Why Can't Some People Maintain Intimate Relationships?

Chasing the "why" is not helpful in resolving our sexless marriages. But understandably, many of us wonder "why" our spouses are unable to maintain intimate relationships.   This article (from the Net) by Dr Richard Grossman gives some good clues IMO.

I think this article may help some of us better understand our Refuser spouses.   I also believe it may help some of those battling with "Should I stay for the kids?" see how their Refuser's parenting might be adversely affecting their own children. . . . .

(Please note: the words in bold have been highlighted by me - as I think they are relevant to ILIASM folk.)

It is always striking when a bright, attractive and otherwise accomplished person cannot maintain an intimate relationship. I have seen many people like this in my practice, and one of the first tasks is to figure out why. Most of the time the person appears in my office as the bewildered half of a distressed couple. Their spouse's/partner's complaints are legion: the offending partner doesn't listen, they're in their own world, they have little or no interest in sex, they prefer to be alone, they are unable to intuit or understand emotion. The spouse complains that the marriage consists of two people sharing the same living space, splitting chores.

The person's childhood usually provides clues to the problem. Sometimes, people tell terrible stories of abuse and neglect: in these cases one can easily understand why intimacy is avoided. But other times people depict a non-eventful childhood, devoid of conflict or even moments of common unhappiness. When pressed they remember few specific details positive or negative--and this is the rub. When their full story is revealed, it becomes clear the person dulled the abrasive experience of day to day family life by paying little attention. In doing so, they successfully pushed people away and retreated to the safety of their own inner world and preoccupations. This unconscious strategy reduced conflict and guaranteed their emotional survival.

Very often, such a person's parents never entered their world, except in a negative, critical, controlling, or otherwise unempathic way. Many parents were narcissistic: they were so intent upon maintaining their "voice", they completely overwhelmed their children's. As a result, the child retreated to a smaller, safer place where they could maintain agency and find some private satisfaction. Sheltered in this mini-world, the person experienced little shared pleasure and little disappointment.

(. . . . ), often the child's unconscious adaptation to a dysfunctional family interferes with his or her adult relationships. This is certainly true for children who retreat. Because the real self is safely tucked away, the adult must "invent" a different one that will appear as normal as possible and be able to negotiate the day to day interactions of adult life. Invented selves, however, have no interest in true intimacy. Instead, they exist as a kind of interface between the true self and the outside world, carefully monitoring and controlling what is allowed in and out. As a result, passion and empathy have to be manufactured--while the person may take the time in the early/romantic phase of a relationship to "act" this out, many soon tire of the effort. Often partners notice the "wooden" nature of their response or their obliviousness. (A client once told me that her spouse [a software engineer] had sat in another couple's living room reading a book while the hosts were having a rip-roaring fight. She thought he was reading so as not to embarrass the couple. But when she asked him what he thought of the fight, he replied: "What fight?")

It is not unusual for these people to be particularly accomplished. They channel all of their energy toward a particular pursuit, and away from everything else that is happening around them. Computer related jobs are often ideal for these people, as are other tasks that require solitary focus and tremendous dedication to the exclusion of other life needs and demands. Workaholics often fit this category.

Can people like this be helped? Yes, but often long-term therapy is required. People who have built such walls jump at intellectual explanations of their problems, but this, by itself, does not help much.  The relationship with the therapist is critical. Initially, the therapist is as much an outsider as anyone else and the client unconsciously tries to keep it that way. The therapist, using all his or her knowledge and skill, must chip away at the client's protective walls and gradually enter the client's hidden world in an empathic, benevolent way. This is hard work, for the walls are thick and whatever openings the therapist finds are quickly "patched." Ultimately, however, the therapist proves he or she is non-toxic and allowed inside. When this happens, the client discovers a shared world with potential for personal growth and intimacy.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.










enna30 enna30
56-60, F
6 Responses Feb 1, 2013

Unfortunately in most sexless marriages - something that often happens in Western cultures after decades of common living - one of the partners stil wants sex and the other couldn't care less. My problem is not only the lack of sex, people can live with that, but the fact the partner usually uninterested in sex will often also be very devoid of tenderness. Meaning that, sooner of later, if the other partner finds someone more tender and caring, he or she will leave. And probably have sex with that other person. This is particularly important for older males, since you need to be coaxed and encouraged to have a sustainable erection. Females can always use some lubricant...

