There are two “I’s” in “intimacy.”
The first “I” is for insatiable. It’s the version of me that craves intimacy, and can never get enough. It’s the part of me that’s emotionally starved.
The second “I” could stand for injurious / infernal / insolent. Take your pick; they all apply. This is the version of me that’s so suspicious/distrusting of intimacy that once I have it, I must destroy any trace of it to protect myself.
Both “I’s” describe my lifelong, contradictory struggle with friendships, relationships, and really any situation involving someone being close to me. I live with constant self-righteousness and self-doubt. I desire commitment yet I am terrified by it. I instigate conflict but I also avoid it.
For nearly my entire life, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, sometimes flipping between highs and lows so fast that I suspected I may be bipolar. But I’m not. My internal conflict has almost everything to do with intimacy, how I grew up, and who raised me.
If you haven’t read Dr. Patricia Love’s book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life, you should definitely read it. About 2 months ago, it changed my life because I finally had a name for my dysfunctional family, and I’m dicovering peace just understanding why I am the way I am.
Basically, I grew up with one parent who smothered me with constant ego-boosting adoration and affection. The other parent was physically there (sometimes) but 100% emotionally unavailable. That is, until I did something wrong, in which case extreme rage was the one emotion that parent would show.
Growing up in this environment was made possible by my resilient sister, who rebels and provides comic relief in any situation. She remains my best friend to this day. But it wasn’t easy for us. We both struggle with relationships because our parents were the opposite of a healthy example. We are having to construct our own example through trial and error as adults.
Our parents are polar opposites. Same values on paper, but couldn’t be more different in practice. In our family, there is a very obvious head of household.
Parent 1: Extremely domineering, very defensive toward any type of criticism, very loud, yet emotionally unavailable. Never affectionate. Only wants to have shallow conversations such as politics, science, math, education. Nothing involving feelings, only logic/statistics because feelings are weakness. But if you mess up, prepare for their wrath. Pessimistic, thinks the world is doomed.
Parent 2: Extremely submissive and passive aggressive. Pouts/weaponizes guilt or the silent treatment in response to criticism. Shy in group settings and extremely emotionally available; everything is ruled by emotion. Wants to know everything about everyone, nosey, judgy. Nothing is logical because feelings guide all decisions. If you mess up, prepare for either instant forgiveness or a few hours of silent treatment and then forgiveness. Super affectionate. Optimistic and hopeful, thinks people are mostly good.
Now imagine the emotional rollercoaster of being the chosen child of parent 2 when parent 1 is so distant. I bore the emotional weight of a confidant, friend, therapist and spouse. I was a place holder for the actual spouse, which made the family dynamic way worse. My sister was left out and rebelled to win back attention. I coped by trying, in vain, to give the advice asked of me by my parent. I was a child being asked to fix adult problems and I was the middle man for both parents’ grievances about the other. I shrink away from responsibility and avoid the spotlight like the plague because I was always in the spotlight growing up. I was put on parent 2’s pedestal and treated with utmost importance. Because of this, I was constantly on parent 1’s radar as the one interfering in the marriage (a responsibility I never asked for nor wanted) and my sister viewed me as the favorite.
So based on my experience, intimacy to me has meant being idolized and being expected to fix everyone’s problems. It also means I’m doing something wrong and need to “butt out”. But it can also mean never allowing myself to get close to any one person, because I’m trying to reassure others that I am not more close to someone else than I am to them.
But love is not quantifiable like that, and I’m learning that being close to one person is not a betrayal of someone else. And not everyone expects me to sit in for their significant other. Some people truly do want me to just listen. Intimacy shouldn’t mean compromising who I am to conform to who someone wants me to be. My emotional needs are valid just like everyone else’s. And I’m learning to be okay in the spotlight (sometimes). I’m also building boundaries with my parents and making them solve their own problems without me as a middle man.
I’m teaching both parts of myself (the emotionally starved side and the emotionally destructive side) that they can work it out and have a happy marriage, even if my parents can’t. And in realizing this, I am making peace with things I cannot control. Intimacy starts with the self, and my self is finally whole.