“I have a wonderful boyfriend,” wrote Anne. “He is an angel except one thing. He doesn’t talk about how he feels, he doesn’t say I love you, and on December 3rd, it will be a year. He is good to me and gentle with me but he’s never given me any kind of keepsake, not even a card on my birthday…I would rather die than hurt him and to break up would break my heart too as I am certainly in love with him BUT I know this is a deal-breaker for me. And THAT is what is killing me.”
I don’t know Anne or her boyfriend except through letters. But I know this: They have an intimacy gap.
Intimacy is sharing everything about yourself without fearing you’ll lose your identity. Obviously, this implies that you need to know who you are, so you have something to share. It also implies a gradual process. It would be foolish to share everything about ourselves with random people right away; it would be downright unsafe with some of them.
Yet there are people who are too afraid or independent to gradually unfold into a safe, loving bond. Since we’re all human, and almost all humans need some degree of emotional and sexual connection, these folks tend to ramp up the appearance of intimacy right away—but then fail on the follow-through.
The intimacy bait & switch looks like this:
You start dating, and the other person is excited about you. You get excited about them too. You each share a lot of details about yourselves very quickly, including getting sexual very soon in the relationship. They then clam up, or suddenly want to see you less, or want to be intimate but not share anything emotional. They might begin calling you names like “needy” or “controlling” or “selfish.” Their emotional bar is low, and their needs are quickly over-met. So when you need more than they counted on, you become the bad person.
You didn’t switch desires and expectations; they did. They lured you in with an offer of intimacy. And then — once you got hooked — they didn’t deliver.
This hurts as much or more than what fish must feel. Intimacy is offered, but as soon as you’re reeled in, it’s pulled away. Worse, you’re often questioned for being unreasonable in your desire for closeness. Going through this doesn’t just make you feel like you want too much; it makes you think this is the best you can get. It’s deeply dispiriting.
What to do:
When you’re in this scenario, the gap between partners’ needs is a constant source of anxiety and unhappiness for the one who wants more. If you need and want intimacy — the real thing, not the surface substitute — don’t sign up for a partner who will never match you.
If you fear relationships, yet you’d like to learn to relax into an intimate bond, you can use proven therapeutic techniques to gradually change yourself. But you cannot intentionally change someone else’s intimacy needs, nor force someone to want intimacy they aren’t after. When we’re starting relationships, it’s important to sign on for the very best bond we can find—not one requiring intensive therapy even while we’re dating! I have never yet seen anyone voluntarily change who does not value or want real intimacy. They probably could; but in my observation, they don’t choose to.
What if you’re the one who needs less, though? In that case, the other person’s needs will likely grow to feel like enormous burdens, demands, and pressures. If you’re hoping they will eventually want and need at your same level…they won’t.
Upshot? Be honest about the bond you require, and hold out for a match on that level. And to paraphrase Maya Angelou, when a partner shows you who they are, believe them.
So I can’t advise waiting on change from someone who isn’t even trying—or someone who prefers the false intimacy bait-and-switch to the real thing. People can change in a relationship, but again, the person they can change is themselves. Anne’s got a deal-breaker, and I hope she will break the deal and hold out for the genuine, close bond she needs.
Is intimacy too much to ask for? No. It is a major reason people have relationships. And intimacy needs that are like your own should be one of your standards, too.
Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do (2015). The book is available now. You can get a free chapter and learn more at http://www.lovefactually.co