The Paradox of Fear and Intimacy

It’s ironic that the thing most people want more than anything is also the thing they fear more than anything: intimacy. Intimacy requires us to risk opening ourselves to another, saying what we want, what we feel, and what we fear. The more we let fear separate us from our truths, the more power it has to separate us from those we love. We can’t be intimate with secrecy. We can’t be intimate with silence steeped in lies. Every time we refuse to truthfully answer questions about how we feel or what we want, we add another layer of separation between us and our loved ones.

I read somewhere recently that anger is the guardian of fear. I think that fear has a phalanx of guards. Glibness, optimism, transcendence, sarcasm, shyness, stoicism. There seems to be an almost infinite number of disguises for fear. We develop early on an awareness that our tender innocence is vulnerable and easily wounded. We learn to withhold, dissemble, retreat, or even attack when we are hurt. And the catalog of hurts begins early and grows with us. Paradoxically, we feel unsafe as children because we are surrounded by those who also feel unsafe and who deflect our and their own vulnerability with fear’s many disguises.

As adults then it’s no wonder that we have to unlearn the patterns of deflection that shaped us throughout our early lives. When we enter into intimate relationships, those old patterns, slights, and buried fears awaken. Once the glow of first meeting and new love ignite into passion and from passion settles into familiarity, the literally familiar becomes the coals on which we begin to cook. She reminds you of your mother. He channels your father. It’s difficult to see the face of your beloved through the lens of your early wounding. So you strike out, or retreat physically or emotionally, and a small door closes in your heart. Over and over, these small doors close until your heart is a shuttered and impregnable thing.

The only way to be fully intimate with another is to be fully intimate with ourselves. We have to be willing to open the old, stuck doors to our own hearts, release what’s hidden there. Let it flow freely through and from us until it finds its level and becomes us. Door by door.

I’m writing this from my own lived experience, what I have witnessed in myself and others. I learned and lived the lie of a sunny disposition in a childhood where tears and melancholy were not welcome or tolerated. I created a story to accompany the lie. I projected this elaborate falsehood into every relationship of my early adult life. On the surface, it was attractive and accepted, but it was not durable, and it ruptured every time a partner reflected the familiar patterns of my youth. The other problem was that it cast a distorting glare like a fun house mirror. If I was so sunny and easy going, then why did my partners sense turmoil?

The milestones of my journey to embodied consciousness realization were years of short term serial monogamy. Relationship after relationship, I strove to find the fit for the hole in my Being. It was a long, lonely, heartbreaking saga, fumbling in the miasma of mutual isolation.

Okay, yes, there were periods of joy and ease glimmering over the shifting sands of my lack. I had to rot out of this search. I realized when I turned fifty the mistakes I’d made, and I began to search in earnest for the truth of my Self. The details of that journey are recorded elsewhere. It was Love, of course, that tireless and exacting master, that finally led me to the one with whom I could build a space of risk and revelation.

Intimacy is not found. It is built one revelation at a time. When I reunited with the love of my life after eight years and committed relationships with others, we thought that we had matured to the point when we could love each other freely and honestly. We were wrong.

Five years in, she told me one winter morning, “I can’t do this anymore.” The “this” she couldn’t do was not be herself to be with me. It was an excoriating breakup for me. I felt like Gilgamesh at the death of Enkidu and went on a search through the dim, dark places of my heart to find relief. It cauterized my Being. Luckily, I found some heart-centered Buddhist teachers whose retreats gave me a safe haven to drop into the mess of my emotional life. It was not easy.  Each retreat gave me another opportunity to be with my Self in an unadulterated way, and the few, brief vocal check-ins with the teachers helped me to see that it was not something that I could fix. I simply had to live it. I became, in a small way, like a monk, living my dharma day by day and waiting to see where it would take me.

Fortunately, enough happened that when, the following fall, we found ourselves at the same events, talking briefly each time, and she could sense the change in me. We decided to just spend time together and not try to be in a relationship.  By early the next spring, we found our way to the work that would awaken us fully to our true nature, then Waking Down in Mutuality. And after an event one night, sitting in her car in the cold dark, she said, “if we’re going to be together, we’re going to have to be completely honest.” I felt such a deep relief at those words. Something in me recognized that this was the only way to be intimate with her.

We had both done some work on our patterns, and as we continued to do the Waking Down work, we had ample opportunity to see, feel, and Be our conditioning and by doing so to slowly integrate it. At one point, when we were living on opposite sides of the country, on the telephone one night I told her a secret from my childhood that I had never told another partner, something that felt deeply shameful and that had plagued me for nearly all my adult life. I took that risk because I had enough experience with her, enough trust in the container we had built, that she would not judge me, and her response gave me succor and healing.

So when I tell people that the only way that their relationship is ever going to go someplace, go where they think they want it to go, I am not speaking idly. We all have our wounds, our fears, our feelings of worthlessness. Poets have written this over and over across the eons. We have to open the door, me, then you, then me, then you, over and over and over again until the light of our love illuminates the dark corners, and we know ourselves loved.

This process is never finished as we ourselves are never finished. Conditioning runs deep, and it wants to come up and be seen and allowed to relax its grip on us. Romantic relationship gives us a place to rest at the same time they activate our wounded nature. If we take the risk to love, to reveal ourselves, to build trust, we can know an intimacy with ourselves and another that we can find nowhere else except maybe in God. And how much more lovely to know God this way, in the life shared with one who can hold us and be held by us no matter what. It’s worth the risk.

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