After replacing computing/programming with some extreme topics in Math and engineering, both my wife and I match the profile quite well. Specifically, very few people get beyond my external persona. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "manufactured", but it is certainly not the same as my "authentic me". There is certainly an authentic me tucked away somewhere, but this is not what anyone sees. Of course, to some extent, that is true of everyone.

Let us leave aside for now the story of my childhood, and whether my personality has been damaged by it. Talking to my wife, anyone would get the impression that her childhood was, in many ways, ideal. She claims her parents could not keep their hands off each other when she was in primary school, and that they are still very close to each other, as much as can be expected at their age. She has plenty of siblings to show for this (smiley), and, as far as I can discern, her relationship with her siblings is normal.

And yet, with or without me to account for it, she was focused on one thing in life --- work --- and now two things: work and child. Her complete disregard for anything else in life is striking (and long back, annoying) to me. I sketch, paint, build furniture, repair gadgets, read literature, sing, play a couple instruments, run, play squash, and swim. 3--5 times a year, she calls a few people for lunch or dinner, and that about defines what she does outside work and child. She does not read news offline or online, because the world bores her as a "solved problem, in principle". What she reads online outside work is for child rearing. She does not watch TV (neither do I). She watches may be two or three movies a year. The funny thing is, modern civilization, hell-bent on specialization, may actually be quite rewarding to such one-dimensional, monomaniac people. Moreover, relations are so superficial nowadays that hardly anyone notices one-dimensional people.

I like being engrossed in myself (as this article suggests), and most people find me somewhat aloof, even if helpful on need. She has a much better interface in casual relationships. I will confess I have a little bit of resentment or envy about that, because for people who resonate with me, I am a completely different person. Again, this is true for most, but my two versions show perhaps extreme divergence.

Hi Enna, great find and great post. I firmly believe Empathy is required for Intimacy in a marriage. i have written this many times, and now believe it more that ever. It is a critical ingredient to achieve a deeply connected, intimate relationship that grows.

I hope you dont mind if i post this story I just wrote here...it's relative to your point.

I'm happy to have found this group. I'm hoping for a little support, encouragement, and most importantly information about what to do now. I wont be offended by a little brutal honesty vs. sugar coating any observations, as I did a horrible thing.

Married 20 years, my wife threw me out of our home on the 22nd, after finding that I had an affair, while perusing through my phone. I was careless to leave my e-mail open and phone where she could find it, my sister thinks I wanted to get caught. It wasn't really much of an affair, I received oral sex one time in a car. It was horrible, I couldn't get an erection, couldn't perform, it was pathetic.

I'm seeing a counselor on my own, that is helping. Trying to stay busy, going to see a band in Evanston tonight. Have not told that many people yet, things are still pretty raw. My wife is trying to sort things out, but that will be a long road, I hurt her badly, shock, now anger. We have been texting a lot, I've been trying to explain that I'm not myself, I feel broken, I don't know what I'm doing anymore, I don't know who I am anymore. A lot of apologies for what i have done to her and the kids. She told the kids, mother in law, and all her friends right away. My kids wont talk to me. She's calling me a monster, thinking i've been doing this for years, saying "you know what you were doing" and that I was only being selfish and narcissistic.

While i don't know exactly know everything right now, I know there must be a reason I did this. Counselor says she doesn't think it's narcissism. I'm a pretty smart guy, that did about the most unbelievably stupid thing known to man. How is that? My counselor introduced me to the idea of "Blowing Up" a relationship to institute change. I know our marriage was stuck.

Married 20 years, we've been in and out of counseling about 16 years. We fought a lot, and it boiled down to connection and intimacy issues. Our pattern was to argue, disconnect for days even weeks without talking, then reconnect, often without resolving our issue. She says "Just because we are disconnected, it doesn't mean I don't love you." I say "Every time we disconnect, I feel like you don't love me, and it's harder to let you back in, more each time, harder to trust you with my heart." Counselor said last night "sounds like an Empathy issue." and it's if we have never been to counseling. This has been going on for 20 years.

