Baby has arrived! The parents are elated with the new addition to the family. The baby takes in all the love showered onto him/her. When an infant is born he or she does not have a sense of self. He is not aware of where he ends and others begin; there is a bubble around him/her and mother. According to Margret Mahler, the task for the newborn infant is to develop his sense of self as an individual and separate person.
At first, the infant is self-absorbed and perceives him/herself and mother as one. Then, the infant begins to be alert and curios about the world. Once the baby begins to crawl, he/she can actively experiment with being separate from the mother. Finally, the child recognizes that his mobile ability separates him from the mother. Yet, the baby still wants his mother near him as he ventures out. The mother’s reaction, to the child’s tentative experimentation with exploring the world, will determine the development of an individual self in the child. If the mother responds by being impatient with the child’s uncertainty, or with anger toward the child’s need for separateness, the child will fail to develop a strong sense of self. A child whose mother is unreliable, intrusive, and emotionally unavailable will develop fears of engulfment or abandonment. These fears will seriously interfere with the ability to be intimate in later years.
The relationship between mother and child is the “prototype” for later intimate relationships. Since the attachment between the mother and child is the first intimate experience, good enough parenting establishes the ability for later intimate romantic relationships. Intimacy is dependent on the person’s ability to self-disclose and share personal information with the intimate other. Intimate relationships call on the person’s willingness to be vulnerable and trust that their partner will not abandon them. Most importantly, the person must trust his or her sense of self, that he or she will not completely collapse and lose their sense of self.
Eric Erikson postulated that a healthy development trajectory includes the achievement of intimacy. If one does not resolve the developmental crisis of intimacy versus isolation, by forming close romantic relationships, their development to later stages are hindered. However, Erikson explains that in order to be intimate, a person first needs to have a self. As he quotes, “To be able to share a WE, we must have sense of I” (Erikson, 1984).
The core of the psychic fear of intimacy is the fear of merging and engulfment by the other. Weak ego boundaries and the inability to maintain a sense of self is a threat to the self-identity and being intimate with a partner is a danger. As mentioned above, in order to be intimate one needs to have the capacity to be vulnerable, thereby loosening his or her boundaries. For a person with a poor sense of self, loosening his or her boundaries means a total loss of self. The paradox of intimacy is the ability to simultaneously remain separate yet connected. Intimacy requires a level of merging. But, for someone who cannot maintain his or her separate self, intimacy becomes impossible. The person fears that if they open themselves up to the other person, they will merge and be engulfed by their partner. Therefore, avoiding intimacy is a defense against the loss of self.
Another area to consider is when one feels that their partner is merging into them. The partner’s genuine and caring attempt to be intimate is seen as an infringement on his or her autonomy. As one partner moves toward deeper intimacy, the other partner resists. (sexual acting out (i.e. infidelity) can potentially be an attempt to resist the deeper intimacy). It is important to note that everyone struggles with the dilemma of engulfment and the desire for an intimate relationship. The capacity to be intimate is dependent on the extent of the dilemma. The ability to trust that one can maintain their own identity without fusing into their partner’s identity; opens the space for intimacy to flourish.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor in NYC, where she provides individual counseling and intimacy counseling. You can contact Sara at email@example.com and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc