Intense relationships can sometimes be mistaken for “intimate” relationships, but they’re not. Intense relationships are often dysfunctional and chaotic. Emotionally intimate relationships are typically not. If you want true intimacy, it requires being vulnerable, which requires trust. We can only build trust over time through seeing patterns of behavior.
It’s possible to learn how to get away from intense relationships. It’s also possible to build intimate relationships even if you’ve never had one. I’m living proof! I’ve been in 29 relationships, 11 of which I considered to be boyfriends. I’ve been in love eight times and have cohabitated with five partners. Until my current relationship of two years, I’ve never had an intimate romantic relationship. I credit 12-step recovery with my ability to create that intimacy. I simply wasn’t capable of intimacy before that. Here’s what I’ve learned about intensity, intimacy and trust.
A brief summary of my relationships.
I had a string of romantic relationships. Some lasted months, several lasted years, but none of them included real emotional intimacy. There were some that were rather intense, especially in my younger years when I drank and smoked weed heavily. As I aged, there wasn’t so much intensity, but there still wasn’t any still intimacy.
I entered 12 step recovery after a 5-year relationship with someone who I thought was different from all the rest. I thought I’d “broken the mold” of my relationship pattern. But I was wrong. I’d always thought the common denominator of all those relationships had been lack of emotional availability (on the part of my partners, of course). I realized in recovery that the common denominator was actually me and my codependence. And yes, it was true that my partners had all been emotionally unavailable. That’s because *I* was emotionally unavailable. So of course I attracted emotionally unavailable people!
People sometimes mistake intense relationships for intimate relationships. They’re not.
In my very early days of 12-step recovery, a woman at a meeting talked about an episode with her boyfriend. She’d literally clung to his ankles, sobbing, as he tried to leave. She begged him not to leave her. She thought she was in love with him, and that the intensity of her feelings for him was proof that she loved him. At the same time, she knew that clinging to his ankles, sobbing as he tried to leave, was not mature, adult behavior.
This is a perfect example of mistaking the intensity of our feelings with intimacy. Understanding that distinction has been helpful in my development in recovery. Perhaps it will be helpful to you too.
Drama, like in the scene above, is a good indicator that you’re experiencing intensity as opposed to intimacy. Intensity is often characterized by addiction to excitement, chaos and fear. These are not breeding grounds for intimacy. Even if you don’t believe that intensity = intimacy, you may still believe that if there’s intensity, it must mean there’s a real, important and tight connection. Bullshit.
My longest relationship, which lasted about 10 years, started in my late 20’s. It was a pretty intense relationship. There was lots drama, no intimacy, and lots of fear. Fear he was going to dump me. Fear that he’d judge me. Fear of saying what I really thought or asking for what I really wanted in the relationship. When I finally did ask for some things I wanted, he laughed in my face. And guess what? I stayed. For years. This is contrasted with my current relationship, where there’s lots of trust, vulnerability, and intimacy. So how did I get here?
Intimacy requires vulnerability.
Recovery has taught me that the only way to achieve intimacy is by being vulnerable with others. I simply can’t be intimate with another person if I’m not willing (or able) to be vulnerable with them. I happen to be attracted to men, so all my romantic partners have been men. I tried to take a shortcut to emotional intimacy with these men by having sex with them pretty early in the relationship. Mind you — I thought I was waiting! Before recovery, about 3–4 weeks of dating was probably the longest I’d ever gone without having sex with my partner. I convinced myself that that was “waiting.”
I now understand that true intimacy is emotional intimacy, it’s not physical. And you can’t shortcut emotional intimacy with physical intimacy. Believe me, I tried! For decades! Don’t get me wrong — physical intimacy enhances emotional intimacy. It just can’t come first.
I wanted desperately to be seen, to be known by others. But I was gonna be damned if I was going to be vulnerable!! My life experience had shown me that being vulnerable was very risky. It led to ridicule, humiliation, shame, abandonment and PAIN. Lots of pain.
I had this weird thing going on where I’d share TMI (Too Much Information — before “TMI” was even an expression!). At the same time, I was holding back really important parts of myself — my fears, my insecurities, what I really thought and felt, wanted and needed. I was holding back things that would allow me to be vulnerable with other people. Things that would allow them to see what was really going on with me. I didn’t want them to see behind the facades and learn what the real Barb was like.
