By: Melissa Nunes-Harwitt, LCSW
Does he still like me?
Why haven’t they called?
What if she gets mad?
Will I always be alone?
Intimacy is challenging. You have someone you want to be close with, but you don’t want to get hurt. How can you make emotional contact at a level that feels safe?
The psychological theory of object relations focuses on the experience of intimacy with another person. As an infant, you expected your needs to be met 100% of the time. It was a shock to realize by early childhood that others had needs as well, which could conflict with yours. The same person sometimes met your needs, bringing you joy and satisfaction, and other times did not, about which you felt fear and anger. You struggled to reconcile these seemingly opposite reactions, learning to assess each person’s behavior and determine whether you could trust them. The question was not whether you ever felt hurt about someone’s actions, but whether they were able to connect with you afterwards for healing in an overall context of kindness.
This work continues with each relationship in your life. There are two primary concerns you may have about closeness.
You may fear that you will be rejected or abandoned. This leads to worrying, clinginess, (mild) paranoia, repeatedly asking for reassurance, and seeking approval or validation. Fear of abandonment can follow relationships in which the other person was frequently absent, neglectful, or withholding of affection.
On the flip side, you might fear that you will be "engulfed" or controlled and that you will lose ourselves in the relationship. You may avoid closeness, create emotional distance, and make yourself unavailable. If you were ever made to believe that you were responsible for another person’s happiness, you may relate to this concern.
Holding back based on either of these worries ultimately interferes with healthy connection and intimacy. In order to reach a point where you feel secure with another person, you have to make yourself vulnerable to the fears of both abandonment and engulfment.
If the other person hurts you without seeking to restore your closeness, or does not demonstrate care for your needs as well as their own, you can turn away from that relationship. But if you avoid the vulnerability entirely, you miss the chance to discover someone who can meet your emotional needs consistently enough to be trustworthy. That’s the goal: to know that someone is there for you.
Even once you establish emotional security in a relationship, the work continues. Remember that there will always be times when your needs are not met, and these situations will be painful. But in a trustworthy relationship, the two of you can recalibrate when needs are out of alignment, repair your bond, and grow stronger. True intimacy is worth the effort.
Trouble creating or maintaining relationships can contribute to anxiety or depression. If this is something you struggle with, therapy at Behavioral Health Partners may help. Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.
Alperin, R.M. (2001). Barriers to intimacy: An object relations perspective. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18(1), 137-156. https://doi.org/10.1037/0736-97126.96.36.199
Rothe, K. (2017). Intimacy: Inner space and relating with others. Psychoanalysis.Today. https://www.psychoanalysis.today/en-GB/PT-Articles/Rothe164015/Intimacy-Inner-Space-and-Relating-with-Others.aspx