Illustration: Brett Ryder
Intimacy (the soul-baring, Bogie-and-Bacall kind) is tougher and knottier than love songs suggest. Martha Beck sidles up beside you with a few great ways to throw yourself into it.
Psychologists tell us we're born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess "abandonment" or "starvation," but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I'll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!
Perhaps that's why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression "falling in love." This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You're securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you've never seen before and feel you've come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you're tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, 'God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!'
The next time this happens, here's a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you're feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies' location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between "self" and "not self" disappears. It isn't just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn't an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.
The horror! The horror!
We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey's Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they're worth a warning here.
Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart
There's an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he's so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.
This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. "I'm unlovable" is one such lockbox. "Everyone wants to exploit me" is another. Then there's "I shouldn't feel that" and "I have to follow the rules," etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they're ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,
Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?...
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!
If you've buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you're hurting. You're also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.
Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved
"If you don't love me, I'll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I'll kill you." Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they're weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say "restraining order." Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, "Sure, whatever makes you happy," in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?
Next: Good Idea #1
We Hear You!