We often want intimacy but aren’t willing or able to be vulnerable because we’ve been hurt. Perhaps we’ve even tried to become INvulnerable. Being hurt is part of life, no one’s had a painless life. But we may also have been hurt because we trusted untrustworthy people. That was me. I trusted untrustworthy people my entire life. They could have shown me in many ways, practically wearing a sign on their foreheads saying, “Don’t trust me” and I still trusted them. Then, when they violated my trust (which they always did, because they were untrustworthy!), I’d get mad at them. I’d get mad at them for being the same person they’d been all along.
Recovery taught me that the problem was not them being untrustworthy. The problem was my expectation that they’d wouldn’t be! What a game changer — I’m the problem in this scenario! In recovery, we call that, “my part in things.” Until I got into recovery, I didn’t understand that my part was trusting people I shouldn’t. I think I was subconsciously hoping that somehow, they’d turn into a trustworthy person — maybe if I just loved them enough! (like I have that kind of power!).
Vulnerability requires trust.
People crave intimacy but don’t know how to achieve it. We aren’t good as a society with intimacy. People are afraid to be vulnerable for a variety of reasons. For me, it was primarily growing up in a dysfunctional environment.
Our consumer culture doesn’t help. We are continually bombarded with messages that we’re not good enough so that we can turn to the marketplace to remedy the situation. Marketing messages constantly point out our flaws, as if we’re not supposed to have any. Our hair is too gray or not shiny enough, we don’t have enough or it’s growing in places it “shouldn’t” be (even though we’re animals!). Our skin is too wrinkly or dry or dark or blotchy. Our bodies are too fat or too skinny, not muscular enough or our butts are too big or not big enough, and then there’s our thighs! It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re immersed in a culture that tells you that you’re flawed and that you have to buy a product or program in order to be “fixed.”
So how do we become vulnerable when we’re afraid? “Just be vulnerable” doesn’t work. If we could have done that, most of us would have by now. In my experience, it comes from building trust. We simply aren’t going to be vulnerable with people we don’t trust.
Begin by trusting yourself.
I got to the point where I realized, “I can’t trust myself to pick the right partner.” Recovery taught me that I could learn to trust myself in picking the right partner. But I had to start with building trust with myself in other areas first. That meant I had to start showing up for myself. I had to keep the focus on me and what I wanted and needed and follow through on that. Not waiting for my partner, or prospective partner, to fulfill my desires.
I’ve heard people use the phrase “into me I see” when referring to intimacy. I always understood intimacy as “into me YOU see,” (i.e., I let You see inside of Me). Which it does, but I didn’t realize it also means “Into Me I See.” The more we know ourselves, the less we need to hold back or have secrets. When we can be open and accepting of our faults, we can become much closer to others. When we can make friends with ourselves, we can make friends with others. We want to be accepted just as we are, which happens sooner when we accept ourselves just as we are.
Building trust with others.
Trust must be built over time because we need to see patterns of behavior. The only way we can see a pattern is over the course of time. Just because someone shares something deeply personal with you doesn’t mean they’re trustworthy. I used to share personal things inappropriately, and look where it got me!
Go slowly when getting to know someone. There is no need to rush. In fact, if you have a sense of urgency, that’s a red flag. Share a little, see how they respond over time — look for patterns of behavior. I’ve learned to build trust by sharing something slightly personal, then seeing how the person reacts. If, for example, they immediately start giving me unsolicited advice (something I used to do all the time!) I’m probably not going to trust them, at least not right away. I’m not looking for someone to rescue me or fix my problems, so this is a red flag for me. If they acknowledge what I share and share something similarly personal about themselves, that’s a good sign.
Don’t share personal info with people you don’t know well, or who have proven themselves untrustworthy. If someone violates your boundaries (e.g., interrupting, asking intensely personal questions) don’t share personal information with them. These are red flags.
If I share something with another person and they’re empathetic and kind, I’m more likely to trust them. If they keep up that pattern, I’ll eventually share a little bit more with them. A word of caution about nice people. Just because someone is “nice” doesn’t mean you should trust them. Nice does not equal good. Anyone can act nice, it’s over time that we are able to see if they are truly a kind, caring person. We can’t tell through one interaction, or even a large number of very superficial interactions.
