Intimacy: the bear we long for and run from
Updated: Feb 4
“It’s a bear! Quick…”
So begins the end of the classic children’s story, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: as the family of bear hunters, having determinedly overcome all obstacles, finally get close to the object of their quest, they run at the first glimpse of it.
So it is in relationships. We long for intimacy. We long for that moment of being fully seen and fully loved. That moment of mutual vulnerability, exposure and meeting. That moment when we matter to another person.
We can spend our lives going on an intimacy hunt, pretending we’re not scared. And then all along running when we start to get close.
A bear called Intimacy
In a previous blog (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/living-in-a-forest-why-are-relationships-so-difficult), I described how we learn to hide parts of ourselves that were unacceptable, too much or brought disapproval when we were young. Now, these parts of us may be completely disowned, yet they continue to make us anxious: they threaten to tear down our identity and the fragile place in the world we’ve made for ourselves. They are like bears within us that could tear our egos apart.
For many of us, and especially for men, the biggest bear of all is our longing for and capacity for intimacy. Intimacy involves being vulnerable, but men have been taught that they must be self-reliant, independent, fine. Intimacy involves emotional connection, but men have been taught that to be emotional is to be a girl or a wuss and so have little contact with their own emotions, let alone another’s. Intimacy involves mutuality, but men have been taught that they must be ‘on top’. In short, the intimacy is all the things that typically bring men shame.
And yet the bear pines for it still.
Some men will continue to deny it and spend their time on achieving stuff. Other men will feed it with porn and sexual conquests, where physical closeness can be felt, while retaining power, performance and invulnerability. For other men, the bear howls silently, or may have learned to give up, as they hide away, scared and ashamed by the times they have found relationships suffocating, painful or unreliable.
For others, they seek intimacy still. Perhaps they find someone to be with and - in the ecstasy of ‘falling in love’ and the concoction of hormones released into the brain that make you feel relaxed, trusting, exhilarated and empathic - feel like they have it. Then, when the honeymoon period wears off, when the relationship enters the forest, we meet each others’ bears: wounded and vulnerable, angry and hurt, hungry and scared, wild and unpredictable, ugly and hairy, beautifully powerful. And we run.
Dodging the bears
We may, from an early age, have learned to dodge the bears of intimacy. As moments of connection arise, we feel the threatening growl of our own and the other’s bear, and we avoid them. Perhaps we do this by getting frustrated or going off in a huff. Perhaps we do this by going quiet or asking how the other person is (a great way to avoid being vulnerable ourselves and, I suspect, hides a plea for the other person to ask how we really are). Perhaps we do this by changing the topic of conversation with humour or problem-solving or planning, or by intellectualising, where we try to analyse or explain (and probably justify) our emotions rather than be in them, feel them, expose them to another. Perhaps we do this by jumping to (or pressuring) sex before the emotional foreplay of vulnerability.
If this becomes the norm in our interactions with our partner, we soon learn that our own bears are not allowed. And so we develop longer-term ways of avoiding going anywhere near the cave.
Avoiding the cave
There are probably an infinite number of ways to avoid real (including and yet beyond physical) intimacy in relationships. Here are some broad tactics we might employ.
Functionalism. This is the tactic of the busy, the doers, the avoiders. We function as a family. We function as a couple. We have a mortgage and jobs. We might provide for and support each other to do things, or provide for and support the kids to do things. We might even work well together on a project, even great ones. Some may even praise our teamwork. But we pass by each other like ships in the night. There is no intimacy. The bears remain in their caves and we stray nowhere near them.
Together. This is the tactic of those who want a bit more. They are in close physical proximity. They are in the same room. Perhaps next to each other. But their attention is absorbed by
technology. This is the couple who only watch TV together. The family who sit around the table on their phones (or focussed on eating). We might say, ‘at least we eat together’. It might seem like we spend time together. But this is safe, empty time. We can feel each other’s presence. We can feel like we’re together and yet avoid the messiness and hurt of vulnerability. We stay close to, yet definitely outside of, the caves.
Addiction. We all can find ourselves addicted to certain ways of relating that divert us from real intimacy. It’s like we keep walking into the wrong cave. We might find ourselves addicted to the highs of fighting and then reconciling. We might find ourselves addicted to the highs of physical arousal, the chase, the performance and the sex. We might be addicted to intellectual pursuits and to achieving great things together. We might be addicted to being the rescuer, or being rescued. These are, I suspect, ways of gaining some of the emotional hit of oneness that we felt when we first fell in love. But they stop us from really opening up and bearing our hidden parts. The parts we don’t want others to see. They protect us from the real cave where our bears lurk and languish.
Accepting our bears
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt ends with a picture: the bear, found but then run from, is walking forlornly along a beach. We’re left wondering. Was the bear so scary? Did it just want to play? Was it chasing them so that it could finally be with someone, have a friend, be accepted. Its hopes were raised. It thought the opportunity had finally come. What wonderful times the family might have just missed. Notably, the baby of the family, while the rest are hiding under the covers, is happily playing still with her teddy bear.
Perhaps the time has come in our relationships to realise that our bears are not going to eat us. Perhaps we keep finding ourselves at the cave and we know we can’t go over it, under it or around it any more. Perhaps we can venture into the cave, towards that part of us and our partner* that longs for and has the capacity for intimacy: for feeling, vulnerability, connection, for expressing ourselves and understanding another, for hearing and saying ‘you matter’. The part of us we happily, stubbornly took around with us when we were young. Perhaps our bear can finally meet another bear, hug and play again.
*and, indeed, our children and even friends.