I just came home from my son’s high school production of Peter Pan–a great show all with flying harnesses and magical light fairies dancing across the stage. But as I sat through and really listened to the characters’ lines, Peter’s and Wendy’s in particular, it was eerily reminiscent of relationships past.
To refresh your memory, here’s a very short plot summary: Peter Pan is the story of a magical boy who refuses to grow up and, instead, lives on the island of Neverland with his buddies, the Lost Boys. All together they get into boyish scrimmages and adventures with a Pirate (Captain Hook) and a band of Indians. One night, Peter visits the nursery of The Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael, where Wendy takes a liking to him and tries to get a kiss from him. Peter has no clue what a kiss is and so he gives her a thimble instead, for which she takes and puts on her necklace as a keepsake. Peter convinces the children to fly away with him to Neverland, which they do, and while there, they determine that Wendy will be their mother. She agrees, under the condition that Peter be their father. He hesitantly agrees, but only if it’s “pretend.” Not wanting to commit to anything more serious, he humors Wendy playing the role, but says he doesn’t like the responsibility of being grown up. At times he even gets angry with her when she imposes too much emotion or responsibility onto him:
Wendy: I think you have, Peter. And I daresay you’ve felt it yourself. For something… or… someone?
Peter: Never. Even the sound of it offends me.
[Wendy tries to touch his face, and he jumps away]
Peter: Why do you have to spoil everything? We have fun, don’t we? I taught you to fly and to fight. What more could there be?
Wendy: There is so much more.
Peter: What? What else is there?
Wendy: I don’t know. I guess it becomes clearer when you grow up.
Peter: Well, I will not grow up. You cannot make me!
When she finally asks him about his “feelings” for her he says, “I feel for you like a son feels for his mother…” In the end Wendy chooses to leave Neverland. She asks Peter not to forget her…
While Peter promises to come back each “Spring cleaning” he forgets and time passes. Wendy grows old and the story ends with Peter eventually coming back to take Wendy’s daughter to Neverland.
The story of Peter Pan is, of course, that of the love addict and her avoidant boyfriend. The motherly, doting, codependent grown up woman paired with the fun, exciting, but immature “boy” who, when emotions get too serious, tends to run away. In The Break Up Journal I refer to “P” as a Peter Pan; in fact, I chose the letter P for the parallel of my ex to Peter. When I began dating P (who was 40 at the time), he had never had a serious relationship, never been married, no children, still lived at home, could barely pay his bills and would hang out in the basement of his parents’ house and listen to Grateful Dead records as if no time had passed between now and when he was in high school.
P suffered from severely stunted growth, a bit of narcissism and an intimacy disorder which kept him from being able to truly become intimate with people, specifically women. In retrospect, I couldn’t see him for who he was. I was too wrapped up in how “fun” he was, and how good looking I thought he was. I suffered from a Wendy-syndrome–a desire to attach to Peter Pan and mother him, versus be his equal. Essentially, I had refused to grow up too.
As I sat awestruck at my son’s play, I told my very grown up husband how deeply affected I was by the story. He squeezed my hand and said, “It hits too close to home, I bet.” Yes. I suppose it does. That was my life circa 2008. I was Wendy. I was in love with Peter. But, then I grew up.
Love addiction recovery is like leaving Neverland. It’s about choosing to grow up, whether you want to or not. It’s about recognizing that you cannot change the Peters of the world and letting them remain in their fantasy land while you make a forward leap into reality.
One of the clearest signs of an unhealthy, addictive relationship is when you invest more time obsessing over your partner than you do focusing healthy attention on your own life. Investing in, analyzing, obsessing, and fantasizing over another person to the point where you are exhausted, suffering and in pain is like investing money in typewriter stock in a computer world. You’re not going to get much return on your investment.
YOU are your biggest and best investment (as well as your children). And when you start to really understand that, your entire life will have more meaning, purpose and worth.
So, D and I were up last night talking about intimacy. What’s your definition? I asked. He said something to the effect of “a deep connection with someone.” And I said, “well, what is your definition of a ‘deep connection?'” And it went on like that to the point where neither of us could really come up with any clear definition of intimacy.
What we could define, however, was intensity: that powerfully charged feeling of passion and sexual energy that makes us feel alive and on fire. Simple.
