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The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Intimacy

Part four: How the need for love and intimacy can lead to stalking, accepting abuse and impossible relationships

Intimacy is a core human need, but can lead us to dangerous places

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

– Norman Cousins

Love! The spark that lights the fuse of life.

We all have a drive for intimacy. The mingling of your spirit with another’s; a merging of souls, both physically and emotionally. Real intimacy brings both transcendent sympathy and urgent attraction. You fit together even in your differences. Your shameful little habits and idiosyncrasies are not just tolerated, but loved!

The concept of having met the person seems foreign; it’s as if somehow, some way, you’ve known one another all along. The tiresome charades and pretences of life melt away; suddenly you feel more ‘real’. True intimacy is like coming home to the heart of all things.

How atavistically wonderful. How womb-like. How glowingly safe… yet exciting.

Make no mistake, the drive for intimacy is a mighty powerful one. And some have a greater appetite for love than others.

But if real gold exists then so does false gold. And any strong drive, when thwarted, subverted, or perverted, can cause problems – potentially fatal problems.

So what happens when that drive works (or is worked) against us?

“Our special time!”

Back in the day, when I was still young and working in a psychiatric hospital, patients would sit in the TV room after dinner. The air was oppressive, thick with cigarette smoke, but if you squinted hard enough you could just make out the screen through the haze.

As a junior (this was early days), I was often told to sit with the patients while they watched TV. Some patients were depressed, some were recovering alcoholics, and some were, or had been, psychotic. Audrey fell into the latter category.

Audrey was in love.

Not with me, I hasten to add, but with the twinkle-eyed Irish talk show host and raconteur Terry Wogan.

Sir Terry (he would later be knighted) graced British TV screens three evenings a week back in the 80s. Lucky for Audrey.

Thrice weekly they met. Thrice weekly Terry Wogan made Blarney Stone–inspired, verbally dextrous love to Audrey. She in turn would giggle coquettishly at his smooth, knowing witticisms.

Terry Wogan flirted outrageously with Audrey! At least, that’s how Audrey saw it. But there’s a flipside to everything.

I noticed that she’d scowl jealously at any female guests. But more than that, Audrey would insist the other patients leave the room during her “private” and “intimate” time with her lover.

“Give us some privacy, please! This is our special time! My God, what are you? A bunch of voyeurs! Get out of here you perverts!”

It seemed Audrey had history.

Real consequences

In her youth, Audrey had been similarly in love with the actor David Niven, to the extent she spent all her time writing the mustachioed urbane actor love letters. He had once been her sole focus. And I do mean sole focus.

She’d had no time for her children, who were taken into care, or her husband, who had left her.

This is all a bit extreme, you might be thinking.

But while I was in that psychiatric hospital I learned an important lesson. I found that no one’s psychological state was all that different from the rest of us. Extreme, yes, but not totally removed. All psychological states are merely different stages on one continuum of human experience.

We are all psychotic when we dream at night. And we all have fantasies. But some of us gather these fantasies from the deepest parts of our minds and place them firmly on the outside. And all emotional states and fantasies link back to the same human emotional needs.

However extreme some of the examples of needs gone awry may seem, hopefully you will recognize echoes of what I describe within your day-to-day life and client load.

One thing’s for sure, we shouldn’t underestimate the need for intimacy. It can determine the fate of our whole lives.

The need to be needed

Audrey needed to love and feel loved: “I’m so good for Terry!” she would tell me happily, “and he’s so good for me!” Her need wasn’t psychotic, just the way it was being expressed.

Her erstwhile husband had been cold, bullying, and “as distant as the planet Neptune, that you barely knew was there” as Audrey poetically put it. But there was real sadness in her poetry.

In this series on the dark side of human needs I explore how all human emotional difficulties stem from chronically failing to meet one or more of the primal emotional needs. It’s absolutely critical that we know the causes of emotional problems.

But we’re going further than that.

First know yourself

When we have a need, any need, we are compelled to meet it – often unconsciously.

Unless we can observe ourselves, this can cause confusion. We might think we are passionately promoting a cause or helping a friend when in fact we are instinctively trying to glean attention or some other basic need for ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that… unless the real emotional drive starts to pollute the actual endeavour.

When we meet our needs in balance then we have spare capacity to do other things. The chronically hungry man is in no state to learn calculus. He may think he’s learning, but in reality he’s probably fumbling through student lockers looking for scraps of food and doing little else.

