Amelia has been married for the four years I’ve known her, but she usually has a boyfriend, too.
Her marriage is unhappy and her husband travels for work. She keeps telling me about her latest boyfriend — the one who’s going to change everything and make her happy. I don’t remember how many of these have come along in the years I’ve known her.
Amelia saw me at dinner tonight and came over to talk for a few minutes. The man she told me two weeks ago was going to make her happy is now history. She changed her mind about him. There’s nobody new for the moment — and she was in an introspective mood.
“I don’t know what happens,” she told me. “When I first get to know a guy, I think I’ve finally found what I need. I’ve finally found someone who can really love me in a way that [husband] can’t. But after they fall in love with me and want me, too, I completely lose interest. I don’t know why.”
As we talked tonight, something clicked for me. Amelia doesn’t lose interest in these other men because she discovers something wrong with them. She pulls away when they get too close to her — and that’s when she has to find a justification for losing interest.
Amelia’s need for intimacy causes her to go looking for the love she doesn’t have in her marriage, but her fear of real intimacy causes her to run away whenever she thinks she’s found it.
Amelia never asks me for advice and I don’t give it. I just listen and I ask questions. I haven’t known her well enough to think too much about her dysfunctional love life, but everything finally seemed too clear to ignore when I listened to her tonight.
Our culture is confused about what intimacy means. We’ve come to see intimacy as a euphemism for sex, but little more. The truth is that intimacy is the emotional closeness that can give many things — including sex — more meaning. Without intimacy, sex is nothing but a form of gymnastics that could take place with pretty much any partner.
That’s why bed-hopping is so common and accepted by most people today. If you feel the need for closeness to another person, just go to bed with the nearest available partner. It doesn’t have to mean anything. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t mean anything, for many folks.
Just sleep with as many partners as you can conquer — using porn to keep you excited enough to keep up the chase — and this will give you the closest substitute you can have to real intimacy. And by getting this cheap imitation, you’ll be spared the risks of really letting someone become truly close to you.
Why would you risk real intimacy? If someone truly knew you deeply — saw who you really are — you might be rejected or humiliated. That person might find out you’re worth nothing.
With a relationship that’s nothing but a cheap facade, you can keep up the pretense of being perfect. You can hide who you really are. Nobody has to know that you’re scared of not being what you project.
If you take the risk of genuine intimacy, you might get the love and connection that your heart has always craved. But there’s also the chance you’ll be discovered as a fraud. It’s easiest to project the facade — and take the cheap imitations instead.
When we do this, we never admit it to ourselves. We find real problems with the person we briefly thought we had fallen in love with. We find flaws with him or her. We discover all sorts of good reasons why the relationship can’t work.
And that gives us the excuse we unconsciously wanted to run away. He isn’t what I needed. She probably doesn’t really love me. He’s not good enough for me. My friends wouldn’t approve of her.
It doesn’t matter what the excuse is. All that matters is that we find something that allows us to run. And then we can start the fantasy all over again — before we run away, leaving another person thinking we’re confused or crazy. Or both.
I asked Amelia tonight whether there had been anybody that she had ever had real intimacy with for very long. She thought about it for a minute and then admitted she always feels very close to someone at first — but then she starts finding reasons to run away when that man starts loving her.
Maybe Amelia will think about it some more and maybe she won’t. I suggested that she might find it useful to talk with a therapist about the pattern. She laughed and didn’t take it seriously. She’ll have another man next week or next month. And then another. And another.
She’ll go right on living with a husband who doesn’t really know her — and who she doesn’t even want to know. They’ll keep up the facade of having a real marriage. That way, she doesn’t have to be alone and she can keep teasing herself with tiny tastes of real intimacy on the side.
I don’t think Amelia knows what she’s doing. She would deny that any of this could be true, because those who are scared of intimacy have to lie to themselves more than anybody else.
For a modern and liberal-minded person in this culture, there’s little obvious price to be paid for playing with intimacy but always running from it. But the pattern dooms those who practice it to a life of getting close enough to love to taste it — but not close enough to accept what they really need.
We have more possibility of real connection than we’ve ever had in all of human history. We’re surrounded by more people. We have more choices than ever before.
But most people seem trapped inside prison cells of their own making, because they can’t risk letting the right person inside for real intimacy. And that’s one of the most heartbreaking tragedies of this dysfunctional culture.