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Barriers to Intimacy

The greatest barriers to intimacy are domestic abuse and addiction, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion. Even more commonly, however, intimacy can be defeated by patterns that aren't so obvious. All partners in close relationships tend to start responding in familiar ways to different issues and situations. These patterns can be difficult to see when all the attention is focused on the issue at hand, especially if most important issues are experienced as a crisis. Patterns and habits can have real value, bringing some structure and efficiency to daily interactions. When overused, however, patterns stifle creative responses, block growth, and blind partners to many of the important elements in a situation. Patterns may be inherited from the family in which partners grew up, for instance the struggle for superiority, but many common patterns arise from common dilemmas involved in forming intimate and loving relationships.

A large part of relationship therapy is changing defeating patterns. Although individuals frequently have patterns to which they are most likely to fall into, It takes the unknowing cooperation of two partners to make some unsatisfying patterns work. Awareness of relationship patterns may help us change them, but like all knowledge gained in therapy, awareness of patterns goes for naught if it is reduced to labels and accusations like "You're just a distancer..." or, "You can't commit."

Workaholism, Careerism, Devotion to Achievement The drive for achievement (not the same as the drive to create), is usually a distortion of the search for love. The drive for material success can be a similar distortion. These are usually well understood in individuals. But in couples, an over idealized concept of love leads inevitably to disillusionment, which couples often try to stave off by seeking visible tangible success, which they feel will make them perfectly lovable, and bring them perfect love. Such an alliance can bring people closer, but it cannot bring intimacy. Success in the community and intimacy are not incompatible, however. A solid loving relationship is an excellent foundation for creative, meaningful work.

Dependency and Caretaking (Rescue) Caretaking is where one partner always overfunctions and the other partner is dependent or underfunctions, for instance not being able to maintain employment, care for the kids, deal with other people or finances, live soberly, or feel healthy .The overfunctioning partner believes that if they stopped working so hard, everything would fall to ruin. They are proud of their competence, but also resentful. The busy overfunctioning partner does not usually have to look inside, and when they do they feel empty. Focus on the partner distracts them from their self-concept as unlovable.

Caretaking usually implies an unspoken contract, frequently "I won't expect you to be independent, and in return you must love me." Dependent partners never have to face the difficult work of giving their life meaning and purpose. Inevitably they resent the caretaker. Caring is essential if any relationship to last or be meaningful. Like caretaking caring includes giving but giving from a sense of abundance and it has no strings attached. It can only come from one who doesn't neglect or avoid their own needs. Sacrifice can have  a role in relationships but it only applies when one is giving up for a time self caring that has actually been attained. Like many of the other barriers to intimacy, this pattern can often start insidiously, when one partner is having a difficult time, but can become a rigid pattern that serves to avoid both conflict and intimacy.

Child-Focused Couple Not uncommonly, tension in a couple will be routed into vigilance and preoccupation with the raising of the children, the importance of which both partners can agree on. This is particularly insidious, since it often melds into a heartfelt desire of both partners to give their children the best, and often, better than they themselves got. Divisions between the partners often do surface in frequent disagreements about how to raise the children. If there has been a tendency toward the pursuer-distancer pattern, one partner will tend to be under-involved and the other over-involved. Children often become stressed and parentified, or they may become rebellious. The under-involved parent is often called in to quell the rebellion, but his or her efforts are resisted by both  the child and the over-involved parent (as too harsh or out of touch, etc) and the under-involved parent retreats. Generally, non-parenting conflicts between the couple need to be brought to the surface and dealt with directly, and the partners need to (re)establish an identity as partners and lovers.

