The Longing to be Close – 1

In reading over the many responses to The Longing to Leave series, I realize those stories only get at part of the picture. Like many in the midst of depression, I wanted to blame my marriage for what I was going through and fantasized about leaving. But at the core of that fantasy was an almost miraculous closeness and intimacy. What is deeper than that longing to be close, to be perfectly understood, accepted, loved? The fantasy of leaving to attain it is like a drug that gets you high, but the charged dream always leaves out, as dreams usually do, the daily reality of building a relationship through hard honesty. When possessed by that dream, all I could think about was what I did not have in my life, yet I couldn’t do what needed to be done to turn that around, to restore the closeness I so deeply wanted.

I think of Sylvia Plath’s powerful image of her own depression in The Bell Jar. She felt enclosed in a clear glass structure that cut her off completely from everyone and everything but still left all of life fully visible. She could not connect with anyone or feel anything through that barrier. The image fit what I was going through in many ways. The separation was always there, and often I couldn’t feel anything at all. But there were other times when I was raging with fury inside that glass bell, full of blame and frustration and yelling to be heard. The words, though, and the rage were exactly what was driving my wife away rather than drawing her closer. I think the truth was that real closeness was the most terrifying thing I could encounter, and the fear of it was a powerful force driving me into fantasy fulfillment where intimacy was seemingly so available and had no cost.

How was it possible to dread the very closeness that I so longed for? Some years back, when my wife was on a long trip out of the country and I had plenty of time to think about where we were headed as a couple, the problem started to become clearer to me.

I had listened to my share of wise therapists talking about intimacy and had read insightful books about what the closeness of a deepening relationship requires over time. (Take a look, for example, at Marriage: Dead or Alive or Undefended Love.) I had learned, at least with my rational mind, that it’s not about the intensity of the beginning of a strong relationship – the instant bonding, the easy talking in getting to know each other for the first time, the powerful physical attraction (though my fantasies dwelt on exactly that sort of passion). It was more about a difficult honesty in being present with your partner, dropping defenses and the need for control, sharing the work of self-discovery, opening to each other the basic essence of who we are. “Being present” was the phrase I heard most often, and I had to laugh ruefully as I thought about that. How could I be present with my wife when I had such trouble getting through the layers of concealment surrounding that core essence of who or what I was. I felt so deeply that I was unable – and afraid – to be present with myself.

So I tried an experiment. I wanted to see if I could let myself experience the feelings that came up in me but do that from a meditative stance, noting them without judgment, just to get a sense of the flow and direction they were taking. Maybe that could help me get more comfortable with what I was going through. Since writing is a helpful process for me, that’s how I went about it. Here’s part of what I wrote at the time.

… What’s coming up is guilt, perhaps shame, I can’t quite tell, but a feeling of being wrong. My unfinished projects float before me, and I feel wretched that I have not done them all. I am sad and tense about L. not being here, having trouble imagining how I can do the daily routines – getting a meal together seems a huge task. I’m feeling – empty, as well as ashamed. I have no business simply being alive without a prop that covers me in the larger purpose of a job, a profession, an accomplishment, something that I can put between myself and people so they can focus on that instead of on me – there, see I do have a right to be in this world because I’ve done that, I’ve produced this, I’ve built all these things you can see and touch. But I can’t be comfortable just being me today – resting, watching a film I have wanted to see, letting myself recharge. …

I think of a story my mother told me about one of her first loves, a handsome Scot whom I thought had been killed in a wreck. Her first job was as a stenographer for a paper company, and he was an engineer for Western Electric. He was extremely handsome, she said, and would have been completely so but for the shortness of his legs (the flaw she always finds in things). He had been visiting in Connecticut and was riding home on his motor cycle when he was struck by a car and thrown into the path of an oncoming vehicle. It turns out that he was not killed in that accident but spent six months in a hospital in Hartford. He recovered and married his nurse. So, of course, he became as good as dead to her. And all she thinks of now about this man she once obviously loved deeply was his flaw – the shortness of his legs.

That made me think of my own way of seeing the flaw, the missing thing, as I do in my relationship to L. We do not have this or that, and I brood about it, become angry and sullen. Having lost her trust and intimacy, I act in that blaming mood in ways that ensure the closeness will never return. No talking, no reaching out, no warmth. I get prickly, as if guarding against intimacy, effectively destroying what closeness I might want.

How can I be feeling these things at once – yearning for closeness, blaming her for withholding it, yet doing everything I can to keep from getting close? What am I afraid of? …

This was living in a bell jar of my own construction – a device which sealed me in isolation – and a strange kind of safety. I was fighting being inside, longing to be out, but everything I did to break free only strengthened the glass against my pounding to shatter it. So long as I kept myself trapped there I would not have to face the fear of being close to anyone, not to my wife, not to myself.

Have you been in that state? What did you do to break out of it?