Learning Intimacy the Hard Way

Two tin cans with broken string between

Many years ago, I loved someone who repeatedly lied to me, and failed to keep commitments. And yet, I kept going back. He always apologized, and was so kind and understanding. But I was becoming ill. I had lost fifteen pounds, even though I was eating mostly normally--my body had stopped processing food normally. I was literally wasting away. I visited twelve-step programs, started reading books, and co-counseling like crazy.

During that period, I picked up Harriet Goldhor Lerner's book The D​ance of Intimacy. One concept struck me. It said basically that intimacy starts with a strong "I." Meaning, one needs to have a strong enough sense of self to be able to speak one’s truth, and stand up for it, as a prerequisite to having a healthy relationship with another. If you skip the "I" and go straight to "we," you wind up as I was--boundariless, and wide open for unlimited pain.

An earmark of that strong "I" meant knowing what your own bottom line was. Bottom line!? I had no bottom line. I had never even heard of a bottom line. My partner lied to me--I came back to him. He failed to keep commitments, again and again--I came back to him--even as I got sicker and sicker. My body knew something was very wrong, but I did not yet know how to listen to the wisdom of my body.

I inquired of myself--What was my bottom line? My answer was, Truth, and commitments kept. I knew this person couldn’t do that--he already had shown that repeatedly. So I decided to stop engaging with him. Down to the moment I made that decision, I could feel my body begin to repair itself and get healthy again. I still remember the precise sensation of detecting the beginning of my body's return to health.

Not everyone's intimacy learning requires creating a stronger "I." Some people need to soften their "I" to accommodate the other, to allow a connected "we" to emerge. Sometimes, people running an extra-large sense of self find others whose sense of self runs small. In the case of my former partner and me, we both had underdeveloped senses of self.

These two patterns aren’t the only ones people get into. But they are two I see lot, both in my work with couples, and in my life. I hadn’t known where I was on the map of “Having a sense of self, as evidenced by knowing your bottom line.” When I saw the map, and the clear results of going off course, I was able to correct, and regain my physical and emotional health.

Particularly in my work with couples, I use many such maps, some I think are essential for creating deep and healthy intimacy, such as where we are in relation to our own stories, how we language our beliefs, where we put our attention in our body, and where we are in relation to algorithm (step-following) versus flow state. The more we know about how we and others operate, the more we can make choices that support long-lasting joy and connection. I’ll address some of these these in future posts, and we’ll get to work and play with these concepts at the upcoming events.

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