It occurred to me that despite the fact that intensity doesn’t last nearly as long as intimacy, it’s far easier to define. Possibly because it has a beginning, middle and end. We know it exactly when we feel it. And we know exactly when we don’t. And, of course, intensity is part of the addict’s problem. Our addictive high is “intimately” dependent on intensity, and the basis for nearly all our decision-making. If someone doesn’t make us feel that lighting bolt of passion, or, if our loved one removes himself from our lives, thus removing the extreme highs and extreme lows of a chaotic relationship, we feel doomed, depressed, lonely, detached. When intensity is the missing ingredient, our pain is all too evident. So much so, that we even try to create it on our own (drama, anyone?). Intensity, far more than intimacy, is what motivates addictive behavior.
But back to intimacy. D and I decided that intimacy could be sitting face to face with someone you love and staring deeply into their eyes. I was quickly reminded of one of those couple’s retreats in the 70’s led by a bald-headed guru in a long robe where couples practice tantric sex and hum “OM” through one nostril. We tried it. Not the tantric part, or the OM. Just sitting on our bedroom floor and staring into each others’ eyes. We couldn’t stop laughing, for starters. And then, I insisted he look at my right eye instead of just my left. When we finally got into a groove, we both admitted that our eyes glazed over and we weren’t exactly staring “into” each other at all as much as we were hyper focusing on each eyeball, darting back and forth, like you would a ping pong ball lobbing across a net. Fail.
I then suggested that intimacy might be exposing your vulnerabilities to someone. Like, if I feel shame or embarrassment about some aspect of myself, but I expose it to my partner anyway, and he still lovingly accepts me, then this is true intimacy. But is it? I exhumed my age old issue of shame regarding my body. D loves my body; I often do not (I’m getting better). And while I’ve pretty much gotten over the need to cover up as soon as he walks into a room, his presence in front of my naked body doesn’t exactly draw me closer to him, nor does it make me feel any heightened sense of love. If anything, it causes me to be all too aware that if I stand there long enough without my clothes, I can almost guarantee my husband will jump me.
So, if none of that is intimacy, what is? And, why choose it at all if intensity is the clear winner when it comes to making love addicts, or anyone for that matter, feel exhilaratingly fabulous?
I found a blog this morning, that sums it up nicely:
Possibly the simplest definition of intimacy is this: knowing another and being known. Intensity is defined as strength, power, or force- in relationship terms, it’s getting a surge of whatever makes a person feel good. Intimacy is developed over time, with patience, with love, with understanding, with compassion, with sacrifice. Intensity happens quickly and fades quickly- it is not long lasting. Those that trade it for intimacy will find themselves dissatisfied and using people like objects. —Taken from: The Jog
Knowing another person and being known. This thought makes me smile. No, it doesn’t blow me away or make me feel high or even exhilarated. It makes me feel grounded, loved, appreciated, whole, human. It makes me feel I did something right in my life to experience something like that.
Intimacy is work. It’s a long-term goal, not a short-term one. It doesn’t exactly “feel” intense or give you an immediate high, and it often cannot even be defined by two people’s ability to stare into each others’ eyes. Intimacy is in between these acts. It’s the black matter that cannot be seen, but glues the universe together. It is the daily work two people put into loving themselves, and loving the other.
And it’s not something a love addict sees value in, until the intensity of their most recent relationship wears off.
When we go after intensity we definitely know we’ve found it. We feel it, sense it, love it and, sadly, blow right through it. Intensity doesn’t last. It’s immediate gratification. A thing that children and teens consider valuable, but not emotionally mature grown-ups.
Grown-ups look to the future. They see the benefit of deferred gratification. And intimacy can only be gotten through deferred gratification. When we go after intimacy, it’s not always so clear. It means waiting. It means being patient. It means putting in long hours getting to know someone, first, before going after more intense moments. It means we will not always recognize true intimacy, but that we have to make healthy choices for ourselves, anyway. It means giving up and letting go of people who can’t possibly offer more than chaos, pain and intensity. And above all, it means that those who we do hold on to, with whom we become intimate, may not offer us the thrill of the roller coaster ride, but rather the warmth and security of being “known” without sacrificing who we are and what we value most.
Fear of closeness. Fear of losing my identity. Fear of intimacy. Fear of being too exposed. Fear of commitment. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of losing me.
D and I are celebrating our two year anniversary on Saturday, and I can honestly say, I have never had a more peaceful, loving, passionate and profoundly happy relationship with any man than I have with this one. I have never had such stability of emotion with anyone else over a significant period of time—two years is a long time in the world of LA. And I have never had such certainty as I do with D, that he is the one for me, and that I wouldn’t ever want to lose him. Likewise, he feels the same. It’s a good healthy match.
And so, we have been meeting with contractors regarding an addition that we’ve been planning to build onto my house, so as to take the next step: moving in together. We need enough bedrooms for all the kids and enough space—albeit cramped space—temporarily, until we decide whether to move to a bigger house or build a second story onto this one. We’ve been talking about this for a good long year. We’ve had eight contractors come out and give us estimates. We have finally decided on one. And with that finality, all the fears I’ve listed above have suddenly decided to creep out of the woodwork and surround me in my dreams and waking life.
