Fallacies of Family Intimacy-Revised John R. Rifkin, Ph.D.
How many times have you heard or said or thought “Our family is really close?” Many people have families that spend a lot of time together, at the holidays and even throughout the year. And many people believe that they have really close relationships with their siblings, parents or children.
Some of them actually have what would be considered an intimate relationship. Some friendships actually rise to the level of emotional intimacy. However, the reality for most people is that they only have true emotional intimacy in the context of their primary relationship.
Even in the contexts of marriage, or primary relationships, true emotional intimacy isn’t as common as most people think. Think for a moment about the number of couples that you know who seem to share a truly close connection, and you may find that there are fewer than you would have guessed.
Emotional intimacy occurs when two people agree to have a relationship where they commit to sharing essential emotional information. That doesn’t mean sharing absolutely everything. There is a difference between being essentially honest about emotions and being brutally honest. What it means to be essentially honest is to share any and all emotions that are important to both of the members of the couple. Brutal honesty, by contrast, means sharing feelings that might be really damaging to your partner, without any opportunity for these feelings to improve the connection that the two of you have.
So, for example, if one of the people in the relationship finds someone else to be attractive, he or she would have to consider if sharing this information with their partner would be helpful or hurtful to the relationship. If the attraction is serious, and a potential threat to the relationship and the commitment to being monogamous, then it probably should be looked at and shared, as it represents an indication that something is not working in the relationship. On the other hand, if it is simply the awareness of a fleeting emotion, bringing it forward may only be experienced as an injury by your partner, and serve no real purpose in furthering the closeness between the two of you.
When a couple has a good working emotional intimacy, they may have to go through an intense period of dealing with miscommunication conflicts. These are the vast majority of couples’ conflicts, where there is really no conflict underneath the hurt feelings, but simply a miscommunication. Even though there is not a real conflict in terms of wanting different things, it may be quite painful and take awhile to resolve. Couples that are emotionally intimate will take the time and energy to resolve these conflicts, and, doing so really works to build trust in each other’s commitment to the relationship. Frequently, especially early on in relationships, there is a significant period of time where these things have to be worked through. After trust has been built, the individuals in the relationship may find that some of the more minor conflicts can be overlooked, and only address the conflicts that truly seem to be important.
Perhaps, as I talk about all the hard work that goes into emotional intimacy, you begin to see the difference between closeness in a family context and true emotional intrimacy.
In the context of a Parent-Child relationship, complete emotional intimacy would be inappropriate on the part of the parent. Parents need to show up for their children emotionally, and not ask their children to support them emotionally.
Frequently, in sibling relationships, there is the inherent competition for the parents’ attention that can interfere in openness. Also, children need to learn about emotional intimacy with peers in growing up.
Family closeness is a result of growing up together, living in the same household, sharing blood ties, etc. Families may become particularly close when they are living in a hostile environment. An example of this might be a family of immigrants. When you move to a new culture and share a language and/or beliefs and traditions that are distinctly different from other families around you, there can be a tendency to be more tightly knit and less interactive than others around you. There can be negative impacts from this experience in terms of more of an “us against the world” mentality that this experience can develop, but it also can increase the familial bonds.
Having close family bonds, however, is not the same as having truly close relationships. Even in the context of a close parent child relationship, there may be many important aspects of the child’s internal emotional life that never gets expressed or experienced by the close and caring parent. A simple example of this would be the development of sexuality and personal sexual attractions. Many close parent child relationships would never discuss many of these important emotions; yet clearly these would be discussed in the context of a close committed relationship with a partner.
Sometimes, especially around the holidays, family closeness can mean demands and impositions on the children of families to keep to respecting the family traditions and the emotional needs of parents. An example of this would be the case of Karen. Karen came from a family where her parents had immigrated to the United States from England. She was their only child, and her mother was a doting parent, who felt isolated from the extended family that she had left behind in England. She was very demanding of her daughter, who was an extremely good child, and tended to appease all of her mothers’ needs and wishes.
I met Karen and her family one Christmas eve, when their family was in crisis. Karen was a young adult at this point, married to her husband, Louis. Karen and Louis had started their own family. Karen’s daughter, Cynthia, was the grandchild, and had become the center of attention for both Karen’s family as well as Lou’s family, who also lived locally.
The crisis was a huge confrontation that had developed between Karen and her mother. Her mother demanded and expected that Karen and her young family would spend Christmas morning at their house. Karen had done that forever, and also the previous year when her daughter was an infant. Now, however, her daughter was a year and a half old, and Karen had decided that she wanted to begin building their own family’s Christmas tradition, and to spend that time at their own home. The conflict had come to a head when Karen had told this to her mother.
Karen’s mother was very upset to “lose” her access to her daughter and granddaughter on Christmas morning. She became even more upset when Karen also refused to have her parents come over to her house early on Christmas morning.
The process where a child leaves it’s family of origin to begin to make it’s own life in the world is called “Differentiation from the Family of Origin.” This process is frequently stressful for both parents and children, and much of the adolescent rebellion is connected to this dynamic.
I didn’t really want to become part of their family’s Christmas tradition, but it did seem appropriate and helpful to meet with them, both on Christmas eve and on Christmas. The initial family therapy meeting helped when everyone was allowed to air their difficult and painful emotions in a safe context. As the feelings got discussed and sorted, we agreed to meet the following morning to try and build some new traditions for the family.
It was important for Karen’s mother to know that I could understand her feelings of injury, but supported her in protecting her daughter from those feelings so as to not reverse the parent-child relationship. Luckily, she responded well to having of someone outside of the family lend some triangulation to their difficulties. She was also aware that she was on the verge of losing access to her daughter and granddaughter, something that nobody really wanted.
Christmas early afternoon, we met again, this time to set up some agreements on holiday scheduling and expectations for the future. Louis’ family was taken into account as well, and decisions were made about how to handle the holidays and visitations to both families of origin, as well as to insure that Karen and Louis had the space to develop their own family holiday traditions.
Karen and Louis went on to enjoy a greater sense of boundaries in their relationships with both sets of in-laws. They found that the general idea of establishing their family boundaries carried over to the relationships throughout the year.
While the holidays add a whole level of stress to families, the expectations of closeness are often unrealistic. The expectations, especially without a good model of emotional intimacy in the parents, don’t help children to begin to understand the differences between family proximity and the meaning of true emotional intimacy found in couple relationships. The understanding of emotional intimacy in children may contribute much more to their emotional success in life than simply being in close proximity to their family of origin.