The Two Dimensions of Intimacy and Independence
Writing Retreat: Day #3 (join us for feedback and clarification)
Below is part of an insta-draft of Lacking Nothing: Quieting an Anxious and Avoidant Faith. I’m posting from our writing retreat to get feedback & clarity. Please support the writing of this book by becoming a paid subscriber.
In the last chapter, we focused on our one desire to have joyful connection.
These joyful connections are the foundation of our attachment relationship. And this attachment relationship, when it is a secure attachment, builds the two capacities of intimacy and independence.
Let’s look again at those experiences of holding eye contact between you as a baby and your parents.
You expressed independent agency through waving arms and smiling in order to get the attention of your parents. The goal was to amplify those good feeling when you lock eyes and share smiles. That is seeking intimacy.
But when you started getting overstimulated by too much eye contact causing your nervous systems to be overwhelmed, you practiced independence by looking away, by breaking eye contact.
Or, when you were playing alone as a toddler, you were practicing independence as your moved your body and moved toys around. But when you became distressed by a loud noice, by falling over, or just feeling more alone than you wanted to feel, you would seek intimacy with your parent—even if that was just eye contact across the room. When you get older, it could be just hearing the voice of a parent from another room (without even seeing them).
Of course, as a child, when distressed you don’t just seek intimacy with a parent when distressed and you need to help you to returning to joy. Much of the time you seek intimacy with a parent to amplify the joy that came through some independent activity. This is why children are constantly showing their parents what they found, what they made, or what they learned to do. A child is taking something from their independent world and bringing it back into the world of intimacy, back to their joyful connection, their attachment relationship.
This is what Soren was up to when he left his day camp every day. He had learned something and made something while he was without Cyd and Tennyson. But when they came to pick him up, he was not only glad to see them and be with them, he also wanted to show them the artifact from his independent world.
And of course, the attuned parent will understand this and amplify the joy through sharing the wonder and offering encouragement, like Cyd & Tennyson did when they enjoyed Soren’s nature craft.
From the side of the parent, we can think of intimacy and independence as offering care when the child is in distress and offering courage when the child is acting with independence.
At some point the little child’s exploration of independence or longing for intimacy will crash into the expectations, rules, or needs of the parent or other people. Not all acts of independence or intimacy are good or helpful. Sometimes it is time for bed. Sometimes the toy needs to be shared.
What we focusing on is the growing capacity for intimacy and independence. When seeking intimacy or independence creates tensions, when relationships are ruptured because of them, then the secure attachment surrounded by joyful connection will be able to sort it out. Ruptures happen and we do the work to repair them.
And over time these two capacities begin to work together. Kids grow up. They need to do more for themselves. You had to learn to use the bathroom, put your own clothes on, and pick up after yourself. At first, your parents helped you with these things. You did them together. But over time, your parent was less involved and you did it on your own.
Maybe they helped you process your emotions, navigate conflict with friends, advocate for yourself with your teachers. In adolescence, a secure attachment relationship develops through the independence of seeing your parents as real people with faults and flaws (it’s call “de-idealization”) even while maintaining a level of intimacy in the midst of disagreements.
Wrong Way to Think of Intimacy and Independence
You might think of intimacy and independence like a teeter-totter. Either we’re being intimate together, or we’re doing things alone. One or the other. We must be sure not to think of intimacy and independence on a continuum, on a single line. You might shift between intimacy and independence on your calendar, trying to balance spending time with others and doing some things alone. But that does not make them opposites.
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