem from a part of ourselves that we do not like, such as the person who does not trust their own impulses and then projects trust issues onto their partner. Or we may also project unresolved family of origin material onto our partner. For example, the wife who grew up with a cold, rejecting father may project that onto her husband. She may see him as intentionally cold when he may just be withdrawn because he’s overwhelmed at work. Or it could be the husband whose mother was overly emotional. He then projects emotionality on his wife. This causes him to refrain from talking about anything too deep with his wife for fear of her becoming overly emotional.

The significance of all of this is that for intimacy to develop, we have to be able to understand the way projection forms a picture of our partner that may not be accurate to who they are. We then have to be able to see the way in which these pictures shape how we interact with our partner. For example, if you believe your partner is overly emotional, you will not share anything too important. This will then distance you from her and prevent intimacy. We need the courage to drop our projections (which are our ways to protect ourselves) in order to see our partners more honestly and interact with them more fully. Only then can intimacy begin to develop and deepen.

The problem of introjects. Introjection is the opposite of projection. Introjection explains how we take in projections, usually from our families of origin, and use them as part of our self development. Families project onto us: “you are always the reliable one”, “you are the one who will never amount to anything”, “you are too sensitive”. Eventually, we “introject” the projections so that they become part of us, and we then believe that they really are us! If you have heard throughout your life “you are always the reliable one,” you will feel immense pressure to always get it right. Or consider the intense shame that the adult who introjected “you are too sensitive” feels about expressing honest emotion. Clearly, these introjects significantly impact how we function in future relationships.

All of these issues in fact, form a map for how to be in relationships. Even if we are not feeling happy or connected with our partners, our patterns have been what we have tried to use to keep ourselves safe. This means we’re starting with a handicap when it comes to risking vulnerability and bringing all of our self. Unless we can find a way to understand and talk through these maps with our partner, intimacy will not be able to develop.

Obviously these are all very complicated issues to resolve and work through. Frequently, it is necessary to work with a skilled couples therapist in order to build or rebuild intimacy. If you are interested in learning more about these issues (and others that make intimacy difficult), watch this blog that will explore these issues in more depth, and begin to offer practical advice on how best to rebuild intimacy. In addition, keep an eye out for upcoming couple workshops that will help you develop strategies to increase your intimacy.