“Intimacy freak-out.” You’ve seen it before. You’ve probably encountered it during your dating escapades. It happens when things seem to be going famously with that special guy you’ve been dating, and when things start getting just a little bit serious, BAM! He disappears, never to be heard from again, for no apparent reason. Or those men who will have oral and anal sex with you, but they refuse to kiss you during foreplay and then they’re immediately clothed and out the door faster than a speeding bullet after they’ve had their orgasm. Or perhaps you’re in a long-term relationship and your partner isn’t a real big fan of cuddling or showing displays of affection. He seems distant, aloof, “cut off” from you at times. Or maybe you, yourself, struggle with detachment from your lover or have been told by him that you’re “too needy and clingy.”
Welcome to the wonderful world of “intimacy issues!” Intimacy deficits are a phenomenon and common cause or symptom of relationship problems in both gay and straight partnerships. It’s been called a “man thing”, but gay men can be particularly vulnerable to “intimacy freak-out”, and Part 1 of this two-part article series will address the reasons behind this and help you gain a better understanding of the dynamics involved in intimacy in gay relationships.
What is Intimacy Freak-Out?
To understand this concept, an understanding of what constitutes intimacy is needed. Most people immediately think of sex when the word “intimacy” is used, but that’s not what we’re talking about here; that’s just one component. Intimacy is the ability to be emotionally close to another man, being able to be who you truly are with no facades or defenses, to be uninhibited and express yourself in a reciprocal way with your partner so both of you feel safe and open to share and communicate about anything and everything. There’s no need to feel guarded or defensive with each other because you’ve established a foundation of security and unconditional love and acceptance in your relationship. You know you are loved for who you are.
Intimacy is not just about “togetherness” though. Healthy intimacy requires a balance of “we” and “me”; there’s a flexibility between the amount of closeness and space that exists between you and your lover. You both exercise good boundaries and respect each other’s limits, knowing that it’s important to have your own individual identity as well as your identity as a couple. It’s like a dance the two of you do together, flowing back and forth between merging and separating. But you don’t stay stuck in one for too long and you both develop a rhythm and synchronicity, communicating your needs and feelings all the while and being attuned to your partner’s. “Mature intimacy requires both a capacity to be independent and separate and a capacity to be close to the other emotionally and to acknowledge needs for attachment, connectedness, and dependency” (Greenan & Tunnell, 2003). Intimacy is the ultimate validation of your relationship.
Sounds good, huh? Not an easy feat to accomplish! “Intimacy freak-out” is a term coined by Al Crowell, MS in his book “I’d Rather Be Married” (1995) and basically describes this process as being a defense we put up to cope with disappointment and ambivalence in our relationships. He goes on to say that we all have different thresholds for tolerating intimacy, and when we don’t match up with our partner’s level, fear and “freak-out” occurs to protect ourselves from perceived vulnerability by putting up psychological walls and barriers to closeness. For example, sometimes when couples fight, engage in negative “drama”, or retreat from each other, these types of conflicts could actually be signs of intimacy overload and the behaviors are used as a way to ward off this feeling. So the next time you and your boyfriend have a knock-down, drag-out argument, don’t be so quick to assume that you’re incompatible…it could be an example of differences in your abilities to tolerate intimacy! The key is to learn how not to act-out these feelings and to achieve a better balance with your partner through assertive communication, productive conflict resolution, nurturing each other, gaining more self-awareness about your particular triggers and issues surrounding intimacy, and other strategies. More to come on these!