50% of the time we were together, it was pretty great. I love her to death, I adore, her, she's a great person in so many ways, great mother, and pretty good wife. The other 50% I wonder what am I doing with her? I married the wrong person. The marriage is going to fail. I'm not being true to myself. I'm compromising telling myself the good outweighs the bad. This is not my soul mate. I know I want true love, and to spend my love with a woman where the relationship grows deeper, stronger connections, stronger trust...trust is everything, and I ruined that completely.

I've been reading a lot, including the book "After The Affair", and I know there is a road map to repair this, and it reads like stereo instructions. I also know that with the right counselor, most of this can be resolved, and many couples are successful repairing after an affair. I don't think we'll get the chance as cheating is so bad in her world that there's no way she can trust me again. I think her concept of true love is remaining faithful. Then i wonder, "even if she is willing to work on this, should we?" we'll need to go back to the issues that created what caused this or got us here. I'm still wondering if it's me that is broken and needs to be fixed...before I can be trusted. We stopped going to counseling 2 years ago because we were stuck. I got so frustrated going there to talk about the same things, the same problem over and over. We never got past it. We never solved what we worked on fixing for so long. She believes I should just be happy with what I had. She said "wasn't my love enough?" Should it be? Am i too needy that unless I'm adored and receive empathy I'm not happy? I really need some answers.

Thank you for reading, I know it's long, I very much appreciate it.


I am perfectly prepared to accept the findings of credible people like this Doc Grossman that intimacy aversion has its' genesis in when people were kids.

Where I part company with the wagon train, is at this point. The point where the "why" is known. This point is only useful if the knowledge is then used / applied / acted upon by the appropriate person. And that, is inevitably where things hit the wall big time in ILIASM unions. The appropriate person does NOT use, apply or act upon the information. Their intimacy averse behaviour continues on.

My personal opinion is that one has to make ones choices concerning 'staying / leaving' on the basis of the behaviour of the refusive spouse. The refusive behaviour is the fact on the ground, the reality of the state of the relationship. Whether the "why" is known or is not known.

The "why" may be an interesting study, but in and of itself it does NOT move the dynamic forward at all. That can only come from the refusive partys' pro-active effort. And "refuser" and "pro-active effort" are words seldom ever seen in the same sentence on these boards.

In our common fractured dynamics, one can only own ones own "why". Not someone elses.

Tread your own path.

Anything that raises our own self awareness has to be a huge PLUS in my opinion. It is just such a shame that you Geek, like all of us, had to travel the painful sexless marriage route in order to learn what to avoid in the future.

The why doesn't matter in my choices except now in the rear view mirror it does help me see what to look out for in the windshield ahead.

I have mixed feelings about this. I understand it from a professional perspective and I can see the logic chain. However, the person must want to connect with his or her authentic self and I get a picture of refused spouses cajoling and hoping their refusers would get to that space. IMO, many refusers (not all) are unable or unwilling to honestly make that inward journey and the truth is that no one else can make it for them.

I am not anti-therapy, as you know. But the hard work and thick walls which the therapist must (I assume) spend many sessions or even years to breach is also perfect excuse for the refuser to keep the refused spouse dangling. I can just hear the new excuse "It takes time honey, after all, my walls are hard and thick and I keep patching them up unconsciously every time the therapist and I make some progress."

I wonder if his amazing pre-cognisence has picked up on where his marriage is headed ??

Lao, I agree whole-heartedly with you. Many (most?) refusers are NOT interested in changing themselves. I do think an article like this is helpful for newbies on ILIASM. It can help them see that they are NOT at fault - that the problem DOES lie with their spouses.

Many of us recall only too vividly the wretched feelings that accompanied believing we were somehow the "cause" of our sexless marriages. WHAT were we doing wrong? Why couldn't we get it right? Were we truly so unattractive, undesirable, unlovable . . . ??

If nothing else, I hope it helps those still at that stage to see that their spouses are the ones whose dysfunctional past has caused the issue.

Now that you mention it, I don't think my wife ever really got anything out of therapy.