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He needs to eat outside of the calculus lesson so he has the spare capacity to focus on his learning and let others learn too.

The analogy I’ve been using across this series is of extreme thirst driving us to drink any liquid, even engine oil. Desperation leads to terrible errors in whom we choose to be with and what kind of relationships we get involved in.

If we are desperate to meet a need, maybe even one we’re unaware of, we are not just rendered less effective – we are also easy prey for dysfunctional, unscrupulous, or damaged others.

In the case of the need for intimacy, ‘drinking engine oil’ may mean falling for anyone who promises us intimacy. And that anyone might turn out to be really bad for us.

Love, love, love is a dangerous drug

All you need is love… right?

How about food, shelter, clothing, and, well, all the other needs in balance? Yes, they’re pretty important too, but I don’t want to rain on anyone’s hippy parade. Love, real love, may be the essence of all and everything. But first things first.

I already wrote about the technique and dangers of ‘love bombing‘. For those who feel unloved, being showered with love can be overwhelming. And when the love turns out not to be real, payback may be more than anyone can afford.

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If we understand the drive for intimacy, we can see how it can cause our clients terrible problems. We know that good relationships matter when it comes to health and happiness.[1]

Audrey had only ever received coldness from her abusive parents and ex-husband. Had she been truly loved and able to love, would her need for intimacy still have built up, grown, and flowered into full-blown psychotic delusion?

Here I want to simply describe how the need for intimacy can go awry. The consequences of ‘toxic love’, if you like. Let me give you a few examples.

Beware of transference

Sigmund Freud, you know, the expert on sex and… err… sex, and Greek myths, and sex, and cigars, and sex, and cocaine, and sex, was also very big on transference.

Freud said that a patient might feel attraction, even love, towards an analyst if they were never able to love their father, mother, or other parental figure in their childhood. It’s possible to transfer negative feelings from one person to another. Of course it is. You’re angry with your father, so you unconsciously redirect that to your therapist.

Mutual hate and hostility can form a kind of intimacy. In fact, some of the most intense relationships are ones of hate. The focus is mutual and fierce.

I think any therapy carries the danger of intimate feelings forming, especially if it is drawn out over many years or decades (as psychoanalysis tended to be). If you share your deepest desires and secrets with someone for many years, it’s not surprising they might become vitally important to you.

There are even cases of therapists finding it hard to let go of patients! In the therapeutic setting intimacy can easily become entangled with the desire to help, and when this happens the ‘therapy’ can become lost… although Freudians might argue against that statement and assume transference is necessary.

Next we have a bizarre expression of intimacy that I think illuminates several aspects of human nature.

Stockholm syndrome: Loving the hands that bind

It can take many attempts for an abused person to actually leave their abuser. The victim’s pattern of going back to the person who mistreats them can exasperate and shred the sympathy of friends and family.

Identifying with, even loving, the very source of abuse can seem baffling to those outside the relationship. How can they keep going back?

Intimacy, or the illusion of intimacy, can be produced through a sense of intensity which makes any relationship seem special.

We focus strongly on the people we feel intense with. That intensity can just as easily be brought about through fear and violence as through real love. And it often alternates with cherished nuggets of apparent kindness, which are appreciated all the more because of their rarity. “He can be so lovely!” (“And I am so, so grateful because it hardly ever happens!”)

So why ‘Stockholm’?

In 1973 in Stockholm, Swedish robbers took bank workers hostage, locked them in a back safe, and threatened them with death. They were held hostage for days and nights on end.

But, bafflingly, when authorities moved in to end the siege some of the kidnapped bank workers resisted rescue. Some refused to testify against their captors despite having been treated terribly.

As a result, the phenomenon of identifying with or loving the person causing you harm came to be known as Stockholm syndrome.

I’ve previously written about how Stockholm syndrome might even be an element of smoking and other addictions. We can see addiction as a kind of abusive relationship which nevertheless feels intimate and therefore hard to let go.

When thinking about intimacy it’s important to remember that we focus on what is important to us, but it also works the other way. What we focus on becomes important to us. Take the Florence Nightingale effect.

I’m caring for you, so I must care about you!

Ever read or seen Stephen King’s Misery? It’s great! Author Paul Sheldon’s creepy “number one fan” Annie Wilkes finds him after a serious car crash and, rather than taking the poor guy to hospital, she drags him to her house to nurse him back to health without telling a soul (well, spoiler alert, at one point she takes a sledgehammer to his leg – but otherwise her nursing is pretty A-grade).