Once trust is built, share a little more and a little more. Eventually you will be comfortable sharing your vulnerability with them, which leads to intimacy. Now that I understand how to build trust, I’ve learned to trust people who are trustworthy. I’m better able to discern “this person is trustworthy” and “that person is not.”
There are a variety of other ways people can respond that lead to trust, for sure. But the other thing they have to do, eventually, is share something with me. It doesn’t have to be tit for tat, or every time I share something, they share something too. It should average out so that we’re both sharing somewhat equally.
I’ve known people who are really good at deflecting things back to me. When I ask about them, they somehow manage to turn the conversation back around to me. It’s clear they’re not going to share anything with me. Intimacy means we’re both open to sharing with each other. I shouldn’t the only one sharing personal stuff. The same goes for them, they shouldn’t be the only one sharing either.
There is risk involved in building trust with people, of course. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it! We’d all be vulnerable with people. We are all flawed and sometimes make mistakes. That means sometimes we might still trust the wrong person. But once we see they’re not trustworthy, we stop trusting them. I used to see those red flags and keep trusting — not anymore!
The role of boundaries.
Building trust takes time and for me, it largely comes down to boundaries. In fact, a huge part of my recovery comes down to boundaries. Boundaries are both a gift of my recovery, and one of the most important tools I use in my recovery.
Someone who has well established boundaries is trustworthy because I know who I’m getting! We both know their limits and they’re predictable. I know that who they say they are is who they actually are. That’s who’s going to show up. And that is someone I can be vulnerable with.
And because *I* now have boundaries, I can trust myself to show up as my full self. I’m no longer putting up facades to protect myself because I use boundaries for that now. (I just realized as I was typing –I used to protect myself with facades, now I use boundaries — HUGE insight!). That means other people who have good boundaries are more likely to be attracted to me. That has proven to be the case, in fact. I am attracted to, and am attractive to, a completely different kind of person now that I have healthy boundaries.
This is the reason why the recommendation about dating in recovery circles is not to date for at least a year when you enter recovery. I’d say that’s true of anyone trying to change their ways, whether they’re in 12 step recovery or not. You’re going to be a very different person a year from now if you keep working on yourself. Therefore, you’ll be attractive to, and attracted to, a very different kind of person than when you begin your process of change.
You can build intimate relationships, even if you’ve never had one. Here’s how.
We are afraid. Afraid to be hurt, afraid to be judged, afraid to be seen. The truth is, we will be hurt. We will be judged. But we’re not gonna die from being hurt or judged. For many of us, our efforts to try not to get hurt end up hurting us more in the long run. All my attempts to protect myself with various facades resulted in me never letting others get to know me. To be honest, I didn’t even really know me. I didn’t really know what I wanted and needed. I was focused on trying to get others to like me, or to think certain things of me! Or trying to protect myself from being hurt. I did these things even though my deepest desire was to be seen, to be fully known. I just didn’t know how to go about doing it because of my fears. I also wasn’t able to count on myself, to trust myself, or to choose trustworthy people. Now I can.
I now have intimate relationships with others, including friendships and romance. This is because I trust myself, have healthy boundaries, and am able to discern who is trustworthy and who’s not and act on that knowledge. I let go of untrustworthy people, or at least I don’t trust them. And I can be vulnerable with trustworthy people. I let them see the real, flawed me. Or, I should say, the real *flawsome* me! Because I AM flawed (and so are you). Now I’m not afraid to show that.
I understand now that we are all flawed and that’s ok. I somehow felt like I was not supposed to be flawed. Or at the very least, I was supposed to hide my flaws from others. And now that I accept my own flaws, I’m so much more accepting of the flaws of others. Now I know that just as I am flawsome, so you are. You’re awesome in your flawedness, and flawed in your awesomeness. This knowledge has helped me release my fears of being “found out” as a flawed person, which has enabled to me to trust and be vulnerable.
It’s never too late to have intimate relationships.
If you’ve never had intimate relationships and want to have them, it’s possible no matter how old you are. It’s never too late. It starts with building trust with yourself, then trust with others. Once you have that trust, you’ll then be able to be vulnerable with those trusted others, which is the key to intimacy.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”