Growing Up Gay
The ability to be intimate requires positive self-esteem and a solid “sense of self.” Growing up in a homophobic society, gay men internalize an onslaught of negative messages from many different sources that denigrate our identities. As such, most of us grew up feeling different, inadequate, defective, and anchored with shame. We may still even feel that way now. Internalized homophobia settled in and the idea of having a genuinely intimate relationship with another man became very triggering of that shame that was instilled. Nonetheless, many of us eventually ventured out to explore our sexualities with other men and sex became a way to establish a sense of connection. Navigating into relationships, some men who were successfully able to negotiate the coming-out process were able to replace sexual conquest as a means for connection with men with needs for more relational depth and substance (emotional intimacy). For others not quite comfortable with the idea of emotional closeness with another man, fleeting and superficial sexual involvements may remain the objective to meet their needs and keep themselves safe from getting in “too deep” (and there’s nothing wrong with that considering that one is honest with himself and his partner and that he genuinely is not looking for more than just sex as opposed to it being a defense against getting close). While still others desire true intimacy in their relationships, yet remain blocked by their fears. These are just a few of the many scenarios that exist.
Socialization as males in our society teaches us that we are expected to be strong, independent, self-reliant, and emotionally self-sufficient—at all costs. These traits don’t always mesh so well in intimate relationships which require vulnerability, exposure, and some degree of dependency. In addition to overcoming the traditional male gender role programming that limits true intimacy potential in relationships, gay men have the added burden of conquering internalized homophobia and its psychological consequences in achieving the capacity for intimacy in their lives. An unfair and challenging de-programming process it is, but that’s why we gay men are so resilient with our experiences in dealing with adversity!
As one can see, man-to-man relationships are fertile grounds for potential problems with intimacy. Below are two interesting quotes from the book “Couple Therapy With Gay Men” by Greenan & Tunnell that are relevant to our discussion here:
“As males, gay men have been exposed to the same gender acculturation that all males receive: Men should be strong and not show their feelings. But, for straight men, male-female relationships are one of the few culturally sanctioned contexts where a man might reveal the full range of his feelings without censure or shame. In heterosexual romantic relationships it is permissible for a man to let down his guard, show his feelings, and not be judged weak. This is not to say that considerable numbers of straight men do not find intimacy difficult, since adult emotional intimacy violates their earlier years of male gender acculturation. But part of gender acculturation is the male’s expectation that females will be more tolerant, accepting, and encouraging of his shortcomings and self-doubts, given their supposedly stronger interest in mutuality and connection.” (p. 38).
“Intimacy with another man can provoke a man to feel unmasculine and worthless, whereas distance may render him lonely and depressed. For such men, sexual orientation is experienced as a perpetual double bind, permitting no comfortable solution and causing havoc in their couple relationships.” (p.27).
Put two men together who have been conditioned with the same gender role socialization and expectations, coupled with potential sexual-identity struggles, and that lays the foundation for the possibility in their relationship for excessive competition, pursuer-distancer “dances”, and discomfort with tenderness and emotional abandon with each other. Whether you’re a single or coupled gay man, how comfortable are you with the idea of “letting yourself go” completely with another man? If there’s the slightest hint of uneasiness, you could be missing out on one of the greatest feelings and experiences life has to offer. What’s holding you back? What consequences do you essentially suffer as a result? Do you derive any potential benefits or gains out of having these blocks? Are you willing to do the hard work and to take the risks involved in facing your fears and resistance?
This article covered a lot of theory surrounding intimacy as it pertains to love relationships between men. In Part 2 of this article series in the next Couples’ Edition of “The Man 4 Man Plan” newsletter (October 2005), the “how-to’s” of enhancing intimacy will be addressed. Common fears of intimacy will be examined and practical suggestions for strengthening your comfort with intimacy and bridging more connection with your partner will be offered.
In the interim, explore the role that intimacy plays in your relationships. How much “intimacy freak-out” exists in your life? Do some journaling surrounding the areas of childhood experiences, internalized homophobia, male gender role socialization, emotional blocks, and self-esteem and their association with your development as a gay man and your current capacity for intimacy. Finally, recognize the gifts that true intimacy can bring to your life and begin thinking about ways you might be able to “get out of your own way” to invite more intimacy into your world if you choose.
References: Crowell, Al (1995). I’d Rather Be Married: Finding Your Future Spouse. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Greenan, David E. & Tunnell, Gil (2003). Couple Therapy With Gay Men. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.