Editor’s note: This is from “The Best of Neil Rosenthal.”
Dear Neil: I grew up believing I had to be strong. I never received the nurturing I needed as a child, and I often took care of my family members. I believed I was very strong, and I learned to shield myself so I didn’t get hurt.
As an adult, I no longer need to be guarded to protect myself from abusive parents and a rough neighborhood, but I continue to remain very guarded, and as a result, I cannot succeed in an intimate relationship with a man. 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 (or betrayed, abused or controlled) or of losing yourself in a relationship — and you’re afraid of repeating your childhood if you aren’t “strong.” Being emotionally aloof makes you feel less vulnerable with a man, which gives you the feeling of safety.
The problem is that “intimacy from a distance” isn’t very satisfying, because there is so much less emotion, intensity, passion, engagement, investment, closeness and heart.
Here’s what can you do. You could look into the following:
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? If you want to make some changes, this is where to begin.
What would you need from a man in order to feel comfortable with giving and receiving love, affection, expressing your vulnerabilities and revealing your tender emotions? Look at what you seek from a man that would make you feel safe enough to drop your guard. Then go out and find such a man who can offer you what you seek.
How would you make time for an intimate relationship? Where would a man fit into your life? How could you free up more time and what could you do in order to make yourself available to meeting new men?
How skilled are you in dealing with conflicts, disagreements and requests? How well do you handle constructive criticism? How defensive are you? How reactive do you get? How respectful are you in a disagreement? How well do you speak up about your wants and needs? What could you do in order to improve in this realm, because this is the hard work relationships demand of us. You have got to speak up and say how you feel, and you must do so respectfully.
Look at your abandonment issues, aka the fears you have about being left, betrayed or rejected. 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 will reject you. Do you feel that you don’t deserve to be loved and spoiled?
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 23rd year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website, www.heartrelationships.com. He is the author of the new book “Love, Sex and Staying Warm: Keeping the Flame Alive.”