I’ve been on my own for almost seven years now. Almost as long as I was married. And not only that, but in the past, I ONLY dated avoidant types. What does that mean? It means that despite the fact that I had been married for seven years, I was married to an avoidant—someone who hid in his back office while I had full reign of the house. Someone who never really placed any emotional or physical burden on me. Let’s face it, when you’re married to an avoidant you’re really not married at all. You’re still single, you still have most of your freedom, you still have full control over your life (and theirs—at least you think so because you’re bossing them around all the time) and you can still be immature, shallow, alone, narcissistic, and unconnected. You have all the time and space you think you don’t need. Of course, the price you pay for all that time and space that you are condemned to experience with an avoidant is that there is no emotional intimacy between the two of you. There is no real bond. You are existing parallel to each other, but not moving any closer, not only because he can’t handle intimacy and closeness (which, of course, you are incessantly begging him for), but because YOU can’t handle it either.
We align ourselves with avoidant people because we cannot handle intimacy ourselves. As odd as it sounds, even though the lifespan of a relationship with an avoidant is spent begging them for more intimacy, and pleading with them to open up and connect and spend more time with us, the truth is, we wouldn’t know what to do with intimacy if we had it. The struggle for intimacy is what we are interested in. The search for intimacy is what we are capable of. It’s the closest we can come; it offers just enough intimacy to give the illusion of normalcy. And that’s enough for us. But the fact of the matter is, this is not intimacy and it’s not commitment. It is a defense mechanism we use to protect ourselves from deeper intimacy and vulnerability.
You see, real intimacy demands that you expose yourself fully to another human being. It requires that you are vulnerable, defenseless. And to LAs, who have been raised believing that defense mechanisms and protection from others are the key to survival (because, let’s be honest, we didn’t have the best of childhoods), vulnerability doesn’t make sense to us. It is our inherent nature therefore, based on being abandoned, neglected, harmed or abused, to survive in this way. Dating avoidant people, thus, allows us remain safe and insulated from harm.
But it also leaves us suffering, cold, alone.
Eventually, we recognize that keeping “safe” isn’t all that conducive with happiness and connectedness to another person. And so we set out to become healthy and to find a healthy partner who treats us well, and if we are lucky and put a lot of hard work into it, we achieve our goals. And for the first time ever, we are truly happy that we have found someone that finally treats us with love and kindness. But with that, we realize the crux of the problem. That with healthiness, kindness and love comes a demand for intimacy that we are simply not accustomed to. If we want healthy love, from a healthy partner, we must know how to give it. To do that means exposing ourselves and tearing down the walls that previously protected us.
I hate that I have to admit this, but I am still in “protection” mode. I do not want to be fully exposed. I don’t want him to see me without my “masks.” I don’t have many anymore. I have been taking them off one by one, but it’s been a slow process. And well it should be. The “old me” is still in there healing from a lifetime of havoc. When he moves in, I will have nowhere to hide, I won’t be able to go at my own pace, taking my masks off slowly, when I’m ready.
Will he still love me if he sees the real me with my very real, very ugly issues?
Will I love me, despite my own vulnerability?
I’m not sure. It’s like having sex with the lights on—I can’t feel sexy when I can see that he can see all my physical flaws. At least with the lights off I can pretend I’ve got the body of a twenty-year-old. Or at least I can pretend that he can imagine I have the body of a twenty-year-old.
Despite the fact that he sleeps over sometimes four nights a week, I am still able to recover from his visits once he goes. I can take my masks off and be myself. I have that time to relax. I don’t want to lose that. I think I still want to do it with the lights off.
On the other hand, I know it’s a price I want to pay. I’ve worked hard to be here. I love him. And I trust that I will adapt to the change. In a sense, it’s the denouement I’ve been waiting for, it’s the removal of the final mask. It’s proof that I have succeeded in my life and accomplished my goals—to have a normal, loving, functioning relationship. And yet, more realistically, it’s the beginning of a new journey that will have ups and downs and ugly parts and beautiful parts. But I suppose that’s what life is about. Bruce Barton wrote in his book The Man Nobody Knows, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” I believe that. And I believe that protecting ourselves, though it makes us feel safe, can stunt our growth. It can keep us from becoming something bigger than what we are today. Exposing ourselves, letting down our walls, taking risks, challenging our fears and changing keeps us alive. It keeps the lights on, even when we don’t want to see.