Okay, so Ms Wilkes was obviously pretty obsessed already, but now she is focused on her ‘patient’ all the time. And for his part, she’s the only person he can rely on. The relationship has become intimate for them both in different ways.

The Florence Nightingale effect can come about when a caregiver (not necessarily an actual nurse as our Florence was) develops intense feelings for the person she or he is caring for. This can happen even if there isn’t much actual communication or contact between the two.

This might seem like a pretty rare situation. But I think it can work in another way.

I’ve seen looks of terror flood partners’ faces when they realize I might actually be able to help their loved one lose weight, overcome agoraphobia, or otherwise reclaim their rightful independence. The ‘carer’ may fear, perhaps unconsciously, that they will lose intimacy if the balance of power changes and they are no longer needed in the same capacity.

If you fear someone will need you less, you might also fear they will want you less. It’s worth bearing this in mind as a potential mechanism in some of our clients’ situations.

But perhaps a bit more familiar is the scary phenomenon of stalking.

“I never knew when he would just turn up!”

Sally, a client, told me how her ex-boyfriend still stalked her. The terror was in the unpredictability. He would “just show up” at her work, her home, even when she was out with friends and it seemed as if there was no way he could possibly have known her whereabouts.

For both men and women, stalking often reflects an inability or refusal to accept the end of intimacy. But sometimes it stems from the illusion of intimacy or a misjudged attempt at initiating intimacy.

“We’re meant to be together! Why can’t you admit that too?”

Becoming infatuated is not uncommon at all. But becoming so hooked that you can think about nothing else, even (or especially) if you don’t really know the person beyond the fantasy you’ve created in your head, is a real problem. This is a poor substitute for genuine love, intimacy, and mutual understanding.

Assuming someone just doesn’t realize they love you yet is a dangerous perception. To try to force intimacy, or to imagine it’s there when it isn’t, is to chase false gold.

Ultimately we need to be strong enough to be alone if we have to be.

How safe are you?

When we really love someone, we run the risk of ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’. But if I only want to be with you, what happens if you decide you never want to be with me?

When our clients are intensely afraid of rejection, over-monitor their lover, or feel they couldn’t exist without them, we need to look at how many of their needs are met through just this one person.

To be less vulnerable, we need to meet our needs in balance – to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. When a person enters a relationship and stops seeing their other friends or pursuing other interests, this makes them vulnerable. If I only eat one type of food and that disappears, I might feel I can’t survive.

On the other hand, having a healthy wider life, other friends, and other interests makes us less desperate, less vulnerable, and less devastated if it doesn’t work out.

So we may need to encourage a reconnection with wider friends and family to, in a sense, dilute the power that ‘special’ person has over them. No break-up is easy, but the more wider support a person has the easier it will be.

On the more sinister side, if a person wants you to become overly dependent on them they will actively seek to distance you from other sources of focus, such as your friends, family, and wider interests. Cults do this too.

If someone knows you are solely wrapped up in them, they know they have the power to manipulate, threaten, and abuse you – “Without me you’re nothing!”

Yes, the drive for intimacy is strong, and yes, it can lead down all kinds of prickly paths. And sometimes it can be a complete fabrication.

When they don’t even know who you are

We can easily come to feel we are intimate with a leader or celebrity. We see their face and hear their voice so often that they seem such a part of our lives.

Joseph Stalin, the mass murdering leader of Soviet Russia, was known as ‘Uncle Joe’. At first the nickname was just used by Churchill and Roosevelt, but he came to be generally known by this moniker.

The genocidal tyrant of Haiti, François Duvalier, was known sweetly as ‘Papa Doc’. And of course it was ‘Big Brother’ who was watching you in Orwell’s dystopian nightmare.

Uncle, Papa, Brother!

The illusion of intimacy, the dim and twisted cousin of real intimacy, is everywhere. But we can’t settle. We need to seek the real thing, because it is there.

The real gold of intimacy may be discovered on the internet but, to be actualized, it has to travel through that looking glass of pixels into the real world.

So many of us seem to live alone in our isolated heads, but if we’re lucky, we might find a secret door to a connecting bridge where we can meet and merge with that special friend or lover.

And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:

With over 100 live client sessions, Uncommon Practitioners TV covers a wide range of emotional ailments and solution focused therapy techniques. Sign up here to be notified when UPTV is open for booking.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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