Constant Crisis and Drama A crisis makes all considerations for the future and all obligations and commitments from the past irrelevant--at least temporarily. A couple with many happy rituals and routines, and confidence in their abilities, does not welcome a crisis. Individuals or couples overwhelmed by responsibilities however, not only frequently face crises, but they sometimes learn to function best during them. This is particularly true for those of us who grew up in a chaotic home. Not uncommonly, some of us only feel alive during a crisis. This both leads to perceiving most obstacles as crises, which are dealt with without regard for past or present--"Let me just take care of this first!"--and also to ignoring issues until they become crises--"I'll worry about that cliff when I come to it."

Attachment Swings "Make Up to Break Up" Some couples are able to create attraction or chemistry but not companionability. Enjoyable feelings can run quite high and sex can be quite passionate. This leads to a stormy relationship with either frequent break-ups or frequent arguments. After a breakup or fight, the chemistry is able to take back over and the cycle repeats. Chemistry can be based on dysfunctional patterns or on natural elements of attraction. This pattern can be seen in some abusive relationships, but is by no means limited to such relationships. The other side of the coin--relationships that have friendship but little chemistry-- are safer and more stable, but deep intimacy requires both passion and emotional safety.

Moral High Ground Frequently, couples share an interest in being good people. This interest is very strong in people who have a nagging, perhaps unconcious feeling that they are not good. This feeling is combated partially by trying to do good, but mainly by trying not to do bad. It is common to develop beliefs about right and wrong not just in moral areas but areas of interpersonal actions.

In a couple, partners can start to see the other not just as frustrating or different, but as bad when they do not act or respond as wanted. Because both parties agree that they must not be bad, this leads to very unsatisfying, unproductive, and confusing conflict over what actually happened or what each person actually did, or what to call it.

What sometimes makes this process so tenacious is that each partner can somewhat lessen the internal feeling of not being good enough by consoling themselves that they are better than the other. This often leads to simultaneous disapproval  and enabling. It can lead to feeling  relief when the partner practices a bad habit. It always leads to cooling and distancing. The problem is not in being moral, it is in seeking 'high ground'.

Pursuer-Distancer Pattern As familiarity of each other develops, (often replacing or threatening to replace a fantasy of the other), partners will tend to feel more vulnerable. Although this vulnerability can be the basis of deep intimacy, it is also deeply anxiety provoking.

The pursuer-distancer is the most common defeating pattern seen in unsatisfying relationships. Most commonly one partner will want to talk often about the relationship and will want to spend more time together, and the other partner will want to talk about practical issues and spend more time individually. In every relationship, both pushing communication and closeness forward and slowing them down are necessary functions, but in this pattern the roles become rigid, automatic, and usually polarized.

Frequently the pattern devolves into one partner complaining or accusing, and the other partner defending. The defending partner can rarely see that the nagging partner wants to get closer. A sudden about face by the distancing partner will often switch the pursuer into a distancing pattern, at least briefly. This has led to the conclusion that a pattern exists between two people rather than either person having a personality tendency that is a problem such as "not wanting intimacy" or "being smothering." Distancers don't want infinite space nor are they unaware of closeness, they usually want a set amount, nor more not less. To change the experience, the task is the same for both parties: to learn to tolerate and enjoy differences.

Struggle for Superiority This is different from friendly or playful competition and different from leadership within a family. A drive of superiority usually spurs considerable achievement but is usually only completed by making those around a one 'less than,' either literally or symbolically. This can be very direct but also it can be done quite subtly A struggle for superiority is a life goal and an organizing principle of the personality of many of us, and of course it comes from a deeply felt sense of inferiority. If both partners try to be overtly superior, the relationship is often very volatile. In other cases, early in the relationship one partner decides, perhaps unconsciously, to be subservient. This 'one-down' partner may get their striving for superiority fulfilled vicariously this way. The arrangement may be stable for a longtime, but this lifestyle requires social facades that prevent intimacy. Moreover, the one-down partner often comes to realize they have actually loss abilities and a sense of self. The struggle for superiority differs from an abusive process in that actual power in the relationship is not necessary. It is similar to an abusive process in that cruelties will be used at times to maintain it.